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Nadia Haji Omar and the Fluidity of Language

Providence College Senior Melanie Fricchione talks with Rhode Island artist Nadia Haji Omar about the piece she created for our 2018 On the Wall project.

Through the use of various languages specific to Sri Lanka, your “On the Wall” installation suggests the overlap of various cultures. Can you identify which languages and cultures are represented in your piece and what, if any, their relationships are with one another?

The two languages depicted in the mural are Sinhalese and Tamil, two of the spoken and written languages in Sri Lanka. Predominantly the Buddhist majority uses Sinhalese and the Hindu minority uses Tamil. Many people in Sri Lanka use both in addition to English. These two languages have a complex history and relationship with one another. At one time all of these cultures and languages co-existed harmoniously but in 1956, the Official Language Act, also called the “Sinhala Only Act”, was passed in the Parliament of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). The act replaced English as the official language of Ceylon with Sinhalese and failed to give official recognition to Tamil. The impact of this decision economically, politically and emotionally on the Tamil people sparked outrage, then riots and finally culminated in the beginning of a civil war in 1983. The war lasted 26 years, took more than 150,000 lives, devastated the nation and traumatized its people in many ways.

My relationship to these languages and this culture was formed during childhood years spent in Sri Lanka (0-15 years, 1985-2001) during which time I visually observed and emotionally absorbed a great deal about these languages – all set against the backdrop of war. The third more abstract ‘language’ used in the mural is a fictional amalgamation of symbols, Arabic-like forms and gestural marks that are interspersed between the Sinhalese and Tamil letters.

Is there a parallel between the materials and techniques you’ve used and your understanding of the use of language?  For instance, dye is very fluid medium – do you view language as similarly fluid? 

The materials I selected echo certain properties that I find notable about language. The fluidity of the dye parallels the loose, malleable nature of language, particularly as it evolves over time and within various cultures. In contrast to its fluidity is the potential for writing to “fix” language much like the colored dye is “fixed” once it has adhered to a surface like the letters and marks in the painted panels.

The second part of the mural, the glass mirror mosaic tiles parallel other elements of language that I find relevant. The mirrors show how language can be fragmented as it reflects tiny parts and sections of the painted letters. It also alludes to the reflexive nature of language. Finally the interaction between viewer and the dyed panels and the mirrors is a reminder that language is constantly shifting. It is a fundamental part of our being, how we interact with the world and how we see ourselves. How we define our identity is inextricably linked to language. It is important for me to communicate that the relationship between language and people is always changing and far from static.

Installation view of On the Wall: Nadia Haji Omar. Photo: Scott Alario

I remember you mentioning in the artist talk at PC–G that this was the largest piece you have created so far. Did the scale of this work affect your process?

This mural is the largest work I have made to date. My process for the dyed panels was the same as in smaller works except using larger tools. The concept of the whole project was directly influenced by scale. My approach in painting recently has been to create a layer of detailed tiny marks over a dyed surface. The scale and time frame made this an unrealistic approach. I had been looking at a lot of different kinds of mirrored and reflective surfaces. It was very important for me to include an actually reflective element in this project. When I discovered these mirrored mosaic tiles they presented the perfect complement to the large dyed panels. They were tiny reflective glass fragments that could be applied in a dense patterned layer directly to the wall. This approach offered a way for me to dissect or separate two distinct elements of my practice. The added characteristic of this very large gallery space offered a way for the painting process to be literally pulled apart and to my great pleasure to physically insert the viewer between the two layers.

Sigiriya, the fortress that inspired this work, had a mural that depicted sacred feminine figures. Is there a significance of the absence of the feminine figures in this piece?

The original mural at Sigiriya had around 500 feminine painted figures, although only a few remain today. The mirror wall was built directly opposite this painted mural to reflect and further multiply these figures.  Over time there was an accumulation of poetry, writing and signatures on this mirror wall. Initially, the verses were mainly poetry and reflections on the painted figures; their beauty and mystique. Later inscriptions were more focused on individuals writing their names or signatures, shorter inscriptions and dates. The glaze and sheen of the mirror wall faded over time but the inscriptions having been carved directly into the surface of the wall remain today. The painted mural of feminine figures was also worn down and near vanished from exposure to the elements. The ones that remain are found in the ‘Cobra Hood cave’ section of the fortress. I eschewed any attempt to reimagine the original mural in this piece, as images of the frescoes have been so over-used in Sri Lankan visual culture. I chose instead to focus on the graffiti of the mirror wall and how the figures had made their physical and literal imprint on the wall surface. I hope that in avoiding a pure reproduction, and instead making the graffiti my sole focus it provides a space for discussion and initiates an exploration of the original site via the means of language.

Figures from the murals in the caves on Sigirya rock.

It’s interesting to think of a historical site as a place for inspiration in the contemporary art world. What specifically drew you to Sigiriya? Were there additional sites you considered approaching in the piece?

Upon accepting this mural commission I decided to reexamine my own knowledge, education and personal experience regarding the mural as art form. Part of ‘On The Wall’ series is about reimagining and redefining the mural as an art form and it was important for me to address that. Two of the most influential subjects I studied on this topic were Mexican muralism and surface design in Islamic Art and Architecture.

In my early life, I had seen some of the WPA Post Office murals that were made by Mexican artists in the USA and also had the opportunity to visit several mosques. However the first artwork that made an impact on me was the frescoes at Sigiriya, which I saw at age 12. It had a deep and lasting influence on my notions of art, history, aesthetics, value and antiquity. Even though the fortress at Sigirya is quite unfamiliar in the US, I felt it would be a good opportunity to bring it to the awareness of a contemporary American audience. It references subjects that are both important to me personally and are cogent topics for our current political climate.

By creating a mural artwork based on a wall surface that was design to reflect a mural, that itself began to embody the visual qualities of what I think substantiates a mural, I was able to come to a far more interesting set of conclusions. I landed on a position where I had to redefine and challenge what I believe is a mural and how it can function within a contemporary setting. Ultimately this is the most exciting part of the project for it enables us to look at contemporary art through the lens of the past, history and artifact, and in turn to learn about a historical site through the lens of contemporary art.


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