SEA CHANGE: As Tides Turn

Natasha Ginwala

How may we re-imagine the Indian Ocean world today, not simply in extractive terms of economic trade and in the operation of transnational ports but instead as a realm of cultural affinities, confluence of languages and a vital artistic meeting point?

Ancient Lanka’s strategic place amidst the Indian Ocean trade network gave shape to a cosmopolitan lineage of social pluralism and cultures of connectedness— linking distant ‘ports of call’ from Rome in the West to China in the East, waters from the Bay of Bengal to the Mozambique Channel.

Derek Walcott’s poem Sea is History (1978) notes: “but the ocean kept turning blank pages looking for history,” let us commence through this fragment of poetry in addressing maritime legacy and infrastructural histories of the sea. Over thirty artists, filmmakers, musicians and interdisciplinary thinkers plot marine encounters from this island coast—traversing from the breakwaters and mangroves to vertical watery depths. Jointly envisioning speculative futures drawn from the oceanfront rather than terrestrial anchorage. Motioning toward seafaring histories, colonial inheritance and fluid states of belonging.

The lifecycle of shipping is characterized through artistic works that engage the morphology of cargo vessels; the transit of shipbuilding cranes sailing from England to Western India; and cinematic scenes from one of the many ship breaking yards that encircle the subcontinent.

The seawater is treated sonically and as a carrier of words that echo as a common tongue in divided lands. Sea creatures converse as queer and desiring subjects.

The festival exhibition includes the incessant loop of ‘instant’ images from tourist-fuelled fantasies investigated through the lens of privilege and racism. Rare photographs of the Maldives shot over three decades bring alive vanished ways of communal life, oceanic diversity and coral stone architecture. The ecologically fragile coral island St. Martin, at the edge of Bangladesh is pictured through surreal portraiture. And, the dark burden of slavery resonates as a ghost caught in an echo chamber.

Colomboscope returns to the Rio complex after the 2015 festival edition that brought alive the exhibition ‘Shadow Scenes.’ The cinema and former hotel were directly impacted by the Black July riots of 1983 and are ever since etched as a memory capsule of the communal violence that ensued.

In the interim years, while this living ruin has remained the same, the surrounding Kompannavidiya (Slave Island) neighborhood has experienced immense transformations; with local communities in flux and forced to transit from their traditional homes and a rising demographic of migrant workers. The artists participating in SEA CHANGE take note of these shifts that rise and fall with the ocean swell and the infrastructural desires which push this coastline to its maximum threshold.

The ocean is a source of jouissance and melancholia, it gives and takes in fistfuls: with pearl oysters come the fishing trawlers, migrant bodies vanish, an arrack bottle floats by a wetland, the night club dancer entices a stowaway, and weary sea turtles turn away from eager divers.

We still know less about the ocean floor than we do about the moon surface or planet Mars. SEA CHANGE addresses the urgencies of a rapidly altering coastline and the complex negotiations to be carried forward between islander communities, unfulfilled agendas of planetary coexistence and capitalist ambition

Rio Complex
Barefoot Gallery
Grand Oriental Hotel
+94 763 688 600

+94 763 688 600