Pihi (Scythe) 2006Catriona Stanton
18 March - 7 April 2006
Hantana, Kandy, Sri Lanka
Theertha International Workshop 2006 Hantana Estate , Sri Lanka
An artists perspective
Eighteen artists gathered in Colombo on the 18th March to participate in The Theertha International Workshop 2006. Artists descended from Hong Kong, India, Nigeria, Argentina, Pakistan, Nepal, Iran, Kuwait , 9 from within Sri Lanka and myself from Australia. Theertha is a Colombo based artist run initiative established in 2000 to facilitate artistic exchange across cultural borders. The co-ordinator Anoli Perera explained that Theertha “ takes its name from the Sinhala and Tamil word for port, wherein the ideas of arrival and departure are implicit.“ The first workshop occurred in 2001 at Geoffrey Bawa’s Estate Lunugamvehera. Networks were established with visual arts organisations in South Asia. Another workshop followed in 2003 again at Bawa’s Estate. Theertha stresses that the workshops are non hierarchical and foster artists working together.
The 2006 workshop was held up in the hills at the Hantana Tea Estate not far from the cultural centre of Kandy. The site is magnificent with views down the valley etched with tea bushes. We were taken on a tour of the site encountering a lake said to be like quick sand, the conference centre, the green house, a bamboo stack, the storage shed and an abandoned bungalow bordering the tea fields. In the evenings the artists talks gave insight into respective cultural backgrounds, concerns and artistic practices. An assortment of art materials were provided ; rope, sacks, pigments, coloured paper, cardboard etc. and with that the artists commenced their investigations.
The Argentinean, Cora De Lang, and myself had come across a pile of discarded plastic packets containing tea seedling earth. This lead to a collaborative work “The Celes Tea Il Kiosk” that occupied us for the following two weeks alongside our independent projects. An empty cabinet in the guest house entrance hall was reclaimed, the earth packages were bound with pink string and stacked within it. Hindu paraphernalia was gathered in the markets of Kandy adorning the shelves and glass walls. A diorama was formed of celestial nymphs seated on plastic clouds. Tea bags, tea leaves and tea cups were placed in ready for a performance which took place on the open day.
There were many stimulating conversations on the politics, religion, trade and social systems in post colonial Sri Lanka.The managers of the workshop, Tisath and Anura gave a tour of the surrounding temples including The Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, housing one of the remaining teeth of Buddha. Following the tour Jagath Weerasinghe, Chairman of Theertha and leading archaeologist in Sri Lanka gave a lecture on Sri Lankan Temples. He had been in charge of the restoration of the murals proceeding the bombing of the Temple of the Tooth in 1983 by Muslim extremists. This was a painstaking and delicate undertaking that took over two years to complete.
Absorbing all this information I responded to the site of the abandoned bungalow having revisited it a number times. It was hastily built by the Government and being structurally unsound had remained unused. This idyllic retreat overlooking the Tea Estate reflected the instability of the privileged position in Sri Lanka.
Elements of the surrounding tea estate were gathered. Tea leaves, tea cups and saucers and blue checked sarongs worn by the Tamil tea pickers were the materials that came to hand. I had also become aware of an arc shaped knife that is used to prune the tea bushes. A stencil was made of the outline of the knife and it was this motif that was to form a frieze in the main room of the bungalow. The design was informed by the patterning of plant motifs in temple murals we had visited. It was the knife that cuts and divides which signified the social tensions between Tamils and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka for me. Tea leaves collected from the field were torn into small fragments and then reassembled on the wall with hot glue in the manner of a mosaic. This was also a symbolic re-enactment of Jagath’s bombed mural restoration.
The mosaic initially began with the tea leaves staying strictly with in the confines of the stencil boundary. This was gradually fragmented, distended and reversed. The design evolved from a formal,contained border to become a formless, unstructured design that floated towards an open window. Analogies with the distinct caste system and it’s eventual dissolution due to blurring boundaries were being explored.
The cloth used as sarongs by Tamil men and head dresses by the tea picking women was torn into strips and hung from the rafters. This was done in the way that I had seen prayer flags hung at stupas and the Maoist political banners strung up at a nearby election rally. Using the Tamil cloth crossed referenced prayer and political action with Tamil labourers who earned as little as 180 rupees for a 6 hour day. The confusion and complexity of post colonial Sri Lankan society was being flagged. On a more personal note this blue checked fabric was my first gift to my partner who is of Dutch Burgher descent becoming a signifier of Sri Lanka in my life.
The installation was completed by 500 tea cups and saucers being stacked into the form of a stupa. There are multiple readings of this piece one of which is tea and stupas are symbolic of power and wealth. A Sri Lankan king would demonstrate his authority by commissioning the construction of stupas across the country. The tea cups and saucers reference tea as a major commodity that engenders wealth. The British Colonial rule is implicit in the use of tea cups and saucers. Tea is also what brings people together. I was encouraged by a Sinhalese artists to join the Tamil workers for a cup of tea to break down social barriers. It is through the tea cup stupa that it can be interpreted that whoever has ownership of the tea has access to power and wealth and occupies a privledged position. This has been the case with the Dutch, the British and now the Sinhalese.
It was not my intention to create a coherent and comprehensive summation of Sri Lankan religion, politics, social systems and economics. More an impression of place that is multilayered, paradoxical and infinitely complex. In the context of Hantana Tea Estate I have evoked a place of worship and pay homage with local materials and cultural knowledge acquired in two weeks.