A Retrospective : Tracing the artistic journey of artist and feminist Kamala Vasuki

Apr 21 2023.

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A Retrospective - an exhibition tracing the artistic journey of Kamala Vasuki, a woman-artist and feminist activist coming from north and east took place in Batticaloa. Through multiple mediums of individual and collective art, Vasuki’s work bears witness to the scarred histories of pain, hope and healing of her home Sri Lanka, over the past thirty years.

Sitting with Daily Mirror Life, Vasuki gives us an insight into her story and the evolution of her work.
“I was obsessed with colours and shapes since my childhood; collecting colourful beads in various shapes, chocolate covers and seeds and creating shapes with them on my study table” she relates. Her journey with art starts in the context of war with bombings, shellings and darkness bearing the daily vibe throughout her childhood. 

Q Gender, Human Rights and Social Justice. Adding to scarred histories, tell us how did these subjects come into your line of work? 
My first inspiration to become an artist came from, an art exhibition of 3 women (Arunthathi, Nirmala and Suguna) organised in Jaffna in 1986. I enrolled in the same art classes where these 3 women artists were studying This is also where I met my ‘guru’ of work Mr A. Mark. In 1988 the Women’s Forum at the University of Jaffna organised an exhibition of 5 women artists. This was my first exposure to a feminist space allowing me to meet strong feminist women. By the early 1990s my artwork gradually had become a strong part of my feminist activism within the context of the brutal war. My art was the medium of the questions that I wanted to ask adding to my reflections on the everyday violence I witnessed. This was my voice in documenting what was happening around me.

Q Your expertise over the years, especially your work published in The A to Z of Conflict’, tri-lingual artists’ book demonstrates how a commonplace children’s ABC book would look like if all the entries were chosen in relation to words about conflict, and words born out of conflict.  We know that you have defined yourself as an activist. How do you position this role in relation to your role as an artist?
I was once part of a student protest against the intrusion of military persons when I was studying at the University of Jaffna. The students who were doing a roadblock were attacked by the Indian Peace Keeping Force and two of my colleagues were killed that day. In a context where we couldn’t protest, couldn’t speak out, and couldn’t organise, I expressed my anger through painting. The painting titled 02.02.89- the date that my friends were killed emerged from this experience. 

I ask my questions through my paintings. With my involvement in feminist spaces, my art became questions of not only war but also of patriarchy, injustice, discrimination, and violence against women, where they challenged culture, religion, marriage, dress, motherhood and all power relations I was living through.

As an artist, I have been part of art spaces in Colombo and Internationally. However, my art is inspired by my activist work. I understand the importance of art that could help in processes of truth-seeking, justice, and collective healing. As activists, we are constantly responding to crisis situations. Every day, we step forward to challenge discrimination and oppression. My art has shaped many activist spaces that I have been part of just as my art has been shaped by my role as an activist. 

Q Your latest exhibition, “A Retrospective 1989-2023” traces your artistic journey as a woman artist.  Viewers got to witness scarred histories of pain, hope and healing our home island experienced over the past years. It is interesting that, while personal experiences and identity issues of women are addressed at the exhibition, a lot of the work on display was also concerned with wider social issues, such as the pandemic fight and civil protest…. 
Art can be inspired by learning different techniques and can be exposed to a diversity of styles, while simultaneously originating from personal experience or from one’s context. Since early 2000, my connections with the South Asian regional feminist networks and feminist activists had expanded my thinking and critiques about society and culture. This had a deep influence on my style as well. I had been mainly doing washed drawing with dark shades, expressing the pain of violence. When I was exposed to feminist activism around the power of nature and the power of women, my art also started to reflect a different energy. I started using vibrant colours and oil pastels. Aspects of nature such as plants, the lagoon, and fish, slowly became part of my paintings.

Presently, I try to take my art to my collective spaces. For example, currently, the discussions around the economic crisis and the collective art processes help everyone to express their stories. 

By Nuzla Rizkiya


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