Multimedia artist Anushiya Sundaralingam uses the Sri Lankan banyan tree as a metaphor for the human experience
Anushiya Sundaralingam fondly remembers the banyan tree and the temple at the foot of the lane leading from her former Jaffna family home in northern Sri Lanka.
She left in 1989 and has had to make quite another life herself, for the last 15 years in Belfast where she graduated from the University of Ulster's Art College in 1998.
Yet that banyan tree is still the inspiration for her current exhibition in Belfast Print Workshop, entitled Root. The unusual characteristic of the banyan is to throw down ‘air roots’ from its upper branches, ‘which are searching for grounding', according to Sundaralingam.
The entanglements of tree roots become a metaphor for the whole exhibition, where most pieces have the word ‘root’ in their titles. We, of course, use the term ‘roots’ to apply to human origins, and, certainly, Sundaralingam is dealing with human experience here, too.
There is a great subtlety in the way she slips between plants and people. We are often not sure whether we are looking at the banyan tree or at humanity, as roots become people and leaves become dresses – the latter transition is probably helped by the fact that the banyan has large glossy green and elliptical leaves. Thus, in the artist’s words, we can explore ‘the intricate and layered nature of belonging and identity'.
This is most evident in ‘Ala Maram’ (which simply means banyan tree), a spectacular multimedia installation, which almost dominates the relatively small exhibition space.
Made up of fragments of print work and long tresses of embroidery, often in vivid colours, it achieves an effective symbiosis of the tangled nature of roots and of human experience. The natural and organic effect of this piece belies the detailed craft that has gone into the creation of its various elements.
Sundaralingam primarily works in mixed media and is at her most effective in this guise. ‘Root’ and ‘Re-rooting’ no doubt reflect her own journey. In both cases figures/plants executed in screen-print and encaustic intermingle and appear to flourish in glass-topped mahogany boxes. Perhaps the suggestion here is that there is a vibrancy of life in Jaffna, and that she has also found this in Belfast.
In ‘Transition’ a series of blocks in dry point and embroidery may suggest the journey from one place to the next. I prefer the simpler ‘Rooted I –III’, featuring individual pieces of dry point work with vivid strands of embroidery, tendrils hanging below the frame. Without searching for hidden meaning, these are appealing decorative pieces.
I am less convinced by the more purely print works, however, such as the screen-print ‘Ravel’ and the photo-etchings ‘Place I-IV’, which lack the colour and vibrancy of the other work.
In her exhibition note, Sundaralingam describes how ‘when intimate surroundings drastically change, we require unprecedented responses and adaptation’. That, no doubt, is an understatement for the experience of the Tamils of Jaffna, and yet this exhibition is a celebration of nature and life rather than an act of mourning.
Her adaptation has failed in one respect only and that is in her vivid use of colour, which seems, whether in plant life or in dress, to be more Sri Lanka than Belfast. But we are all the better for it, and it is good to learn that another exhibition beckons at the Crescent Arts Centre in 2014, which should give the artist more space to reveal her distinctive talent.
In the meantime you can explore more of Sundaralingam's work via her website. In the Belfast Print Workshop, all the works now on show except for ‘Ala Maram’ are for sale at £300 or less, with the exception of ‘Root’ and ‘Re- root’, which are priced at £1,200 and £1,500 respectively.
Root runs in the Belfast Print Workshop until September 29.