Nurturing artistic growth, indigenous wisdom, and interdisciplinary exploration | Sunday Observer
Colomboscope’s Forest School

Nurturing artistic growth, indigenous wisdom, and interdisciplinary exploration

25 June, 2023
Natasha Ginwala
Natasha Ginwala

The recently concluded Forest School, a project by the eighth edition of Colomboscope, concluded on a high note, reaffirming the project’s artistic vision and goals. A few weeks ago, the Forest School extended an invitation to local visual artists and contemporary cultural practitioners from various disciplines, offering them the opportunity to engage in an open and collaborative learning process.

This immersive experience included skill-building exercises, practical guidance from artist mentors, group readings, and discussions on spatial design and architecture. From the numerous inquiries received, the selection committee of Colomboscope carefully chose 12 participants to join the workshop. The workshop took place at the picturesque Ellerton Bungalow in Gampola, providing an ideal setting for the program. The Sunday Observer conducted an in-depth interview with Natasha Ginwala, the Artistic Director of Colomboscope, delving into their vision and expectations for the Forest School and the upcoming festival scheduled for January 19-28, 2024.

In the conversation, Natasha introduced the concept of “crown shyness” as an inspiring metaphor that influenced the visual identity of the Colomboscope festival. “The curatorial concept revolved around the forest as a rich space for artistic exploration, delving into our connections with multispecies coexistence and recognising the forest’s historical and political significance.

Crown shyness

When the designers of Colomboscope, who are part of Fold Media Collective namely Asvajit Boyle, Nigel Perera, and Ruwangi Amarasinghe, were introduced to this concept, they responded with a captivating idea. They transformed the natural phenomenon of ‘crown shyness’ into an experimental visual and graphic framework for the festival’s identity.

Crown shyness, observed in nature, became a profound source of inspiration for the designers. They were intrigued by how trees, symbolising our ancestors, display collaborative behaviour that humans often struggle to emulate. The towering forest trees with their dense canopies intentionally leave gaps between their branches, forming a unique pattern. These gaps serve as a means of communication between the trees, preventing the spread of sickness and ensuring mutual protection. The designers recognised the significance of this interdependence, particularly when exploring the notions of codependence and synergy within the context of Sri Lanka,” she said.

Ancient traditions

Forest School workshop at the Ellerton Bungalow in Gampola

The Forest School project, born through collaboration with the local partners Geoffrey Bawa Trust, Kalam, and EUNIC Sri Lanka that holds a pivotal role in nurturing the younger generation of creative practitioners. As Natasha explained, drawing inspiration from ancient traditions, the Forest School noted that learning has historically been intertwined with the natural world, rather than confined within concrete structures.

“Living in the rich environment of Sri Lanka provides a unique opportunity for direct observation and deep connection with nature. The Forest School embraces this advantage and transcends the boundaries of traditional academic settings. It goes beyond bachelor’s and master’s degrees, inviting experienced artists to become facilitators, guiding emerging artists and students of the arts,” she said.

Although this model of learning is not new globally, it has been absent in Sri Lanka for an extended period. Therefore, the Forest School was a dedicated space where participants actively engaged with the landscape. The design of the workshop transcended the notion of the landscape being merely a backdrop, instead encouraged intellectual observation, photographic exploration, technical interactions with the environment, and even movement-based activities like walking and dancing conducted by professional artists and practitioners.

“These learning methods have roots spanning centuries but have been overshadowed by the foreign concept of classroom-based education that has been integrated into formal curricula. Therefore, our intention of the Forest School concept is to allow creative individuals to forge their own curriculum, nurturing their artistic growth and expression in harmony with nature. It is a testament to the power of reclaiming and embracing indigenous wisdom, fostering a deep connection between artists and the environment in which they create,” Natasha said.

Open and horizontal learning process

Within the Forest School, the learning process was open and horizontal, fostering a dynamic and equal exchange between artists, professional artists, and participants. It challenged the traditional classroom model, where a teacher recites lectures and students passively receive information. Instead, the Forest School encouraged imaginative and interactive connections among all participants, emphasizing interdependence rather than hierarchical learning dynamics.

“We hope in this unique setting, the Forest School critically questioned and challenged hierarchies, including us as the organisers of the workshop. This is the second time Colomboscope has organised such an event, and each partner involved contributes his or her own knowledge, enriching the workshop with diverse perspectives and expertise. This collaborative environment made the workshop exceptionally dynamic, fostering a vibrant space for learning and artistic exploration,” she said.

Organic materials

Forest School collaborated with artists from diverse backgrounds across the country, many of whom harness organic materials in their artistic endeavours. This close association with nature and natural elements permeates their work, inspiring explorations into the concept of decay and the utilisation of materials sourced from the surrounding landscapes. The interconnectedness of these materials and their significance resonate strongly with these artists.

Natasha elaborated on how Colomboscope aims to address and shed light on the connection between ecocidal violence, militarisation and the extraction of rare earths in canopied geographies through interdisciplinary artistic approaches. She said, “The forest holds distinct memories for artists who have personally experienced the ravages of war. Its role in their recollections carries a unique weight and deserves careful consideration.

On the other hand, artists from Southeast Asia, alongside their concern for the climate emergency, deeply contemplate traditional, ancestral wisdom, and the preservation of land and agricultural practices. Their knowledge may be inherited through family ties to the land or acquired through immersive experiences, all of which profoundly shape their artistic language and practices.”

“Colomboscope fosters an environment devoid of hierarchies between international and local artists. Instead, the festival encourages a vibrant and equitable conversation among artists, where they can learn from one another and collectively share their insights with audiences. This emphasis on mutual learning and exchange enriches their creative journeys and contributes to a deeper appreciation of diverse artistic expressions,” Natasha said.

Repetition and forgery

In the ever-evolving tapestry of contemporary art, echoes of repetition and the looming specter of forgery often cast shadows upon the creative landscape. However, amid this intriguing realm, the role of curator emerges as a guiding force, defying the conventional and illuminating the path towards authenticity. Speaking about the process of eliminating repetition and forgery in contemporary art, as well as guiding emerging artists to bring out their best, Natasha shared her insights.

“I am filled with a deep sense of optimism regarding this aspect. I do not perceive any form of restriction or tiresome repetition. In fact, when we conducted a similar workshop in Ellerton four years ago and returned with an entirely different group of participants, we had the opportunity to witness their transformative journeys unfold over the years, even amidst the challenges posed by the pandemic. It is awe-inspiring to observe the immense growth and expanded horizons of each practitioner in their careers and exposure, with many now showcasing their work on international platforms.

“As a curator deeply engaged with various countries and a keen observer of the international art scene, I am truly gratified by the remarkable progress, unwavering dedication, and constant growth demonstrated by these practitioners. Our approach to developing a specialised curriculum, designing curated sessions, and engaging diverse facilitators has proven to be incredibly fruitful, infusing the artistic process with a rich tapestry of elements.

“In essence, I am wholeheartedly convinced that we are witnessing a profound transformation, as boundaries are shattered and new artistic frontiers are explored. This journey, with its boundless potential, fills me with immense hope and reinforces my belief in the limitless power of artistic expression,” she said.

Capturing indigenous knowledge

“Guided by a concept note pulsating with the importance of indigenous knowledge and captivating oral histories, Natasha explained its transformative process as this approach aims to seamlessly weave these invaluable elements into the artistic creations, bridging the gap between the past and the present with harmonious grace.

“A delicate and transformative process is underway, as the Forest School strives to bridge the ancient and the contemporary, weaving together threads of ancestral wisdom with the ever-evolving artistic landscape. The journey is as fascinating as it is challenging, for the integration of indigenous and historical community narratives into the realm of contemporary aesthetics demands thoughtful consideration.

“It is important to embrace the paradoxical nature of this endeavour—bringing ancient ancestral knowledge into the present, while avoiding the pitfalls of becoming traditional, conservative, or nationalistic. Striking the right balance is key, and it requires a relevant and respectful approach. By doing so, we hope to illuminate the wealth of local knowledge that often remains marginalised, overlooked amidst grand narratives that seek more heroic figures,” Natasha said.

Selection of participants

Unlocking the transformative potential of the Forest School project lies in the careful curation of its participants. With a commitment to inclusivity and representation, the selection process took shape, guided by the collaborative efforts of the Geoffery Bawa Trust and Kalam. Drawing on the support of various organisations and entities, the call for participants resonates far and wide, attracting a diverse range of practitioners from across artistic disciplines.

Visual artists, architects, animators, performers, and self-taught creatives gathered together, from the vibrant corners of Batticaloa, Kandy, Colombo, Haputale, Jaffna, and beyond. The significance of this geographical diversity cannot be overstated, as it bridges a structural gap embedded in the country’s history and infrastructure. The Forest School became a meeting ground, uniting artists who seldom have the opportunity to connect with one another due to these divides.

“I believe that this is how we can bring about the social change we all dream of. We’ve seen countless discussions on reconciliation by NGOs and governments attempting to navigate the process at their own pace. But when it comes down to it, creativity is where our emotions run wild and our stories find their voice. It’s when artists come together, openly sharing not just their artistic practices, but also their lives, in a safe and supportive space. It’s an act of healing, a way to mend what’s broken, and we’re not done yet.

“As a festival, we’re committed to providing care and hospitality, especially to our artists travelling from outside Colombo. We understand that true transformation happens when creativity meets compassion. So, we’re creating an environment where emotions flow freely, stories intertwine, and we plant the seeds of change. Together, we’re breaking down barriers, weaving a colourful tapestry of understanding, unity, and a shared vision for a brighter future,” Natasha added.

Long-term impact

In the pursuit of envisioning a thriving artistic and cultural landscape, the Forest School project emerged as a catalyst for transformative outcomes and lasting influences. By immersing participants in comprehensive facilitation, the initiative facilitated skill-building conversations that equipped artists with tools and self-assurance to excel in their craft over time.

Natasha shared the anticipated outcomes and long-term impacts that they hope to achieve through the Forest School project, while envisioning the program contributing to the broader artistic and cultural landscape of Colombo and beyond.

She said; “In our endeavours to facilitate meaningful growth and development, the Forest School project embarks on a journey of in-depth facilitation, aiming to equip artists with the skills and confidence to thrive in their artistic pursuits. Through engaging skill-building conversations, we aspire for artists to feel more empowered and equipped to make their mark in the long run. Recognising the challenge of brain drain, we emphasize the importance of re-circulating skills, knowledge, and understanding within our creative community.”

“By broadening our networks, we create a supportive environment where everyone can forge meaningful connections and achieve their creative aspirations. Our main vision for the Colomboscope and the Forest School workshop is to foster a vibrant and inclusive art ecosystem, prioritising artistic growth and expression over mere commercial success. We firmly believe that this approach will have a far-reaching impact, nurturing a thriving artistic community and opening new possibilities for all involved,” Natasha said.

Creative Island – From Forest School to Sensory Architectures is a project by Colomboscope, the Geoffery Bawa Trust and Kälam (Jaffna) supported and enabled by EUNIC Sri Lanka.

Forest School workshop at the Ellerton Bungalow in Gampola