By Janaka Samarakoon –
Beautification. Another “B” word for Chandraguptha Thenuwara, some 15 years after unveiling the first… But Thenuwara, this assiduous killjoy of the pseudo-democratic, post-war political space of this country, has still much to yell at and to oppose to and he does so with the same vehemence he stunned us with as a budding artist back then.
Beautification is at first glance pretty disconcerting. More or less like any other Thenuwara Exhibition has been over the past 15 odd years. But even for the hardcore Thenuwara fan, this year’s vintage is highly startling. How so?
We remember that we left Thenuwara last year with his minimal /conceptual series (e.g. This is not a white flag, Oil on canvass, 2012). These paintings were of course as satirical and politically committed as ever. But on an aesthetical point of view, I had some issues with them. I found them superficial and was afraid that the trouble-making ogre of Sri Lankan contemporary art had found comfort in a facile practice of art, driven only by the mojo of his iconic career.
I was wrong. Here he comes this year with Beautification, arguably the most innovative collection of works since that famous exhibition which popularized that “B” word, back in 1997.
Beautification was inaugurated on July 23rd. This date has become a ritual for both Thenuwara and Colombo art lovers. In an interview that I conducted last year, he told me that he is where he is i.e. his stance and uncompromising persistence as a “political artist”, because of a determinant July 23rd: that of the year 1983. He explained me with minute graphical details, how, on that fatidic day, he happened involuntarily to traverse the capital Colombo, being forced to become a passive spectator of what was unfolding before his eyes. It was a trip to hell and back, as he put it. Now, each year, he “commemorate[s] the un-commemorative”.
How does the commemoration proceeds this year? Entering into the gallery, one may wonder where is art. Most of the walls are naked; repainted in white, but naked. In this new installment, art is nowhere and pretty much everywhere in the gallery. Just like the phenomenon it appeals to: this particular state of oppressed democracy in our post-war society that one cannot notice at first glance for it is well dissimulated at the back of the notion of well-being and prosperity perpetuated by the state-owned media, disguised behind the specter of oh-so-convenient Terrorism, buried under the thick icing of beautification.
But Thenuwara, as skillful an artist and as astute a thinker, is no fool. He endorses once again the role of the dark oracle announcing the perils of our civil space. This pessimistic prophet sees through! He sees what lies within and underneath the beautified surface.
The floor of the Lionel Wendt gallery is paved with cement blocks. These are replicas of the highly recognizable cement blocks, which have been instrumental in government’s urban beautification campaigns running mainly in the capital Colombo. Among these blocks are some special plaques casted in white cement. Is it some sort of street art? Definitely, but these are no 3D gimmicks as we see in “real” beautification campaigns. Some of them are commemorative plaques. One recounts the decisive dates of the recent history of Sri Lanka, which leads up this curious form of today’s democracy. Another reveals scattered human bones buried under the “beautified” surface. Parts of a colossal antique-like statue of Justice lie on the pavement as if floored by a great cataclysm of ancient times. I read in it as much as the erosion of impartial justice system as that of the state of Arts and Culture.
Two of recurrent motifs of Thenuwara’s practice resurface in this exhibition as well: camouflage and barbed wires. These are, for Thenuwara, the epitome of militarization and oppression – mental for many, physical for some – maintained by the current regime over the civil society, even if fours years has gone since the end of war, which was the excuse for that kind of mentality. It’s interesting to remind too that the current beautification campaigns are largely conducted by military personnel! That’s the kind of dichotomy that Thenuwara denounces here.
On formal grounds, it’s hard to define this year’s exhibition. It’s something between a monumental installation and a small-scaled, “indoor land art”, if that could ever exist… That said, one does not need to give it a name to be knocked over by it. Yes. That’s the kind of effect it produced in me. This novel form bestows the whole experience a new dimension. It’s mind-boggling, disconcerting and highly refreshing as an artistic expression. Remaining within the perimeters of art, which is essential for an artist, Thenuwara once again denounces the status quo of contemporary Sri Lankan society and in the process renews the vocabulary of local art scene.
*Janaka Samarakoon holds a Masters’ Degree in Art History from the Ecole du Louvre, Paris. He is currently conducting a series of research on Sri Lankan contemporary art. He runs his own business in the industry of web site design and development.