Kamala Vasuki: A journey through artistic expression and feminist perspective | Sunday Observer

Kamala Vasuki: A journey through artistic expression and feminist perspective

26 March, 2023
Kamala Vasuki
Kamala Vasuki

Kamala Vasuki is a visual artist from Jaffna, who has made significant contributions to the art fraternity of the country. She is among the few female artists from Sri Lanka specifically from the North and the East of the country. Her art practice is rooted in her life experiences and her feminist perspective on the world.

Vasuki’s journey as an artist began in 1989 with her first solo exhibition in Jaffna, which took place despite the war that was underway in the North and the East. She is the only female visual artist who has sustained an art practice while continuing to live through the war in the country. She has experienced the trials and tribulations of war, including displacement, loss of loved ones, and all the other profound disruptions of ordinary life.

Speaking about her obsession and inspiration behind being an artist, Vasuki said, “I was obsessed with colours and shapes from my childhood; collecting colourful beads in various shapes, chocolate covers and seeds and creating shapes with them on my study table was my favourite game – When I joined grade six in Vembadi girl’s high school, my father chose art as one of the optional subjects for me.

The art teacher from grade 8, M.P.R Sinnappu, identified my passion for art and encouraged me to learn the skills and express myself. In the ’80s there were no opportunities for higher studies in art in Jaffna, so, I ended up in Bio Science and completed BSc in Biological science. In 1986, an art exhibition of 3 women was organised by Cultural group of University of Jaffna. I was very thrilled to be in a hall with full of artwork by 3 women. I enrolled in the same art classes where these 3 women artists were studying.

Later, I started intensive courses under one of the teachers, A. Mark whom I would call as my guru. The journey I started with the colours and lines have taken me here, as a feminist, an activist, a person strongly believes in love and peace. Art have given me the courage to rise against injustices and voice the changes we wanted.”

Artistic technique

Vasuki’s artistic technique is vibrant and has changed over time. When looked at together, it is possible to trace journeys through technique, style, and color palette in Vasuki’s work. Her art materials were often close to impossible to obtain during the war, so she worked with any paper, colors, or other material she could find. She made sculptures out of plastic pens and soap, and her drawings were on any paper she could find. Vasuki’s mentor, A. Mark, encouraged her to create art with any material she could find, and she learned to make art with it.

Vasuki has had individual and group exhibitions in different parts of Sri Lanka and abroad, including Nepal, Australia, and the Netherlands. Her work has been part of multiple exhibitions in premier art galleries in Colombo, and her most sustained work is in working with other artists and using art to engender conversations about violence against women in non-urban contexts in the north and east of Sri Lanka.

Vasuki’s paintings, such as the painting related to the rape and murder of Krishanthi Kumaraswamy in 1996 and the “My child is not for war” painting, have become iconic symbols of histories of the war, especially from a feminist and women’s perspective. More recently, her paintings are being used as a pedagogic tool to teach the histories of the past 30 years, including that of the war in Sri Lanka.

One of the most important aspects of Vasuki’s work is her collective art making practice where she creates space for women, often from marginalised backgrounds who have been deeply impacted by war, poverty, and other forms of injustice, to create art together. This collective art making is a process of bearing witness to one another’s shared and separate life stories, making their voices heard in the public sphere and a process of possible catharsis in the context of longstanding pain and trauma. One such collective art work where women who are part of families of the disappeared in Sri Lanka drew on one saree, which was then taken to Geneva to use as a tool in their struggle for justice there.

Vasuki’s art practice continues to be a witness and commentator on contemporary Sri Lanka. She has created work that responds to contemporary realities such as the pandemic, the economic crisis, ongoing struggles for social change, and justice. Her collective art-making practice is an integral part of women’s spaces for social change and justice in all parts of Tamil-speaking Sri Lanka and occasionally Sinhala-speaking women.

A retrospective of Vasuki’s work was held in 2021, titled “Telling Histories: Kamala Vasuki and the Art of Witnessing”, which brought together her artwork spanning over three decades. The exhibition showcased her artwork from different periods, revealing the evolution of her technique and style, as well as her themes and messages. The exhibition also included installations that gave the viewers a glimpse into the process of creating art and the different materials used in her artwork.

Powerful tool

Vasuki’s artwork is not only a testament to her own experiences but also a powerful tool for social change and justice. She uses her art to raise awareness about issues such as violence against women, poverty, and discrimination.

Her collective art making practice has created a safe space for marginalised women to share their stories and have their voices heard. Through her art, Vasuki has not only documented the history of Sri Lanka, but also contributed to shaping its future. “All my expressions today are having my feminist stand as the core; challenging the destructive powers and power relations and celebrating the inner power of women, humans and nature,” Vasuki added.

Kamala Vasuki is a pioneering artist who has made a significant contribution to the world of visual art in Sri Lanka. Her artwork is not only aesthetically beautiful, but also socially conscious, reflecting her life experiences and feminist perspective. Her collective art making practice has created a platform for marginalised women to express themselves and raise awareness about important issues. Kamala Vasuki is a true inspiration, and her artwork will continue to inspire and educate generations to come.