Museum of Modern and Contemporary art: ‘A slice of history’ | Sunday Observer

Museum of Modern and Contemporary art: ‘A slice of history’

11 January, 2020
Broken hands - Pradeep Chandrasiri
Broken hands - Pradeep Chandrasiri

The launch of ‘One Hundred Thousand Small Tales’ at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Sri Lanka undoubtedly in a nutshell reveals a ‘slice of history’ of Sri Lankan modern and contemporary art.

The attractive title of the very first exhibition of the Museum was inspired by the highly acclaimed contemporary Tamil poet, Cheran’s famous poem published in 2003 where he described how a..

“…bridge, strengthened by its burden

Of a hundred thousand tales

collapses within a single tear.”

Speaking to the Sunday Observer, the Chief Curator of the exhibition Sharmini Pereira said, ‘One Hundred Thousand Small Tales’ draws its title, and curatorial impetus, from the exercise of imagining how the poem’s burden of countless tales might be conceived as an exhibition.

“To this end, it views the collapse of a physical structure as a tipping point that gives rise to a body of knowledge, of excessive and epic proportions and how this excess might be displayed, arranged, catalogued and understood. From afar, this exhibition addresses the task of recording a history of art in terms of an artistic output that bore witness to many narratives, episodes and accounts of what has come to pass in Sri Lanka during its recent history. Up close, it recognises the strength of Sri Lanka’s artistic communities across several generations and the artworks they have given form to, as the material manifestation of the poem’s hundred thousand tales,” she explained.

Elaborating the key purpose of the Museum, Sharmini said the Museum is to showcase modern and contemporary art in the country, presenting it within a context that engages visitors of any background. Being the country’s first such public museum, the core focus is the display, education, research, and conservation of 


modern and contemporary art. The privately funded initiative came to light end of last year as a result of committed and ambitious work carried out continuously for the past three years led by a highly-skilled founding group of artists, professionals, international curators and industry leaders. The Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Sri Lanka begins its first phase of development with the immense support of the Colombo Innovation Tower (CIT), a temporary residence on the 17th floor of the CIT, within an environment dedicated to artistic inquiry and innovation.

“As soon as a permanent building is secured, we will be able to establish a collection of art that can be shared with the general public and conserved for generations to come,” Sharmini added.

Art has the astounding ability of shaping and moulding societal norms and beliefs, and over the decades the political and ethnic conflicts and societal revolutions have made direct and indirect effects on the subject of art in the country. Museum is a place where secure artists’ artistic attempts are displayed by making a record of the evolution of art in a particular era, spreading and securing the true meaning of society. The collections of Art Museums have the power to influence the community for the better while protecting the artists’ work for the future.

“In our first project we have thought about the museum as a place that accommodates all three languages, as a space that is free and as an environment of learning, discovery and discussion.

“The first project presents a museum-quality exhibition and education program in a temporary building to a new audience. Projects like this along with consultation and research would help us determine what kind of museum will be relevant for Sri Lanka,” said Sharmini.


One Hundred Thousand Small Tales aims to provide starting points on how we understand the paths of art production from the lead up to Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948 to the present. It includes work by 45 artists, across different generations, living across the country and overseas. The exhibition includes over 100 artworks displayed in four galleries. The title of the exhibition is taken from a poem by the poet R. Cheran where he describes how a ‘bridge, strengthened by its burden of a hundred thousand tales collapses within a single tear’. The exhibition imagines the bridge’s burden as artworks instead of tales, seeing in each artwork the potential to tell a story.

Explaining the process of selecting the artworks for the Museum, Sharmini says all the artworks were chosen specifically and carefully. If a specific work was not available due to conservation issues or if it was not available for loan, it was not a case of simply finding another work by the artist. The exhibition was put together over the course of two years drawing off various research strands that the curation team had been working on. Sharmini got the opportunity to curate the exhibition from the Dhaka Art Summit (DAS) in Bangladesh who commissioned her to curate an exhibition for DAS 2018. The criteria in her mind when selecting works for the exhibition was to find a range of artwork that occupied a historical timeline from the lead up to independence from as early as the 1920s to the present, she said.

Modern art is commonly used to describe a new form of art making synonymous with the social changes that spearheaded and came to define the 20th century. Contemporary art is by definition the art that is happening today. Both definitions are however open to critiques. What was contemporary in 1960, is now seen as modern art. Both terms are similarly seen as terms of western art that came about in relation to the developments of art from these regions of the world. Applying the terms to parts of the world that have followed different historical trajectories is obviously problematic. These terms are nonetheless useful to think about and interrogate. Both terms are often seen as alienating and difficult to explain which is why so many people have to some extent been put off by visiting art museums.

“Museums are also to blame for not making modern and contemporary art more accessible. Today’s museums are experiencing a revival in their popularity and many museums of modern and contemporary art provide some of the most important places of public gathering and engagement in terms of the architecture they have inspired and due to the collections of modern and contemporary art they house,” Sharmini said.

Being the Chief Curator of the Museum Sharmini is pleased to announce the appointment of the staff of the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Sandev Handy, Assistant Curator; Ruhanie Perera, Curator, Education and Public Engagement; Pramodha Weerasekera, Assistant Curator, Education and Public Engagement.

Founding Committee of the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Sri Lanka also include Shiromal Cooray Chair, Jetwing Hotels and Jetwing Travels, Sri Lanka; Channa Daswatte Architect, Partner MICD Associates; Chair, Geoffrey Bawa Trust; Trustee, Lunuganga Trust; Chair, Galle Heritage Foundation, Sri Lanka; Abbas Esufally Group Director, Hemas Holdings Plc., Sri Lanka; Ajit Gunewardene, Chairman, Bluestone Capital Ltd., Sri Lanka; Dr Sujatha Arundathi Meegama, Assistant Prof, School of Art, Design and Media, Nanyang Technical University, Singapore; Sharmini Pereira, Founder / Director, Raking Leaves; Co-founder / Director, Sri Lanka Archive of Contemporary Art, Architecture & Design, Sri Lanka; Suhanya Raffel, Executive Director, M+, West Kowloon Cultural District, Hong Kong; Michael Snelling, Photographer, Writer and Curator, Former Director of National Art School, Sydney; Former Director, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane; Acting Director, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney; Nadija Tambiah, Executive Vice President, John Keells Holdings PLC; Head, John Keells Foundation; Trustee, Lunuganga Trust, Geoffrey Bawa Trust and George Keyt Foundation, Sri Lanka; Jagath Weerasinghe, Founding Director, Theertha International Artists’ Collective; Director, Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology, University of Kelaniya, Sri Lanka; and John Wickremeratne, Deputy Director, Museum Operations (CFO), M+, West Kowloon District, Hong Kong; Former COO & CFO, Art Gallery New South Wales, Sydney.

By appreciating works of art, a museum has the capacity and ability to reach societies far, wide and into the future, allowing the concepts and nuances of reality to be altered distinctively in the notion to celebrate reverent subjects and significant causes.

The next step of the Museum is to build public, private and government support to establish a permanent museum in the capital which is what the city is missing and so urgently needs given the richness of the art histories we have in the country.

The implication of a museum remains still as crucial and vital as it always was and the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Sri Lanka surely has potential to complement and progress intrinsically in the institutions of art.

Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art is open to public from every Thursday to Sunday from 11am to 5pm. Entrance free. For more information