21 May, 2024


Romance Of Personal And Political In Contemporary Art In Sri Lanka

By Dev N Pathak

Dr.Dev N Pathak

Lecture delivered at the launch of the book, Artists Remember; Artists Narrate: Memory and Representation in Sri Lankan Visual Arts (Colombo Institute and Theertha, Colombo 2012; ISBN 978 955 4501-00-3) at the Post Graduate Institute of Archeology, Colombo, 28thSeptember 2012.

As to why art is created, there could possibly be an inexorable series of answers. Some could be mystical-conjectural alluding to the relation between artistic creativity and the divine; some other could refer to the political economy of imagination, creation and consumption. In addition to this, there has been already an unresolved tension between ‘art for the world’ and ‘art for the sake of art’; and indeed it is also possible to say today that art is primarily for artists’ sake. Sasanka Perera takes an intellectual plunge into the visual art from Sri Lanka and ferrets out a few novel answers by far untold. Thereby he deftly breathes new lease of life into the enterprise of social anthropology by studying art history at the juncture in history which some anthropologists have elsewhere termed ‘critical moments’. In very much a modern society, with deceitfully advanced capitalism at its best, and an intriguingly desperate state struggling to assert its supremacy at its worst, social anthropology is enjoined with the daunting task of locating human history in the middle of situations of crises; and of course thereby a harmony between the intellectually separated disciplines of sociology and history, politics and economics, are pushed for a much needed alliance.  Doing the same, with erudition of scholarship and sophistication of his craft, and yet in the linguistic register of the ordinary, Sasanka Perera reaffirms the slogan that originated in feminist scholarship- personal is political. It however is not all that his monograph titled Artists Remember; Artists Narrate: Memory and Representation in Sri Lankan Visual Arts eloquently promises and efficiently delivers. Perera enriches the feminist slogan by adroitly reversing the order- the political is personal too. The dialectic of personal and political underpins the art scene in Sri Lanka. It is this phenomenon, a philosophic-theoretical premium of this monograph, that renders it distinguishable from the attempts at doing art history in the region. While art historians’ incestuous intimacy with the ‘good-old days’ is never ending, especially due to the vested interest of ideological state apparatus, this book confirms a possibility of liberation from the prison of formulaic scholarship. Without compromising the aesthetic appeals of the visual art, this monograph underscores the social history in the backdrop of each creation. Without ignoring the details of creating and exhibiting, this monograph maintains its focus on the relationship between the biographical and the historical. It echoes the classical dictum of C. Wright Mills, the American sociologist who propounded the idea of sociological imagination at the dusk of Second World War, ‘when wars happen, an insurance salesman becomes a rocket launcher; a store clerk, a radar man; a wife lives alone; a child grows up without a father. Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both’. Needless to say, it summons utmost conviction and courage to present knowledge without discriminating between what is pleasant and what is unpleasant. Sasanka Perera accomplishes the feat nearly in entirety.

In this monograph memory of violence is a mediator between the artists and the work of art. And it is in the realm of memory that the romance between personal and political, biography and history, tradition and modernity surface. An irony of epistemological significance is that the romance collapses the binaries, and what remains is ‘politically expressive art’ of Sri Lanka in and after the decade of 1990s. In the history of human civilization memory has been the most coveted tool to do as well as undo politics of remembering. The modern nation state invariably seeks to tame and manipulate memory for creating an imagined community as it were. The state goes to war, with enemies from outside or an invented enemy from within, with the help of memory of patriotic heroism and posterity of nationalism. In this scheme, a particular kind of art and a particular kind of folklore would be given currency. But then, the same tool of memory also serves mnemonic devices to the artists who refuse to subscribe to the logic of status quo and seek to hear the sounds beyond silences. Artists, with a creative urge, (re)create the semblance of the experiences of the events of the past, no matter whether it was a veritable sweet-dream or a nightmare, for a process of catharsis as well as for an honest art history.

The ‘aesthetics of silence’, a coinage of Susan Sontag in the context of New York avant-garde’s art in response to the Vietnam War, is hence not a preoccupation of Sasanka Perera. The objective of the book is, in an idea borrowed from Supangkat,  ‘truth in reality’ rather than ‘truth based on morality’. Therefore the book asks, without mincing words, “what kind of history does contemporary Sri Lankan visual art narrate? What does it not narrate? Who narrates these memories and who are the consumers? What are the absences and silences in these narratives?”.  Perera, meanwhile, reflexively acknowledges the inadequacy of an artistic narrative in telling the whole of social history. For, the text is not simple and linear, and memories are not monochromatic. Also, the book presents a warning against the naivety of assuming that an artist wields the power of bringing about a radical change.  Notwithstanding, the visual art in Sri Lanka as a repository of violent memories, unfolds what could be called dialectics of art of politics and politics of art. The book manages to capture it by contextualizing the debate, discussing the instances threadbare and then pointing toward the potential future trends.

In five succinct chapters, the book unfolds the artistic responses to the violence-ravaged Sri Lanka. A sense of coming of age in Sri Lankan visual art ascends with the small town innovators invading the conventional elitist circle of urban artists. The artists, if this could be a term for the convenience of address, brought in with themselves new ideological and artistic orientation. Indeed, this has been also a factor in breaking the incestuous in-breeding of method and approach in the art circle in Sri Lanka since the advent of modernist tenets of art-making. The outlook broadened with a hermeneutic fusion of horizon and the artists’ gaze could capture the contextual-historical experiences rather than vaunted ideas/values. Most importantly, the new approach to visual art injected an inclination toward contemporary historical experiences for the aspiring artists as well as consumers of artwork. This act of redefining is revolutionary par excellence. Independent of the state patronage and in spite of the attempts of the state to obviate the memories of violence, the art scene in Sri Lanka redefined the meanings of visual arts. Some artists have altered the meanings of ‘landscapes, cityscapes and common cultural paraphernalia, thereby decontextualizing these subjects from their conventional epistemological roots located in the popular language as well as commonsensical cultural experiences’. This artistic discourse does not subscribe to ‘the conventional tourist promotional and idyllic images of cityscapes and landscapes’.  Thus, for example, Shanaathanan’s installation titled Paradise Bed ironically conveys the spooky-spiky character of the bed-located-in velvety virtual paradise. R Vaidehi and Vasuki Jeyashankar explore women’s subjectivities in encounter with rape and murder at the hands of local military personnel. The embittering irony, as a marker in the scarred memory, unfolds in the series,  Welcome to the Eastern Province and Don’t Measure Me by Amarjeeva. The gruesome consequences of war are revealed in Chandrasiri’s Broken Hands, Manamperi’s Barrel Man, and Manamperi’s Bandaged Man. While an array of personalized accounts emerges from some of the works discussed, there are also those works offering profound propositions on the idea of living and dying. Anoli Perera in her works such as Violation of Memories and Aftermath, for example, underscores the phenomenon of ‘death without a body’. The death thus assumes more macabre significance in the face of disappeared individuality of the dead in the scenario of rampant mass burial.

It is evidently no longer the art-in-nostalgia representing the civilizational acmes of a bygone time, nor is it art-in-inertia representing the political strategy to depoliticize artwork, as it were. The instances of ‘four key visual art events’, which underpin the main theses of Perera pertaining to the practice of politicking with artwork, were The Flag Project of the Artists Against War, the Peace Train Project of the Neelan Tiruchalvam Trust, the Aham Puram Exhibition jointly organized by Colombo based Theerthaa International Artists’ Collective and Jaffna based SETHU Study Site for Visual Culture, and a collaborative performance and installation art project The Maze hosted by Theerthaa International Artists’ Collective. While the first two were ideologically motivated projects, which aimed at sensitization and arousal for debates among the ordinary on the perilous consequences of war, the latter two adopted more nuanced and subtle approaches. Especially the Aham Puram Exhibition, which showcased seventy two works, was symbolically hoisted at the politically significant site of Jaffna Public Library, the destruction of which in 1985 was perceived as ‘cultural genocide,’ and the refurbishing of the same did not alleviate the impact of state sponsored destruction. The exhibition revealed the worldview of people of Sri Lanka by collapsing the semantic divide of Aham (inside) and Puram (outside). The epistemological implications of the exhibition bridged the gap between the apparent insiders (Sinhala) and the alleged outsiders (Tamil) in Sri Lanka. Yet it did not compromise on truth, which reveals the brutality at the hand of state and nefarious silence of conventional artists, literati and glitterati, and academia. The new bridges are however built upon the debris of faith in the legitimacy of the state.

The artists, post-1990s, have added socio-political significance to their works and thus unabashedly tell tales of silent experiences and memories of violence. These representations of memories vociferously narrate the hushed up epistemological consequences of living in a society where political history is ruthlessly checkered. Perera duly substantiates his multi-barrel theses with detailed references to the exhibitions in the period of ceasefire between the state and the guerilla formations of the Tamil ethnic community. The discourse emanating from these works allude to the tenuousness of politically reconstructed normal. And hence a reader of this book would ask- is there no chance for redemption! Perera would not be a motivated soothsayer in this context. With the humility of an agnostic, he would rather believe ‘nothing is really resolved except the war’. And hence, the book will make an honest attempt at recording in the art history of Sri Lanka the memories of artists as represented in their art works. With the poise of a social anthropologist, Sasanka Perera relates ‘process of catharsis’ in the time when within the theater of politics Nero still plays on lute while Rome is set on fire, so to say.

*Lecture delivered at the launch of the book, Artists Remember; Artists Narrate: Memory and Representation in Sri Lankan Visual Arts (Colombo Institute and Theertha, Colombo 2012; ISBN 978 955 4501-00-3) at the Post Graduate Institute of Archeology, Colombo, 28thSeptember 2012.  Dev N Pathak, Department of Sociology, South Asian University, New Delhi

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Latest comments

  • 1

    Singing for his supper and perhaps a promotion, Dev seems to be promoting his boss who knows little about art history but dabbles in it to boost a CV of half baked publications, un-peer reviewed publications!

    South Asian academics is plumbing the depths these days it seems and cultural studies has been turned into an excuse for jargon-filled superficialities!

  • 1

    Indeed it’s a nice cosy family affair with lots of back scratching, and pay offs: Sasanka Perera’s artist wife, Dev, the junior colleague and the reviewer who wants a promotion, his wife too, tripping on South Asia!

    Academics in the region is all about patron-client linkages and empire building with platitudes that pass for research, in the absence of independent peer review to ensure quality of publications..

    This is indeed an insult to social science, anthropology and cultural studies and shows how clientalist, lacking in depth and seriousness and non-rigerous the knowledge enterprise has becoming in Sri Lanka and beyond these days – given regional crisis in higher education and independent knowledge production!

  • 0

    Does patronage rule in anthropology as well?

    I would like to suspend judgments as i know nothing about internal academic affairs

    my point is more innocent – and a challenge as well. How can you take this to the people given the high jargon used here? Frankly I tried reading this but there did not seem to be a sufficient effort at direct communication.

    The earlier points about the collapse of education are well taken.

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