I am what I am; I will be what I will be.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Memory Keeper’s Burden

The Burden of Memory

Anoli Perera’s exhibition Memory Keeper was presented at Shrine Empire Gallery, New Delhi from January 19th. Though officially concluded on 18th February 2013, it unofficially will remain in place until mid March 2013. The exhibition consists of a series of installations, works on paper and large format digital prints on canvas. As the title itself suggests, it has to do with remembrance and recollection on the one hand, and the danger of erasure on the other. Naturally, memory becomes important in a context where erasure is ever-present as a shadow that would devour the past, recollections of it, and thereby negating the very notion of memory itself. In fact, the urge to remember within an ongoing process of conscious and temporally bound erasure is the very crux of the idea that gives life and direction to the works presented in Memory Keeper. This is not an exhibition where the artist narrates a story like an author who has been a witness to history and has opted to clinically narrate it occupying a position of objectivity. Here, the artist is centrally located within the context of her artworks. True enough, she is a witness to history of both mega trends and upheavals that the society around her underwent in her time and mundane moments little known to many beyond the immediate circle of kin and friends of the artist. In her case, the larger society to which her works refers to is Sri Lanka from the early 1960s onwards. However, unlike formal historiography, historical fiction or the works of many other artists who have contextualized historical moments over the years, what Perera presents is not a linear narrative that is temporally consistent and easy to digest. On the contrary, it is a packaging of memory and recollection that is encapsulated within the structures of a series of artworks in the context of which the temporality and the spatial dimensions of history unravels and becomes unstable; instead, they become components of memories that the memory keeper selectively remembers while many others disappears beyond the grasp of her memory.

Perera notes in her concept note that “I am the ‘memory keeper.' I have become a memory keeper because I was born wedged between the sunset of one era and the dawn of another.” For her and many others who belong to the time that she is exploring, “existing between eras is to live in a liminal space where people forget to keep records because they are eager to forget the past and move on to the future.” As she observes, “the last vestiges of the previous era and the transition itself, become insignificant moments and footnotes of history, not worth remembering in the larger contexts of events.” The lapse in the memory of individuals that the artist refers to is not merely a matter mandated by personal choice. It is also a part and parcel of the larger processes of history and politics over which individuals do not have much control. It is evident that since at least the latter part of the eighteenth century, the emphasis and political expectations of memory as a crucial tool of politics has been significant. Since this time, and in the context of the invention of nation states, the necessity of a common past as well as common future emerged as a key requirement in the process of ‘nation-building.’ In this specific context, collective memory of the nation and other collectives de-emphasized the memory of the individuals of the sort that Perera comments upon. According to her, what was thus de-emphasized remained only “in the nostalgias of people like me who don't belong to the histories of either era because we happened to be born in between times, in a moment of liminality.”

The Domains of Private Memory

These conceptual considerations and lived realities as the artist has seen and perceived them are articulated through a number of artworks where the greater focus is on installations. One of her works titled ‘Left Behinder’ has a canopied bed enmeshed by lace panels; on the bed, a trunk with a video installation is placed surrounded by a webbed-in constellation of bottles with food recipes encapsulated as posthumous references to the lost community of Burghers (Sri Lankan Eurasians). The title, ‘Left Behinder’ is taken from a poem by Jean Arasanayagam, a Dutch Burgher Sri Lankan writer. Arasanayagam’s poem by the same title is embroidered by Perera on the bed cover. The whole work tries to remember the diminishing presence of the Burghers (local Eurasians), most of whom left Sri Lanka due to the uncomfortable political environments of the post-independence era (post 1948). Many migrated to Australia in the 1960s. In her text accompanying the installation she describes: “After the Independence we were so busy building an identity to stand apart from our colonized past, but what we did not think about is how much we lost in this process of nation-building which took us from Ceylon to Sri Lanka. For sure we lost Burghers, a community that had such a vibrant presence in the olden days. I remember growing up living next to a Burgher family and there were many others living down the lane. Now they are all gone. Most migrated to Australia in the early 1960s and 1970s and the rest left during the 1980s. With them, part of Sri Lanka left too…their food, their way of life slowly started erasing from our national memory. They were in many ways very cosmopolitan than the rest of us.” The embroidered poem ‘Left Behinder’ represents the world that was dismantled and fast forgotten as well as the pain of breaking away and the void it creates:

“They have gone away, all of them, left me behind,
Still write to me of lamprais, love cake and breudhers,
Making merry in those distant antipodes …” ( Jean Arasanayagam)

On a wall opposite the bed installation, one could see another work titled ‘Rose Wall Paper.’ It consists of large layouts of wallpaper from where semi-faded figures in time-bound costumes of the colonial period prior to the 1940s emerge referring to a bygone era already almost completely lapsed from the collective memory of the present. Complementing these two works is a another installation consisting of a picture in an ornate silver frame titled, ‘Dinner Table’ which depicts an extended family at a dinner table. A portrait of King George V and Queen Mary are hung above the table. A photo construction using the images of her own family album, Perera very consciously juxtaposes images to bring out the comfortable existence of the colonial and the indigenous elite at a time when the tendency was to bleach out inconvenient manifestations of culture to preserve or reinstate the perceived authenticity of a nation from its colonial defilements through the construction of new cultural practices often borrowed from colonial sensibilities, but couched in a sense of ‘local’ historicity preceding the colonial period. Perera notes: “I remember our annual holidays spent in my grandfather's house, under the constant gaze of King George and Queen Mary in their regal grandeur looking down from a great big portrait hung in the dining room. It only came down after the house was sold off in the early 1980s...nearly 40 after our independence from Britten in 1948…” This same idea is continued in the installation titled, ‘They Were There’ consisting of two chairs and a side table with a chest that carries a revolving screen. The interior of the chest is visible through four lenses which presents a collage of images offering fragmented glimpses of an old world centralizing its attention on women, their garments, postures, social positions and the cultural contradictions that seem to be comfortably accommodated at the time.

Another important work in this series titled ‘Blue Cupboard’ has not been presented at this exhibition even though it was exhibited at the India Art Fair 2013. It is an old and open cupboard filled with hand-sewn cloth balls attached to stained tea cups, which literally flows out of the cupboard. In the internally lit top chamber lined with mirrors and beyond a lace curtain, a TV screen endlessly flashes images of the artist taking sliver and porcelain objects such as crockery out of a large wooden box, furiously polishing them and gently replacing them in the box again. It is a sight where the memory keeper visits one container of her memories, her linkages to a past almost withered away, perhaps renews her recollections as to who owned the items and when they were used, and gently replaces them in their protective container to be taken out for a moment or two another day. The cloth balls are individual containers of memory. These are associated with a practice particularly evident among women when they wanted to set aside something for preservation. They would place the item identified for preservation on a piece of cloth and bundle it up in the corner of a cupboard. In this context, the cloth balls in the ‘Blue Cupboard’ refer to undifferentiated generic memories, whose exact trajectory in the personal history of the artist and the collective history of her community is not important. In fact, except for the recollection that they consist of parts of her heritage, their individual location is distanced from her own consciousness, coming closer to erasure. The cups on the other hand, dangling from the cloth balls but held together by a series of strings almost seem like objects tangentially held together within a historio-scape whose centrality in the context of greater events is unhinged. But the stains in the interior of the cups refer to a past well trodden even through individual moments in that past might be lost in the haziness of the past while individual images of people gazing out of the cups are faded photos of the artist’s female relatives; their presence, is still clearly marked in this trajectory of history. At the same time, their presence also very subtly refers to women as memory keepers. By placing portraits only of women, Perera proceeds to establish an ancestry for her own task of memory keeping.

As evident in many of his works, Maurice Halbwachs consistently believed that memory was not an accidental recall or an idiosyncratic activity. He argued for the social constructedness of any memory (quoted in Weissberg 1999: 13). That is, people construct memory not as isolated individuals but as members of society (quoted in Weissberg 1999: 13). For him, people “appeal to our memory only in order to answer questions which others have asked us, or that we suppose they could have asked us” (quoted in Weissberg 1999: 13-14). Halbwachs’ argument is that memory fulfils social expectations that are already in place in society, which are framed by the answers it seeks. However sensible Halbwach’s arguments might be in the larger contexts of history and politics, Perera’s entire project is a counterweight to the notion of public sanctioned memory which thrives by negating the kind of individual memories she is focusing on and attempting to protect almost as if the artist is stricken by a fear of forgetting. But that too has already taken place: the large number of cloth bundles are such undifferentiated memory. The artist knows they are there, but she does not know exactly what they are.

Domains of Public Memory

Another series of artworks ‘Ghosts of Swarna Bhumi’ consists of three black, headless, tall, ghostly female figures seemingly pregnant inviting the viewers to another dimension of memory that goes beyond the individual and the intensely personal towards the collective and the public, and towards the kind of memory that Halbwachs was referring to. The figures are motionless with no heads and no feet. The swollen belly seen through a magnifying glass carries images of Sri Lanka’s recently concluded and immensely destructive civil war. Three more womb like forms are positioned on the floor connected by three umbilical cords to the standing figures. They too carry images of a violent past: it is essentially a womb of memories of the politics of violence in the recent past. For the artist, women are not merely carriers of fetuses; they are also literally and metaphorically impregnated with terrible memories of a past where in real terms there were not victors and justice lost its direction.

Closely linked to the installations are a series of twelve small digital prints that have been painted and drawn upon. The series is called the ‘Swarna Bhumi Series.’ Three of these carry a reproduction of an old map of Sri Lanka placed at an awkward angle, with the Sanskrit words Swarna Bumi written atop the images. The words refer to one of the common linguistic usages which literally meaning ‘golden land’ that is often adopted by the state and other individuals who see a history without contradictions and devoid of the violence of the recent past. The prints also present other images such as the burning of the Jaffna Public Library in the 1980s, the building of Buddhist stupas in Tamil-dominated areas consequent to the end of war and references to cricket, all of which are part of Sri Lanka’s political realities. The other nine images are executed on written texts which refer to dates and places where massacres in Sri Lanka have taken place. They also contain decorative motifs formulated out of barbed wire pieces, safety matches, swords and bullets which when taken out of context adds a decorative sensibility into the works, but nevertheless signals a sense of anxiety and danger when situated in context given their potential for destruction and control.

What is expressed through these two constellations of works are not merely the personal experiences of the artist; they are also the experiences of many members of the larger society of the time that brings to mind Mrax’s timeless observation that the past “weighs like a nightmare on the minds of the living” (Marx 1973: 147). However, what Perera’s ghostly figures carry in their bulging and lighted wombs and what individuals see when they gaze into them as if looking into the future through the crystal ball of an oracle, is not the sanitized and official rendition of recent history where ‘terrorists’ and ‘war heroes’ are easily recognized as black and white realities. Instead, what one sees is a landscape of sadness, vistas of destruction and a recent past that has not been sanitized. What one sees are the moments of a past that are both terrible and uncomfortable. These are then the ‘ruins of memory’ (Langer 1991, 1997). However, “violence distorts the sense of time so that it becomes difficult to say when the past enters the present” (Das et.al 2001: 12). In the cloth wombs of Perera’s ghostly figures, the violence of the past is not really something that is distant, but something that is very much a tangible presence in the minds of many in the present irrespective of the reformist agendas of official historiography.

Intersections between Public and Private Memory and Beyond

Though Perera’s work in general expresses private and public memory in distinctly different kinds of artworks, one of the main installations in the middle of the exhibition space called ‘Memory Cache’ offers an intersection between these two kinds of memories. It consists of a cube of colorful cloth pouches, which in the mind of the artist refers to packaged memories in the same sense as was seen with reference to the ‘Blue Cupboard.’ On all four sides of the cube one can peep into the interior of the cube, literally through a clothed world of undifferentiated memory. On two sides, it offers still images of war and destruction and that of a world that saw no violence but has nevertheless passed by. The two other sides offer random moving images of life the artist members from the 1970s, her most crucial cultural memories as a child.

Beyond private and public memory bound by the passage of temporality as well as war, Perera’s exhibition also traverses other domains of representation that includes migration, globalization and advent of homogenous cultural forms and the expelling of the local; but in all cases, the artist’s point of departure and obsessive focus is what is remembered and what would lapse from memory. As she observes, “what we lost was our innocence and our common sense… we, for sure lost the trust. Then it stopped …Soon the pain and what was lost might well be forgotten too…amnesia sets in…. People want to move on. I keep memories for posterity ...” In the end, Memory Keeper is not only about memory, but also about nostalgia and above all the fear of forgetting, the fear of erasure; in the mind of the artist, erasure is simply the end of history; end of what was once familiar; end of consciousness.


Weissberg, Liliane. 1999. “Memory Confined.” In, Dan Ben-Amos & Liliane Weissberg eds., Cultural Memory and the Construction of Identity. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Marx, Karl . 1973. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Works, Vol. I). Moscow: Progress Publishers.

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