Art/Event Review: Art at the Rio Cinema (2015)

The Rio Cinema is an old crumbling relic from the 1980’s. It remains mostly unchanged since then, and has seen a lot happen on the streets around it, especially the madness from our communal riots and civil war. Maybe because I’m only in my 20s and have not been exposed to much art outside Colombo, or maybe I shouldn’t blame my naivety, Cinnamon Colomboscope’s Shadow Scenes at the Rio completely blew me away.

I’m no art critic. I love art though, I paint, and I studied literature so I love stories, so this is just a review of my personal experience while trudging through the discoloured, slightly damp corridors of the Rio.

A few people had mentioned here and there this week ‘go check out the exhibition at Rio, it’s nice.’ It sounded like any other art exhibition and so I put it off lazily, but Ruvin’s photographs on Scroll.in caught my interest and I decided to go today, the last day.

I really wish people hadn’t called it an exhibition – if only I had known what it really was: a festival, a wonderful maze, of not just one but countless kinds of art in conversation with each other – I would have spent all week calling everyone I know and didn’t know to go experience it. In broad terms, the art discussed Sri Lankan identity in relation to our rapid urban development and to our history of civil war. The Rio exhibit, curated by Natasha Ginwala and Menika Van Der Poorten, is only one part of the entire art festival that is Cinnamon Colomboscope, which apparently has hosted festivals twice before – this is my first time checking them out – and heads-up, they’ve got a Facebook page.

This ‘exhibition’ was a staggering 7 glorious floors worth of art. 41 different artists – painters, sculptors, photographers, musicians – all came together to orchestrate the journey to the 7th floor, and though this is a huge number of cooks working on one pot, they were all somehow on the exact same wavelength, and the execution was exactly on point. To me, one big way that art is successful is when you manage to convey what you have to say through your medium, with clarity. All the art pieces in the building screamed powerful, with interpretations of identity, conflict and human emotion, and every room – each floor had about six or seven rooms – conveyed a singular story, or at least produced a very distinct feeling in the visitor. 7 floors, 7 rooms each… that is a lot of feels. I was exhausted when I left Rio.

Thinking it would just be an ‘exhibition’ I took my camera and foolishly thought I could capture the art and show it to others, but this is one of those ‘you had to be there’ things. Before going into some of my favourite exhibits – I have to mention that the best part about this was the location of the exhibition itself. The location, Rio Cinema, with its damp floors, musty old smell, and mossy but resilient walls, participated in the art. Its broken windows and its dark corridors had brushed shoulders rustily with time and with days that would be recorded forever in Colombo’s history, and like the artists, it told its own story and helped to tell theirs too. Rio Cinema isn’t new to art, it was the location for a theatre production by Mind Adventures too (which is a group who once, in a spectacular move, took their actors and audience onto a moving bus). It’s refreshing to me that the art is being moved out of the clinical walls of the gallery and the theatre, into real living spaces. Genet is grinning in his grave.

I liked the exhibit at the entrance – something very simple, but striking: a wall covered in newspapers with the taped words: IT COULD HAPPEN TO YOU. Looking closer, you find they are newspaper clippings from 1983, the year of the July riots in Sri Lanka when thousands of Tamil civilians were slaughtered on the streets and in their homes in cold blood. After Rio I visited a close friend of mine in Slave Island and she told me stories of how her father and uncle, Muslims, had been shot at in the crossfire on the streets in ’83. And how she had hidden under the furniture as a child in 2001, when the LTTE used rifles and grenades to lead an assault on the Katunayake airbase. These are important turning points in our story as Sri Lankans. It was incredibly unnerving to me, and also strangely beautiful, how the art here imitated real life – it was not just a lovely story or message, but a very real recollection of our lived past.

Many of the rooms played generously with texture and colour – walls covered in patterns, or a giant sculpture covering most of the floor. These were my favourite kind of room, because the room was a part of the art, not just a container for it. So you were very close to the art when you stepped inside. A wall in a dark room covered in black tar, a wall with squiggly red patterns with a crime-scene tape across it, a wall dripping with gold paint, a wall plastered with a collage of broken CDs and Lion beer cans, a wall covered in eerie shadows – they each made you feel something very distinct. For me, what was different about Shadow Scenes at Rio compared to other exhibitions was that instead of critiquing the work from outside the frame, I felt myself thrown into it, and made to feel, than think.

One room that made an impression featured pillows and bags hung from the ceiling, strung together in strange shapes, throwing shadows on the walls and the water below – you got the eerie sensation that you were standing in a dark room in a butcher shop, and these were animal (?) parts hung from meat hooks.

Another fave was an exhibit called ‘De(Generative) Processes’, by Asvajit and Lalindra. It was a room that only admitted one visitor at a time. Once the door is closed behind you, the walls come alive with moving scribbles and shapes from a projector, with an emotive cacophony of sounds playing in time to their movements. This one is obviously one of those subjective things, but to me it was extremely intense, to be standing at the center of a dark room, flooded with visuals and sounds – I loved when at one point the white visuals disintegrated little by little and it all faded to black, and I felt myself standing in a kind of nothing.

There were much calmer exhibits too, photographs of Slave Island’s changing landscape, from ghetto to high-rise capital, and photograph collages that discussed war, and abstract paintings that spoke in subdued tones. There were a few very personal stories too – I remember a room of belongings that seemed to belong to the dead uncle of the artist: a pair of polished shoes, a folded shirt, a jar of bottle caps, a box of old cassettes, newspapers. Very frightening and very poetic and very, very real. Again there was this feeling of the art getting uncomfortably close, it was not just an exhibit to stand apart from and critique with the occasional name-drop of Monet or Dali, in a pretty vacuum – but it was this clean mirror held close to your very pores.

After what felt like ages, only an hour in fact, we reached the 7th floor, the terrace of the Rio. The exhibition was beautifully timed, open between 4.30 and 5.30, so once you reach the top at 5.30, there is the view of the yellowing evening sky over the ocean, and the mishmash of Slave Island itself, from the cluster of houses to the construction cranes. Two Greek statues still stood on the Rio terrace after all this time, holding up the concrete columns above us. Here I took a seat and was given a pair of headphones and looked out at the view that seemed to almost be staged now – cool breeze, golden sun, slow-moving kites.  Pedro Gomez Egana spoke in a slight accent into my ears over soft piano music, taking me on an imaginary journey from the 7th floor of Rio through the Colombo landscape, from Galcissa to Maradana and back to Slave Island. And along the way we saw siyambala trees and calm rivers, and we explored quietly like a little insect in search of plants and flowers, glancing around from east to west, before ending our journey, whimsically, inside a flower.

The trip through Rio was very weird and fantastical, and I feel like I felt and gained so much, and saw so much – through the art – of my own real life. It sort of re-acquainted me with Slave Island, with Colombo, with my past. I’m extremely excited that this kind of art is happening in Sri Lanka, that art is entering real spaces and discussing uncomfortable, gritty subjects in a clear, loud voice. I think it would be interesting to see if next time there could be even more interaction with the Sinhala and Tamil languages, because it blows my mind to even imagine – what these ideas and spaces could do if they played with Sri Lankan mother-tongues, and also what would happen if they interacted with the average man off a Slave Island street.

I’m so sad that the show is over and no one can experience it after today – I literally shouted ‘I’m so sad!’ at my nonplussed friend on leaving Rio. So I’m crossing my fingers and toes hoping for another spectacular collab by the Colomboscope artists and EUNIC Sri Lanka soon. It’s an exciting time to be in Colombo.

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