Dilohana Lekamge is a performance-based artist living in Wellington. Her practice explores notions of diaspora and the emotional distance from female issues in Sri Lanka where she was born. Louise Rutledge chatted briefly with Dilohana about her work ahead of her solo show at Enjoy, which opens 5.30pm Wednesday, August 24.
Louise: Within your latest work you have been revisiting the sites of your childhood in Newlands, filming near the homes your family occupied in the years following their migration to New Zealand from Sri Lanka. Why is it important for you to now revisit these sites and engage with them through your work?
Dilohana: I have always felt disconnected from my heritage since all of my memories have been of New Zealand, as when my family moved here I was only three. Neither the issues in Sri Lanka nor the reasons why we moved here were ever discussed.
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I have recently been looking at the work of Zarina Bhimji, an artist who creates video works made up of documentary-style footage filmed in Uganda, where she was born, and India, where her family is from. Bhimji spent most of her life in England and currently practices there. I found the visual exploration of her personal experience of diaspora intriguing as she gave it specificity by geographically locating it. Since it is currently logistically impossible for me to visit Sri Lanka, I thought I would go as far back as I could to revisit my heritage. In Newlands we stayed in four houses / flats in the two years that we lived there and these were the places where I had my first memories—many of which weren’t physically suitable for our family of five. I remember feeling uncomfortable there. All of my family members had mixed emotions about our new home in New Zealand and by revisiting our first physical homes here I am aiming to gain a better understanding of our first experience of diaspora and multiculturalism.
Louise: The moments you have filmed render the homes both incredibly specific and entirely ambiguous, through closely cropped frames and fleeting imagery—approaching them from a distance that is both physical and temporal. You frame your body in a similar way, focusing on specific actions and singular body parts, complicating assumed notions of the home—ideas of stability, singularity, and return—and your place within it. Can you touch on the relationship between representations of your body within the site?
Dilohana: I always introduce my practice as performance-based, as performance as a medium strongly suggests that it is the artist’s own body that is performing. The audience knows that this body is the artist’s, however abstracted their body may be in the work. The performance elements show the ways I attempt to revisit my origin independently. In contrast, without verbal language those houses cannot be specifically identified unless someone may know those houses themselves. By trying to be more ambiguous with my approach to that imagery I felt like it was genuine to my less concrete knowledge of those places. My Dad took me around Newlands to each place and told me about what it was like when we first moved here. Seeing and presenting those places is an exercise of revisiting through nostalgia and hazy memory.
Louise: There seems to be a current trend in photography where ideas of vulnerability are brought to the home through the infantilization of the subject, relying on a fetishised, dewy skinned, youth that romanticises bedrooms in particular as sites of innocence. It’s imagery that, for all its nostalgia, can further isolate women whose experiences don’t align with such limited representations. Your work, in contrast, revisits vulnerability as a consequence of social and political conditions, in relation to both individual and collective memories.
Dilohana: Images like those are so rife in the current post-internet era and it is something that I have tried to stay away from. The themes that are associated with that kind of content do not have any relevance to the way in which I examine and attempt to present domestic space.
My approach is largely rooted in the desire to present an example of a New Zealand multicultural home, however abstracted I may show that. I am interested in how the families who inhabit these spaces adapt to the eurocentricity of this country and whether or not it is at the expense of losing their cultural origin, especially as generations continue.
Visiting these places was as close as I could get to revisiting my place of origin. This is where I was taught the values that I thought were Sri Lankan, where we kept the things we brought over from there, where we made and ate Sri Lankan food, where we spoke to our extended family that were still there, and where we were able to speak our language and be understood. Though it was not an ideal safe space, it was a space where I felt less alien because everyone who inhabited it not only sounded and looked like me, but shared the same experience of not feeling entirely welcome when we left that space—even if that was a discussion that was only had in the years that followed.
Read more at www.enjoy.org.nz/upcoming.