My dream was like
a blurred image,
A ruined composition.
With no one carrying it,
The coffin moved, by itself,
towards the cremation ground.
— Cheran, The trace of a dream (Kanavin tadam), 2003
Experimenter presents Anatomy of Remembrances, a debut solo exhibition by T. Vinoja.
Note by Natasha Ginwala (Curatorial Advisor) –
Vinoja Tharmalingam approaches her artistic practice with quiet rigor, hers is a quest to bring to the fore experiences of silenced, injured, and disappeared figures salient in a resistant imaginary, communitarian historiographies, and intimate memory keeping. Her textile art, drawings, and installations examine how sites and material archives convey experiences of loss, forced abandonment and shattered realities, especially during the final chapter of the civil war in Sri Lanka’s North East and its prolonged aftermath. T. Vinoja treats the cloth as second skin, it is a space of shared witnessing, profuse recollections, and cleansing—breaking through the darkness of necropolitics, like the first glimmers of sunlight—an anatomy of remembrances.
Manifesting from her familial stories and of those she has met along her journey, including at refugee camps in South India, this body of work reckons with decades of strife and a collective will for truth production. Vinoja invites an immersion within dense timescapes that map historic injustices; a call “against forgetting” and the creative insistence to chart a path toward non-violent living.
The bunker is a recurring site in Vinoja’s practice, she charts it as a precarious enclosure and refuge at the height of war that lent sheltering amid totalizing destruction of homes, schools and hospitals. With heavy shelling across the Northern province, bunkers swiftly made in the landscape by filling sand into clothing and saris sown together, find themselves present as partial vignettes in her textile pieces and canvases. She recalls how her father composed bunkers using earth and palmyra foliage, while her mother cooked for the family watching out for air raids and signs of imminent danger. The use of patches from shimmering saris and cotton sarams stitched into the background of her compositions are meant to indicate the union of Tamil men and women in their fight for survival against genocidal violence. The artist recalls, “In the final weeks of war, we were forced to flee from moment to moment, on a daily basis we built and evacuated bunkers. While these constructions were our means of temporary protection, I’ve also seen bunkers used for burials. Our people had no choice but to leave their loved ones behind without final rites, and were forced to mourn them while struggling to remain alive”.
In the installation Scars made with gauze rolls, the artist depicts borderlines, wounds, and widespread landmines. The vertical striations of injury are figured as a constant infliction, that is not only physical but always also psycho-social. Vinoja notes, “Most indigenous people’s histories are not recorded in books, rather they have been recorded in their land.” Recalling the transfer of intergenerational pain, she asserts how long-drawn militarism has poisoned the soil and endangered the potential of multispecies co-existence. Even today de-mining actions continue through parts of Northern Sri Lanka and are mostly sustained by internally displaced Tamil communities as well as war widows who have already endured massive violence through decades of armed conflict[i].
In Widow, the artist reflects encounters around women’s grief, abiding struggle, and rituals of remembrance that go beyond the public manifestation of masculine narratives of memorialization[ii]. In one work, we gaze upon a circular form painted and embroidered onto white cloth that denotes a well of lamentation and arrested memory. Thousands of broken families arose from forced disappearances[iii], torture, and abductions. This series recalls mothers[iv] who were told to raise their children as fighters as well as those who still don’t know the whereabouts of their beloved and raise tired arms in protest against a hostile state[v].
History is already seated in the chair in the empty room when one arrives. Where one stands in a society seems always related to this historical experience. Where one can be observed is relative to that history. All human effort seems to emanate from this door. How do I know this? Only by self-observation, only by looking. Only by feeling. Only by being a part, sitting in the room with history.
— Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging (Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2001), p.25
Plotting a topography with dots, knots, lines, burns, and found materials, Vinoja’s works often adopt a miniature scale to outline large swathes of coastal lands and forested areas—from Kilinochchi, to Mullivaikkal, and Puthykkudiyiruppu. Within these she renders aerial mappings of evacuation routes, tents, check points, and deafening explosions. In a sense these are environmental portraits conveying what even forensic reports fall short of. They confront the viewer with multiple frontiers where ethnic discord, linguistic hegemony, and embattled perspectives of majoritarian politics and a fractured liberation struggle have ravaged human lives and ecologies.
Her Differently Able series emphasises on the challenges of persons with disabilities arising from wartime. She draws from conversations with diverse individuals who are permanently scarred with traces of violence. The afterlives of ammunition shapeshift inside these bodies. Beyond everyday atrocities in the war years, T. Vinoja’s artistic corpus also conveys how one’s very presence in such cases becomes exiled from daily life, forced into even greater marginality. She moves into abstract renditions marking entwined conditions of vulnerability and annihilation, nightmare and vigil, waiting and agitation.
This artist invites a ‘rearview’ reading of her work, the negative side reveals palimpsestic labour as a cultural document of longue durée witnessing—that is, narrative endurance. It may be read an avowal of what Christina Sharpe describes as wake work. She inquires: “even as we know that mourning an event might be interminable, how does one mourn the interminable event?”— T. Vinoja’s inaugural solo exhibition attunes to the state of wakefulness.[vi]
Several of the presented artworks at this exhibition were commissioned for the 7th edition of Colomboscope, Language is Migrant, curated by Anushka Rajendran with Natasha Ginwala. Supported by Warehouse421 Project Revival Fund (2020-21).
[ii] Jeyasanker Vasuki, A practitioner’s reflections: Women, ritual, and community healing in Sri Lanka in We Are Present: Women’s histories of conflict, courage, and survival. Edited by Radhika Hettiarachchi. International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, 2022
[iii]Jegatheeswaran Dharsha, Heeding Victims’ Voices: The Struggle of Tamil Families of the Disappeared in Sri Lanka, Just Security, March 3, 2021. https://www.justsecurity.org/75095/heeding-victims-voices-the-struggle-of-tamil-families-of-the-disappeared-in-sri-lanka/
[iv] Satkunanathan, Ambika. Whose Nation? Power, Agency, Gender and Tamil Nationalism. Sri Lankan Republic at 40: Reflections on Constitutional History, Theory and Practice, A. Welikala, ed. Centre for Policy Alternatives, 2012