University of London
Thornhaugh St, Russell Square
Bloomsbury WC1H 0XG
Thursday December 11 2014
We wanted something fairly simple to fit around the pre-Christmas preparations, and also fairly central, so looking at our alphabetical list I hesitated between n the Brunel Museum (fairly self-evident) and the Brunei Gallery, not previously known to either of us. As it forms part of London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (S.O.A.S.) – a nearly 100 year old academic institution located in the heart of London’s University area in Bloomsbury – we were expecting an ethnographic and artistic display rather as one might find at the British Museum or the Horniman.
Both of us were slightly damp so it was very pleasant to sit in the spacious but cosy foyer watching the students coming and going. There’s no cloakroom so we took our bags etc with us and photography is not allowed. The gallery occupies two floors – basement and ground floor with a roof-top Japanese garden; unfortunately because of the weather the garden was closed off and we could only peer through the windows. It has to be said that without much foliage it looked similar to some other London Japanese gardens with its crane ('not ostrich, Linda') and turtle stones; however it must offer a peaceful retreat for the students of SOAS.
Most of the gallery’s two floors were taken up with the current special exhibition, Serendipity Revealed, which was looking at modern art from Sri Lanka showcasing over 100 works by 15+ artists. The (free) catalogue is very impressive in being illustrated and including short biographies of the contributing artists, and the not very good photographs in this posting are taken from that. We certainly noticed some strong threads through many works, namely that these young people had grown up during times of war and this was very much reflected in the art – thus bullets in books, ‘objets trouvés’ (found materials) in the shape of severed limbs, barbed wire lights and so on. More attractive, though perhaps less thought provoking, were those works using what we might be seen as traditional art forms – close patchwork embroideries of salvaged sari materials, batiks large and small. The photo art seemed particularly evocative and we enjoyed the panoramas of city life and the chap doing outdoor ironing in front of Colombo’s key monuments. In many ways the exhibition felt like an extended tourist promotion.
Only a small section, as far as we could tell, was devoted to what you might call the permanent collection. With an introductory panel explaining all the various languages, some disappearing, there were examples of beautiful scripts, works of art in their own right. This was followed by displays if different devotional or other written material – books not being the only way to present the written word but scrolls and some rather intriguing fans, or what the French might call ‘pliants’, as finely decorated as any medieval manuscript you might have seen. These were the Pitaka or ‘rules’; for Buddhist monks. We were not sure from where these items had come but guessed maybe they were the gifts or collections of previous and current academics.
I suppose we need to return to see other ‘special exhibitions’ as today’s trip really only celebrated the oriental as opposed to the African artists. The gallery is an excellent adjunct for anyone wishing to explore and get to know current themes and pre-occupations for these countries and certainly gets away from the overwhelmingly euro-centric exhibitions we have been to so far.
1. Cora de Long 'Circus, Flught Bag 2011
2. Kingsley Gunatilleke 'Bulletbook 1, 2014
3. Koralegedara Pushpakumara 'Wall Plug 16' 2013
4. Bandu Manamperi 'Iron Man in front of Town Hall, Colombo, Sri Lanka 2014