To retreat from the public realm into a space of near-wilderness and solitude carried its own poetic justice.
“There will be no need to build one, a space will grow by itself.” So ended my phone call with Jaffna-based artist T. Shanaathanan, one of a series of regular updates preceding a project on which we were collaborators. Open Edit: Mobile Library, the project in question, is an initiative of the Hong Kong-based Asia Art Archive, through which the organization sends a collection of its art books, periodicals, monographs, and exhibition catalogues to locations around Asia. When Sri Lanka was identified as the library’s next destination, and Raking Leaves was invited to act as its host, the lack of a suitable venue posed no problem. As the project began, it became clear that spaces would emerge from the need to locate a conversation rather from the requirements of housing a project. Jaffna was chosen as the library’s first destination.
Jaffna, home to Sri Lanka’s Tamil-speaking community, is the capital city of Sri Lanka’s northern province. It is now the country’s twelfth-largest city; before the war, it was the second largest. Jaffna’s rapid depopulation and the displacement of tens of thousands of its civilians are among the civil war’s many grim realities. A suitable location for Mobile Library was found in the Seva Christa Ashram, a series of single-story, tiled-roof structures designed to foster meditation. The library’s temporary home in an ashram underscored the element of contemplation and study. It also sheltered the unspoken; in a city where, thirty-four years ago, an act of terrorism destroyed one of South Asia’s most important public libraries, housing Mobile Library in an ashram seemed apt. To retreat from the public realm into a space of near-wilderness and solitude carried its own poetic justice.
The opening event for Mobile Library was held outside between the many trees in the ashram’s grounds—araliya margosa, mango, tamarind, flamboyant. The clearing made a natural place in which to congregate—the audience of 300 would have been harder to fit into a building. One group of female students talked eagerly about the library. One asked how they could become designers without knowing what was going on outside Jaffna. “I want to be famous,” another chimed in. “This is an international collection of books,” replied their friend, “so maybe the outside has come here.” “To Jaffna?” someone else questioned, holding her hands around her veiled head as if to emphasize the absurdity of the idea that Jaffna could be a place where people or things of any importance might travel.
When the library moves on, and all the books disappear, its true impact will take time to register. Faith and the City: A Survey of Contemporary Filipino Art; A Strange Heaven: Contemporary Chinese Photography; The Geeta Kapoor Reader; editions of Yishu; China Post–1989; Currents in Korean Contemporary Art; six years worth of Art Asia Pacific’s “Almanacs” and 10 Years of Video Art in Indonesia 2000–2010. These books, to name but a few of the 400 titles that make up Mobile Library, present Jaffna’s and the country’s artists with an accessible reading resource like no other. By the time Mobile Library closes and the books are returned to AAA, they will have been seen over 1,500 art and design students, as well as by art professionals, teachers, and members of the Sri Lankan public.
An anticipated void, when the library leaves, may give way to conversations about building a space dedicated to contemporary art, if not in Jaffna, at least somewhere in the country. These conversations may generate new ideas. How far, for example, might a collection of books go in approximating the role of a museum? Is it possible to think of a collection of art books as the content in which questions about contemporary society might be raised? Can a library offer a viewing experience that parallels or surmounts that of an exhibition? What kinds of agency can such books provide and inspire in a generation of artists who have never lived with a museum? Perhaps Shanaathanan was correct in his prediction, even if the post-war building boom in Jaffna suggests otherwise. All that’s needed are the books.
Sharmini Pereira is Founding Director of Raking Leaves, a nonprofit independent publishing organization based in Sri Lanka.