T. Vinoja’s stitched textile landscapes might at first appear like ordinary maps, but on closer inspection they reveal the violent history of ethnic cleansing and civil war in northern Sri Lanka. The artist was born in 1991 in Kilinochchi district, which was carved out of war-torn Jaffna district in 1984. Kilinochchi fell under the control of the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam during the civil war which began in 1983 until the Sri Lankan army took over the area between 2008 and 2009. Vinoja’s work, freehand embroidered and detailed with patches and rework, stems directly from these events and their consequences. She interweaves her own life story with the experiences of people she has met in refugee camps and other displacement sites, especially those who were disabled, orphaned or widowed in the genocide committed by members of the Sinhalese majority, often with government support.
Vinoja treats textiles like skin and like archives of memories and scars. Natasha Ginwala, in the press text for the exhibition, sees Vinoja’s art as “a space of shared testimony, abundant memories and cleansing”. Old and damaged clothes are useful for making tents and bunkers, but also for dressing wounds or covering the dead. The bunkers – makeshift structures handcrafted by her father using Borassus leaves, sarees and clay – allowed Vinoja and her family to find refuge and survive as they fled the conflict areas; they appear repeatedly in his work. In bunker and me, 2022, a stitched human figure, the artist perhaps, finds a moment of rest. Around her, a dense tangle of black cross-stitch threads evokes palisades. Whether something is a trap or a shelter depends on how you see it. Sometimes, in Vinoja’s works, the accumulations of threads imply geographical features; other times they read as single lines. In Memories emerge, 2022, for example, the points are superimposed on each other in a confused manner; slowly the image – a landscape with figures and coconut trees – is revealed.
The ink drawing Mullivaikkal, 2019, is named after the region the artist calls home. We see a landscape filled with angled crutches – another Vinoja leitmotif – along what looks like a bay. Debris of dwellings and personal effects can be seen filling the frame tightly. In his “Differently Able” series, 2016– we see stitches, patched wounds and burns representing the permanent afterlife of wounds. Vinoja’s job is to come to terms with loss and recover from trauma. The act of sewing, with its meditative repetitive gestures, is a way of coping with these conditions. In a mixed-media drawing, we see shapes reminiscent of severed limbs or corpses, made using fragments of sari borders and other pieces of fabric, on a field with grassy patches and bushes. Vinoja embroiders these torn patches and edges with red threads to signify bleeding. It is mainly the color that makes it obvious that they should be seen as notches and not, for example, as fences.
In scars, 2021, the only installation in the exhibition, strips of bandages hung from the doorframe located between the two rooms of the gallery. As people passed, the bandages fell into place and lined up to depict silhouettes of people, bunkers, and boats. The lower edges of the strips of fabric are soaked in red, suggesting severed limbs, dripping with blood. This passage embraced the essence of the show: an impending story that we constantly return to and go through, but can never truly get over.