For the annual Art in America Guide, published in print in January, the editors spoke to five directors of notable museums and institutions—Adriano Pedrosa of the Museu de Arte de São Paulo; Ibrahim Mahama of the Savannah Centre for Contemporary Art, Tamale, Ghana; Sharmini Pereira of the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Sri Lanka; Hoor Al Qasimi of the Sharjah Art Foundation; and Roobina Karode of the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi—about their work in and around the Global South.
The founding committee for the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) Sri Lanka convened in 2016. Among the members were independent curator and publisher Sharmini Pereira; Suhanya Raffel, now director of the M+ Museum for Visual Culture in Hong Kong; and Ranmali Mirchandani, former arts manager at the British Council in Sri Lanka. The MMCA, the island country’s first modern art institution, opened just three years later in Colombo. Below, Pereira, its chief curator, speaks about building an institution from the ground up.
In February 2022, the museum moved to a new space. We were previously in a private building—a tower block, where visitors had to go up in an elevator. Now we are in a shopping mall. I jumped at the chance to get this site, because I think one of the most important principles behind MMCA Sri Lanka is that it should be for public benefit. In Sri Lanka, museums, which are mostly national endeavors, don’t look at public engagement the way we think they need to. We relish being in a space that isn’t commonly associated with art, so we can begin to break down conventional ideas of what a museum should stand for or look like. A museum is more than a building. It’s about a set of relationships that come from outside and inform its practices.
Right now, we’re in a developmental phase, training an entire team of professionals to work in a museum environment. In Sri Lanka, that’s a huge challenge, because we don’t have many such people. Art historians and curators educated in modern and contemporary art are few and far between. We have one experienced conservator in the country, but no one who can restore and conserve works on paper or photo-based work. We don’t have exhibition designers, assistant curators—I’m involved in training personnel for all these positions. My job is coordinating all the moving parts. And I like the way we’re building something from scratch.
We have a staff of 40, but just 10 are full time. And none has ever worked in a museum before, including myself. Twenty-five serve as visitor educators. They come from a wide variety of backgrounds and are the point of contact for our audiences, helping people navigate the exhibitions and engage in conversations, which is done in three languages. From the time we launched, we’ve taken a trilingual approach to our public programs, social media, press releases, exhibition didactics, and signage. Sri Lanka has three national languages—Sinhala, Tamil, and English—but no other cultural institution, out of 120, has implemented this practice. We’re building glossaries that reflect the untranslatability of certain terms. Language is one of the key ways we’re making what we do more accessible.
I hope this museum inspires creatives in Sri Lanka to think they can have a credible career in the arts. There is a community here that wishes to build a larger platform, where we can all be heard and seen. One of the reasons that some artists want to leave Sri Lanka is because they feel they can’t have an effect. I hope they will recognize us as an institution that wants to exhibit their work and listen to their stories, and that we can start collecting that work, so it can reach schoolchildren, tourists, and people contemplating careers in the arts.
In 2022 a people’s movement in Sri Lanka united individuals from all walks of life to protest economic difficulties, and bring down a corrupt regime. I believe the spirit of that movement will continue to activate the country. MMCA Sri Lanka has a place in a future where change is not just dreamed of, it is essential.
Banner images, left to right: school students at the MMCA exhibition “One Hundred Thousand Small Tales,” 2019; Susiman Nirmalavasan’s installation White Curtain and Women ( 2016) on view in 2022; Sharmina Pereira [illustration by Denise Nestor]; visitors to the exhibition “Encounters”; title wall for “Encounters” [all museum images courtesy MMCA Sri Lanka].