Celebrating South Asian Art: Interview with Annoushka Hempel, founder of the Colombo Art Biennale

2nd December marks the opening of the much anticipated, 4th annual Colombo Art Biennale (CAB), the world’s largest and most significant celebration of contemporary South Asian art and culture.

Attracting over 2,500 visitors in its last edition, this year’s CAB, which is themed ‘Conceiving Space’ is curated by Alnoor Mitha and seeks to reimagine traditional concepts of the ‘spatial’ in relation to boundaries and engagement. It will focus on emerging talent, including over 60 international and local artists, among them Faiza Butt (UK/Pakistan), Cristina Rodrigues (Portuguese) and Chila Kumari Burman (British/Asian)

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Dr. Priyantha Udagedara
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Abdul Halik Azeez

The event itself, was founded by gallerist and cultural ambassador Annoushka Hempel in 2009, its mission being to raise the profile of artists in this fast developing market. We are so happy to have had the opportunity so speak with Annoushka about the upcoming edition and to have her insight on what is certain to be among the top cultural experiences of the year!

Annoushka Hempel



ArtAttack: What inspired you to found the Colombo Art Biennale?

Annoushka Hemple: CAB was founded in early 2009 in the midst of the armed conflict in Sri Lanka, at a time and climate when being an artist was even more challenging than ever. In spite of this, it was only artists who were able to express themselves freely due to active censorship. It struck me that many of the artists’ works I was seeing hidden in their studios was powerful and impressive. It was evident that many Sri Lankans were not aware of the local artistic talent.  It seemed only right to give these artists the visibility they deserved.  It was perhaps the craziest time to begin such a project but also an important time in terms of it being a project with a strong vision and mission: To bring different artists of different cultural backgrounds and different schools of thought together under one roof and unite them under one theme ‘Imagining Peace’..

AA: Is there anything you are particularly excited about in this year’s event?

AH: The development of the fourth edition of the Colombo Art Biennale sees CAB as a South Asian hub in terms contemporary art.  ‘Conceiving Space’ features a diverse and invigorating line-up of creatives spanning from visual and performance platforms to architects engaging with local communities, and interactive workshops as well as an array of exciting social events.  

High profile artists and architects such as 2015 Turner Art Prize winners Studio Assemble, Venice Architecture Biennale German Pavilion representative Alex Lehnerer,  Dutch artist Madelon Vriesendorp, RA OBE Will Alsop, Balmond Studio as well as 2010 Sovereign Prize Winner Pala Polupithiya amongst others will be collaborating and working with  local community members of Slave Island through workshops to conceive spaces in which artistic activity is created and displayed to bring both members of local and international communities together through the arts.

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Rajni Perera

With an additional focus on South Asia and emerging Sri Lankan talent, artists have been asked to re-imagine and ‘conceive space’ in which new levels of engagement and dialogues can take place. Visitors will be able to experience this through our carefully curated, dynamic programme.  

AA: Do you find that South Asian arts are underrepresented globally? And if so, how do you hope the CAB will help to change this?

AH: When travelling to art events around the world and whilst in discussion art professionals about contemporary art of Asia, it seems that countries from Japan all the way down to Thailand are included in the discussion.  However South Asia, with maybe the exception of India, tends to be excluded from the Asian Art bag.  The work of artists from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have much to share in terms of their strong narrative context.  However, it is only with the grouping of them together and by presenting the individuality of their works in a collective manner, that the arts from the South Asian region could be given the visibility they deserve. 

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Chila Kumari Burman

AA: Who are some of the established artists working as mentors this year?

AH: These are particularly artists originating from the Theertha artist collective, such as Jagath Weeresinghe, Pala Polupitiya and Bandu Manamperi to name a few.

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Fira Rahman

– India Irving

 The 2016 Colombo Art Biennale will take place across 10 different famous sites around Colombo; 2-20 December, 2016; For more information: http://colomboartbiennale.com/


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