Brian Hartley Blog

Brian Hartley

Sura Medura Sri Lanka residency: reflections

Apr 6, 2018 

Back in Glasgow watching the snow fall gently on an Easter Monday afternoon and reflecting on 6 weeks of sunshine and creativity at the Sura Medura residency in Sri Lanka, an inspiring, creative and immersive experience. Spending time in the company of the other artists; finding friendships, inspiring conversations, adventures in Hikkauwa and around Sri Lanka together, sharing our creative processes and explorations, and the many other parts of the experience; rice and curry, beach life, temples and landscapes sunshine and spectacular thunderstorms. Being able to focus on the creative work every day, away from the routines of everyday life, in a beautiful environment, in the sunshine, was a unique and invaluable experience, that I will treasure for a long time. Thanks to Neil, Maria and UZ arts for making it possible.


The Moving Out performance and exhibition on 24th March at Sunbeach Hotel was the culmination of our work together, featuring a selection of the individual and collaborative works that we had created, involving a wide range of media and creative approaches; sculpture, installation, drawing and painting, dance film, sound installations, video documentation, and performance. The event ran from afternoon until late in the evening and began with exhibited and film works, culminating in a sharing of performed work in early evening, a rice and curry banquet and a disco played out of a local tuk tuk and music mixed by the artists. We had a very engaged audience; from local people who had been part of our various works to curious tourists and surfers drawn in by unusual activities on the beach and artists and presenters we had met at an artists networking event in Columbo.


Reflecting on my own visual arts practice and ideas after being in Sri Lanka, I was interested to develop some work around typography and lettering following visits to China in 2016 and 2017, and beginning to learn Chinese calligraphy. Through research into Sri Lankan arts and history I had started to look at historical cave and temple paintings showing images of dance and movement and Sinhala lettering as a letterform and language that might lead to new ways for me to explore creating new ways of capturing of dance. In meeting Suba and working together, training and sharing our movement practices together, through shared interests in dance film and making performance, we developed a highly collaborative body of work which deepened my initial ideas into a much more focused investigation. Learning about Tamil culture and Bharata Natyam through Suba’s expertise opened up a more deeper way of working and resulted in a body of work integrating many elements of my practice and also opened up new collaborative approaches, in dance film, drawings, paintings, digital images and performance.

Working as a performer I began to learn a new dance practice through daily training in Bharata Natyam which found its way into a series of dance films conceived and choreographed by Suba. I worked in the studio to refine the details in the choreography and accumulated over the residency, added a precision and clarity to my movement vocabulary.  It was refreshing and challenging to learn and explore a more precise and refined movement form and through our daily class I began to understand the basic elements of the practice, inspired also by working in our studio with view of the coconut trees, fields and sights and sounds of the local wildlife, certainly very different to rehearsal studios back in Scotland! I also worked with Suba to film the dance films, in the position of being the performer and not being behind the camera on this occasion, we worked together to stage and film the work.

The performance we created was presented at the final sharing and featured an evocative and atmospheric sound score performed by Tim and Tanuja. After creating the work in the studio throughout the residency it felt time to share with an audience and it created a dramatic and powerful focal point for the audience, engaging with Tamil culture and identity and relationships, with the audience surrounding us in a small circle, it made for an intense and powerful work, I painted Tamil script on a long piece of sari fabric, while Suba sang some Carnatic Indian traditional song, and performed a Bharata Natyam dance solo, moving into a more physical duet, the sari woven into the choreography, towards the end Suba wore the sari with help from members of the audience and the piece finished on the beach. Both works feel that they have more opportunities to develop into more in-great depth investigations and we are keen to explore further collaborative potential with these works.


My photographic work developed through documenting the daily sights and experiences, in digital devices and for the first time in many years, a 35mm film camera, all of which helped refine attention to detail, colour and texture and life in Sri Lanka. I created a series of photos of Suba dancing phrases from her Bharata Natyam choreography, responding to classical Indian sculptures of the Hindu deity, Shiva, and classical sculptural depictions of dance, that we had seen in the National Museum in Columbo. Through learning more about the dance, Tamil culture and and Hindu deities through the residency offered a deeper investigation into making images of dance than I had previously been able to explore, and integrating elements of the drawings and photography  into digital prints was a useful outcome at this stage and points to an ongoing investigation in the future.

Sura Medura Sri Lanka residency: half way

Mar 15, 2018

This week marks the halfway point of the Sura Medura residency project. We have all settled into a working pattern at the Sunbeach hotel, sharing mealtimes together and then working on each of our own projects during the days, sharing ideas and developments with each other over food and evening gin and tonic watching the sunset from the beach bars lining the beach here at Hikkaduwa. It is always fascinating hearing how everyone’s work is developing, our different perspective and experiences of collaborative and creative work,  and how we are each interacting and engaging with the local community in different ways adds a level of connection to a life beyond the transient beach life in front of the hotel everyday, surfers waiting in the surf for an elusive surf break and a flurry of movement, and a multitude of selfies and tourists watching the sunset.

As much as possible Suba and I have left the beach for the creative haven of the small studio in the village, the space has been used for arts activities by local people from the the village so it feels like we are continuing the creative work here by dancing, drawing and creating here each day. As we cross the busy Galle Road from the hotel and the noise of tuk tuks, high speed buses and tourist traffic, we soon move into the slower and quieter village pace of life. The studio is surrounded by the sounds of local wildlife, each day an opportunity to see reptiles, birds, animals, insects; one day a host of noisy and boisterous monkeys crashing through the trees above us, another day two peacocks regally walking across the meadow in front of the studio being attached by a flock of other smaller noisy birds. Each day we are welcome by Mangalika and her daughter and granddaughter and each day have fresh tea, fruit juice and occasionally hand made coconut roti and sambal, a delicious spicy lunchtime treat, a friendship developing in fragments of English and shared experience between cultures, generations and lives.


Our research together has evolved into a daily class where Suba is teaching some of her Bharata Natyam practice, a classical South Indian dance, and a very different physical training to any dance work I’ve done before, requiring focus and strength to sustain accurate and still postures whilst doing fast moving rhythmic step patterns, it would take a lifetime to perfect but good to be learning gradually, step by step every day. I am sharing elements of a more contemporary improvisation practice, exploring sharing weight, contact and lifts. In learning these practices together we are also discussing how we deepen these practices into making a work together for the final presentations at the end of the residency, seeing the work gradually emerge day by day through the process of making. Currently a body of work is emerging, taking shape into a series of short dance films where I will perform a short Bharata Natyam solo choreographed and directed by Suba, to be filmed in several locations on and around Hikkaduwa. Our dialogue around the artistic work has grown into conversations around identity and politics, Tamil and Sinhala culture and it’s legacy after years of bitter conflict and political unrest, reconciliation and recent political unrest amongst other minority communities, which has flared up in other parts of the country during our stay, and has been present in conversations with local people in our travels around Sri Lanka. How this history has met European identity and culture through colonialism and independence. Through these discussions we have begun to explore ideas for creating a duet, choreographed and directed by Suba, bringing our respective performance skills and identities with the intention to explore intersections between gender, Tamil, Sinhala and European cultures and relationships. Through Suba’s Tamil cultural heritage we have been exploring Tamil identity and visiting Tamil Hindu temples and culture. In one visit to Columbo attending a Bharata Natyam dance class led by a very revered teacher in Sri Lanka, where we shared an early version of the dance material from the dance film much to the delight and curiosity of the young students in the class and their insightful questions seeing a white man dance Bharata Natyam and how we had changed the natural tempo of the dance to a much slower pace for the films.

I have been leaning to write Tamil script and characters, and exploring ways of drawing Bharata Natyam classical dance through watching Suba dance in the studio and making drawings with ink and brushes, using a calligraphic approach, which is beginning to generate some interesting ways of creating hybrid drawings of movement that are expanding my visual repertoire and connecting with seeing the typographic shapes in the Tamil and Sinhala signs here in Sri Lanka.


I have been fascinated and transported by spiritual ceremonies and rituals in Hindu temples in Columbo, Kandy and Galle, leaning about Hindu mythology and ceremonies and attending the prayer rituals, puja, in small local temples and larger more grand temples, all with intricate carvings, ancient paintings and filled with heavily scented incense and hypnotic music.


Connecting a strand of my work from home and passion for working with children and young people I have been thoroughly enjoying our interactions with a beautiful three year old, Samadhi, the granddaughter of Mangalika , whose studio we work in every day. Each day we work Samadhi joins us to play and we create short playful improvised dances, it is always joyous and so creative seeing this little girl interact with us and grow in confidence and capacity, and the joy in her mother and grandmother sharing these interactions.

Taking this interaction further I wanted to work in a local school and contacted Galle International College, where Neil’s son Jack attends nursery.  The school has been developed by a very passionate and knowledgeable head teacher with many years of teaching experience in England and she has set up a very dynamic school in Galle with many international families attending from nursery age through to school leaving age, it was a very welcoming and creative learning environment and I led a session with the nursery children. Despite planning to run a session connecting my drawing work with dance when I met the group I felt that a more creative cultural exchange could be possible, so led an improvised ceilidh with the children and staff to a soundtrack of shooglenifty and other contemporary Scottish folk bands, much to the enjoyment of the staff and children!

Galle International School. Brian Hartley workshop 6 March

Sura Medura Sri Lanka residency: arrivals

Feb 23, 2018

Arrivals in Hikkaduwa

Writing after our first week in Hikkaduwa, gathering thoughts and slightly losing track of time, 5.5 hours ahead of UK time, on the Sura Medura artists residency with a fascinating and inspiring group of artists from Scotland and England: Tanuja Amarasuriya and writer/composer Timothy X Atack from SleepdogsRob MulhollandEmma Brierley, Claire Raftery and Damian Wright from PeriplumSubathra Subramaniam

Leaving Scottish winter for Sri Lankan climate, immediately on arrival the colours, temperature, humidity and scent of the air in Columbo announced that we had arrived, and our creative residency adventure began, a journey to the small coastal village of Hikkaduwa on Sri Lanka’s south west coast

To begin, a series of short presentations on our work, many insights into the diversity of our shared experience here, the range of practice across theatre making, sound, dramaturgy, visual art, puppet making, dance  and design provides for a very fertile, experienced and open minded community to work along side and collaborate with as the weeks go by. For me, hearing Claire’s presentation of her work with Periplum Theatre reminded me of performances of provocative and innovative physical theatre that I watched and was inspired by many years ago at St Stephens Church in Edinburgh Fringe. Finding common reference points may well inform some avenues of my work here, a chance to revisit and re-evaluate my practice in some interesting new ways.

Meeting the culture here in Sri Lanka feels integral to the experience, from visiting the poignant and heartbreaking Tsunami Museum on our first day to the openness and generosity from so many local people to watching local baby turtles rescued by a small charity and released into the sea and their odds of survival and incredible ability to return to these beaches in many years to nest,  brings to mind the fragility of life and human and nature’s resilience on a daily basis, and a question to all of us in how we live and work as artists in the world.

I have spent the several days working in a wonderful small studio belonging to a friend of Neil and Maria, a creative haven filled with the sounds of nature, curious green lizards, agile squirrels, chatter of tropical birds and insects, cows and egrets and the bustle Sri Lankan daily family life,  and am currently collaborating with Subathra, a Bharata Natyam dancer and learning about Tamil culture, and dance, which is developing into a daily practice sharing elements of our respective dance practices.

Where these ideas go as we spend all more time working together, evolving into more detailed investigations, through conversations at mealtimes, in walking and exploring Hikkaduwa and further afield, practical explorations towards our presentations later in the residency will present themselves as time goes by.