This research project set out to investigate the role of artistic practices in how members of the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora in London come to terms with their everyday existence as migrants and refugees. This specific project aimed to enhance the understanding of relationships between mobility and belonging, particularly when the act of migration is involuntary.
The research developed as ethnographic fieldwork where improvisation and serendipity are active elements in the prestructured process of investigation. I interacted with people at refugee centres, religious institutions, streets, and private homes; their situations varied from well-established second-generation migrants to being in hiding in response to a deportation order that threatened to return them to an environment where they would be imprisoned or killed.
It did not seem plausible to focus on Tamil practitioners of contemporary visual art, as such practitioners are very uncommon in Tamil communities. But, after a few months, I had met seven artists, all of whom were interested in working with me. One of them lived in Belfast, which extended the study to this city. To improve my understanding and strengthen the video that became part of our participatory practices, I incorporated a journey to Jaffna, Sri Lanka. The fieldwork lasted eighteen months (March 2012 to August 2013). The artists are presented in more detail in the Participants section.
The artists turned out to be marginalised within their own communities as well as within the British art scene. The reasons for this exclusion became one of the main subjects of the study. It was shown that these artists lack institutional reassurance; they receive less education, funding, and curatorial support than white British artists. In addition, Tamil cultural values, institutionalised into social relationships and enacted by friends and family members, are at odds with the uncertain position of the full time artist. This uncertainty is further affected by the collective memory of thirty years of civil war and incessant discrimination in Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, the artists who have participated in this study are all examples of the possibility of challenging or negotiating positions ascribed by institutional frameworks. The details of these findings and their frameworks of nationalist ideologies in relation to aesthetics of everyday life will be published in a research article in the journal World Art vol. 5, issue 1, in 2015.
The study has further shown that the participants’ diasporic existence does not constitute a linear journey from a stable home to a new belonging in a different place. Their everyday lives are part of constant movements between here and there, in which they must learn how to reconnect with fragmented memories, displaced skills, lost objects, and confused feelings to make sense of being in-between what was left behind and what might become of the future. This situation of everyday work was presented as the exhibition Homing and Migrating at Gallery Tegen 2, Stockholm, which also emphasised the centrality of movement for those who do not leave their initial home.
As an interdisciplinary scholar, I explore various media to convey different aspects of my research. The current exposition illuminates relationships between the artists and myself as a researcher, and how these relationships influenced our collaborative knowledge production. The format provides an excellent way to present the research as ongoing. This is addressed in particular through the video, but also through the essay, where details of the shared authority of the working process is described and situated within a theoretical discussion. The Tamil artists’ use of their art practice to explore their multiple belonging does not have a conclusive end; it is a continuous part of their daily work to create a sense of belonging. In this I follow Tim Ingold (2011, 2013) who argues for the inclusion of open-ended presentations in order to maintain knowledge as emergent, from fieldwork exchanges towards the not yet perceivable.
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Ingold, Tim (ed.). 2011. Redrawing Anthropology: Materials, Movements, Lines (Farnham, UK: Ashgate)
———. 2013. Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture (London: Routledge)