The Second Skin: Elastic Dress, 2010–12. Bra strap elastic loops and iron structure, dimensions variable. Photo: Aaron Burton

Material Histories: A Conversation with Anoli Perera

Anoli Perera, a self-taught artist who divides her time between New Delhi, India, and Colombo, Sri Lanka, is not afraid to range across different mediums and materials. The lack of a formal art education has given her the courage to experiment, veer off into new directions, and express herself freely. There is precision and definition to her work, and a frequently political edge, yet it reaches directly to the heart. Though assemblage and bricolage figure heavily in Perera’s practice, she comes into her own with installations. The increased scale grants her even greater freedom with textiles—perhaps her preferred medium and one whose properties and possibilities she understands perfectly. In these works, artist, concept, and material become one.

Long Walk, 2018. Fabric, cotton stuffing, PVC pipes, magnifying lenses, and printed images, 108 x 72 x 5 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist

Chitra Balasubramaniam: When and how did your journey into the art world begin?
Anoli Perera: I am more or less self taught. I studied political science, economics, and sociology. I received my BA degree from the University of Colombo and a postgraduate diploma in International Relations from the Bandaranaike Center for International Studies. When I was in Santa Barbara, California, for a few years in the late 1980s, I had the opportunity to rethink my profession. This was an important period, and it was then that I chose to become an artist. I gradually learned about Sri Lankan and international art and, over time, found my particular style and language.

My work has evolved considerably since then. I was part of a group of artists who supported the “90s Art Trend,” a movement that changed the existing art scene and brought contemporary thinking into Sri Lankan art. Installation, performance, and conceptual art were ushered in during this time, and artists’ work became very experimental. I worked closely with this movement, and my work was influenced by its philosophy.

CB: You work across painting, installation, sculpture, book art, and photo performances. Were you always so wide ranging, or did you add additional approaches over the course of your journey?
AP: The use of multiple mediums came about with the evolution of my practice, through curiosity, various influences, and the context of living. The spectrum of mediums is important to how I approach the art-making process. I started as a painter and attended adult education classes in Santa Barbara; I also trained briefly in stone carving when I lived in Princeton, New Jersey. But my lack of an overall formal art education gave me the freedom to be more experimental. I feel that my knowledge as well as my approach came about through an alchemical process, so I am not faithful to one medium or format of art-making. I draw inspiration not only from art history, but also from the histories of fabric and lace, needlepoint, decorative arts, domesticity, craft practices, and even the political and cultural histories of places where I might be at any given time.

Elevated Utopias I: See No Evil…, 2014. Screen-printed cloth, iron structure, stuffing, embroidery, magnifying lenses, images, acrylic, ink, and pencil, 23 x 27 x 23.5 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist

CB: Do you select a medium and materials on the basis of what best suits your idea for a work? Do you choose carefully, or does it happen intuitively?
AP: I tend to choose the medium to suit my concepts, but sometimes I get excited when I see an interesting material that I can use and extend through my work, particularly one with a loaded or embedded history. I pick up whatever can narrate my thoughts effectively. So, there is a bit of fusion. I approach my work not from an art historical or aesthetic perspective, but from a socio-cultural perspective. I think this is due to my liberal arts background.

CB: Have your philosophy and conceptual framework changed as you have grown as an artist?
AP: For me, the potency of the narrative presented in the work probably matters more than the investigation of a particular technique or adherence to any formal aspect of constructing a composition. Usually, I select material to suit my subject matter (but not as a rule), and the history of that material also forms the narrative. I have a heavy tendency to layer my work, collaging with other materials even when I am doing a painting. I have to dirty whatever surface I am working on with paint first. Maybe I have a phobia about purity. I even prefer to work with water dirtied by the constant dipping of brushes, which gives a stain that I find attractive. I guess underlying all this is the fact that I appreciate alchemy and hybridity more than purity.

City Series III: Red Rain, 2018. Watercolor paper, pencil, acrylic, ink, wax, canvas, and acrylic box, 34 x 34 x 15 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist

CB: You have lived in different parts of the world. How have these places shaped your thought? Are your experiences reflected in your work?
AP: Each place where I have lived has pushed my work in directions that I would not have otherwise taken. When you live in different places, you collect things from each one. They can be memories, nuances, tastes, and objects, as well as experiential elements and emotions. All of these expand the repertoire—the possibilities for new thoughts, new ideas, and new work. Since I am not faithful to one medium or art form, it is easier for me to adjust to new mediums and methods of working. The key is to take a risk, move from one’s comfort zone, and sometimes push the boundaries. I feel I have taken a few risks in my art practice.

CB: Installations play an important role in your work. Could you explain some of their themes?
AP: I always say that I do my best work when I’m doing an installation. I like to think large when it comes to installations, and most of them have been very labor-intensive. Many of the installation works—Dinner for Six: Inside Out (2007), Comfort Zone (2004), The Second Skin (2009), Ghosts of Swarnabhumi (2012), Left Behinder: Bed (2013), Geographies of Deliverance (2016), Long Walk (2018), The Shroud (2018), Left Behinder (2018), and Laced (2018)—have evolved around the subjects of domesticity, body, memory, history, postcoloniality, and urbanity. Some of these themes overlap in my work. There is always the sense of a political or critical undertone.

White Chair II: Entombed, 2013. Wooden chair, cloth balls, digital photo frame, photos, glass balls, and lace, 24 x 23 x 22 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist

CB: Could you discuss your participation in “Tale of Two Cities?”
AP: “Tale of Two Cities” was a project initiated by Renu Modi, founder of Gallery Espace in New Delhi, in cooperation with the Theertha International Artists Collective, an independent arts initiative in Colombo. It began in 2015 and was completed in 2017. The project focused on two ancient cities, Varanasi (India) and Anuradhapura (Sri Lanka), both sacred cities frequented by pilgrims since time immemorial. Indian and Sri Lankan artists were selected for two residencies, one in Anuradhapura and the other in Varanasi. We were exposed to the dynamics of each place and allowed to create our own narratives and commentaries, not only around the two cities, but also looking at the larger historical landscape of the two countries. The project culminated in a large exhibition in Delhi and then in Colombo. I made two works, Voyages of Intuition and Adobes of Promises and Geographies of Deliverance (both 2016). Each work relied extensively on cloth and stitching.

CB: What have you been working on recently?
AP: I finished a solo exhibition, “Monsters and Mortals,” at Barefoot Gallery in Colombo. It was a thematically heavy exhibition because I was looking at the decay and dismantling of humanity, where everything becomes centered around power. Another exhibition, at the end of 2022, presented works by The Collective, a group of six artists based in Sri Lanka; we started showing together in 2021. The exhibition focused on what’s happening politically within Sri Lanka.

The City Series I, 2017. Watercolor paper, pencil, acrylic, ink, wax, canvas, and acrylic box, 25 x 60 x 14 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist

CB: How did you come to be so fascinated with textiles?
AP: I started experimenting with textiles after I saw an exhibition of Louise Bourgeois’s work at the Malmö Konsthall in 1998. That experience changed my approach to art-making. I started using cloth and cloth-related material extensively in my work, and I began to understand the language and meanings embedded in the medium. It reconnected me with the aesthetic practices of women from past generations of my family who had been engaged in needle art, and I felt an affinity with them. I felt liberated because of the depth and breadth it provided in terms of cultural memory, meaning, and metaphor, and also because it connected me to a historical lineage. Parameters within art shift continuously, but we always assume cultural heritage to be static as we deposit information about it in our collective and individual memory. As such, our perceptions, ideas, practices get defined intuitionally within these depositories of memory.

CB: What other influences have shaped your approach?
AP: My work has been deeply influenced by Nalini Malani and Anselm Kiefer, in addition to Louise Bourgeois. All three artists leave something unsettling and unresolved in their work. I like the tension that this creates, and I find an affinity with this aspect of their work. As beautiful as their works are, along with that beauty lie uncomfortable truths.