By Gaya Nagahawatta –
Sujith Rathnayake’s exhibition arbudhaya saha aragalaya (crisis & struggle) is open to the public at the Lionel Wendt Art Gallery, until 15 February 2023.
This exhibition continues the creative processes initiated at the aragalaya site at the Galle Face Green, and raise questions for which, the citizens of Sri Lanka is yet to receive satisfactory answers. The art works consisting of paintings, assemblage, installation and mixed media pieces contain creations completed while occupying the Galle Face Green last year, and subsequently at Rathnayake’s studio in the Colombo suburbs, right upto the start of the exhibition.
At the Lionel Wendt Gallery, the first exhibit to greet the visitor, is ‘Anti-corruption eye’ an art work assembled just days before the exhibition. The teary eye, cut out of a rusty iron mesh centres onto the aluminium iris with a hand written text: ‘Audit and investigate the president, the parliament, the three forces, the police’.
Next one enters within. The seminal art work in arbudhaya saha aragalaya (crisis & struggle) is arguably the installation of the jail door with the painstakingly reproduced elements including a padlock, dating from colonial times. The door is a free-standing structure, and is accompanied by a mirror placed in parallel. A spectator in front of the see-through door, is invariably reflected in the mirror, where you can also see a padlock added to the reflected bars, against which you stand. In the mirror-image, the viewer/ spectator, is in lock-up. The title of the exhibit is simply, ‘Mirror and lock-up’. Standing on either side of this jail door, one is reminded that prison is everywhere. We are in lockup, out here, as easily as within a cell.
The next installation piece in this exhibition is titled ‘Rusted Constitution operational also during the 2022 economic crisis’. It consists of a bed made of iron, upon a canvas carpet, with the artist’s clothes on the bed, arranged as though he is lying there. The namesake of the malakada vyvasthava (Rusted Constitution) is on the floor, significantly having burnt a hole on the canvas-carpet. The rubber slippers belonging to the absent occupier of the bed, is placed, as if having been taken off, to lie on the bed. The slippers are turned in, as if ready to adorn the feet, when the sleeper awakens and is ready to step out once again. Conspicuously absent is the human being on the bed.
The two installation pieces, placed as they are in the exhibition, help transform the entirety of the gallery space into a prison cell, with the barred prison door on one side and the bed on the other end, encased within white-washed walls. The two entrances of the Lionel Wendt Gallery, concealed with the panels in place, further establish the caged effect.
Among the paintings, ‘9 May 2022 : Historic day for Sri Lanka’ is a defining piece. The tear-drop isle, Sri Lanka is ablaze in a fiery, bloody red, on this map dated 9 May.
Then we have the installation combined with painting and photography, titled ‘This is not the police’, occupying the space across the painting of ‘9 May’. It is a significant other in this exhibition. It mainly consists of the driver’s-side door of an Ashok Layland Ruby bus, re-painted in the customary dark blue of police vehicles. Beneath the window the single word ‘POLICE’ is directly antithetical to the title of the piece, while in a matte blue-black, we note the underlying formation of ACROPOLIS within the starkly visible term ‘police’. Placed among the rest of art works, and caged in his own bus with two layers of the sliding glass window and the chunk of metal distancing him from the viewer, the menacing look on the uniformed driver does not go unnoticed. But a second glance at his blood-shot eyes and red-streaked face beneath the black cap, with his complete isolation within the gallery space, show the driver to be wearing the blank expressionless of a camouflage mask, and caught up within a system from where he has no escape. The complete isolation of the driver is further reiterated also by the side mirror covered with a photo of people on the street, with flags flying high in the air, engaged in peaceful protest.
We also see five paintings, numbered 1 to 5 of the malakada panatha (Rusted Acts of Parliament). These paintings are a combination of drawing, painting and text, with some of the key sentences and phrases being specially carved of stainless steel or rusty iron, to align with the message. The wording on these borders refer to the Prevention of Terrorism Act, State of Emergency, economic crisis and such other key phrases that are being used and abused at the whims and fancies of the rulers. We see Rathnayake working with his habitual tall, thin male figure, a recurrent image reminiscent of the artist’s self. However, the men in these canvases, are not given space to raise their head and stand upright. It is only the placards with slogans either in Sinhala or English, that can show resistance.
Given the roots of arbudhaya saha aragalaya at the Galle Face Protest Site, the collaborative approach that Sujith Rathnayake has continued to work in, within the art gallery space is interesting. The exhibition is curated, publicized and presented here, through an Exhibition Committee especially formulated for this purpose. While this collaborative process enabled a particular arrangement of the artworks as described here, it also saw the removal of the reception desk from inside the gallery. By leaving the gallery space exclusively for the art work, we could enable a more engaging composition and meaningful presentation to the exhibits and their inter-connectivity and juxtaposition.
Lastly, the material used, bordering on technology and industry, connected with labour, toiling, and hardships of the person on the street, while the rust suggesting the corrosion and decay, add to the significance of the story, within the milieu of art creation. Additionally, the use of colour, the rusty orange-browns of iron oxide, yellow ochre and bronze, a streak of red here and there, blues, steel greys and cool greens, within a background of white are a sight to explore and engage in.
I believe we need to step in to Sujith Rathnayake’s arbudhaya saha aragalaya to experience lock-up within, and step out to ensure we break free of Rusty Acts or imprisonment, in or out.