In a society in which direct speech is censored, indirect speech often has a better chance at getting through. Art is indirect speech. And artists, for a long time, have been active in speaking out when others have remained silent. Often because the unique medium of art provides a mode of expression that can often pass under the radar of state and social censorship.
Note that when I am referring to ‘art’ I am generally talking about that genre known as ‘contemporary art’, as it is here that we have seen much of the critique of social issues in current times. This is something Sri Lankans appear to have very little appetite for. Maybe we shouldn’t blame ourselves for it, as contemporary art, with its abstract and cerebral approach, can often require a lot of pre-existing knowledge to fully understand. This kind of art is also hard to access, because it is rarely shown and advertised in a manner that is easily accessible to a broad public.
These issues notwithstanding, contemporary artists make very strong and clear critiques of social issues, especially related to minorities and the conflict. Since the early nineties, from what has been dubbed the 90’s movement, in fact, we’d be hard-pressed to locate a single reputed contemporary artist who hasn’t touched on Sri Lanka’s ethnic problem in the course of his or her career.
Much of this critique has been centred around the Tamil issue and the war, but a smattering of works relating to post-war ethnic/minority issues is slowly beginning to emerge. Much of this critique has also been launched by artists hailing from the majority community, but more recently minority artist voices have also come to prominence.
The work of Chandragupta Thenuwara for instance is seminal. His series ‘barellism’ is a significant statement against a repressive, authoritarian regime of control. Thenuwara uses Barrels as a visual element in his installations to symbolise the encroachment of militarism into the everyday landscape of Sri Lanka. Other artists such as Koralagerada Pushpakumara and Manori Jayasinghe have produced works which have focussed on similar themes, with their work that heavily focused on barbed wire.
Jagath Weerasinghe, a key figure in Sri Lanka’s contemporary art scene and often regarded as one of its primary progenitors, produces work that discusses violence at its widest meaning. He dissects ideas such as nationalism, heritage and identity to understand how deep-seated violence is often embedded in our day-to-day interactions and life. His work, especially after his landmark painting ‘the crumbling of the stupa’, heralded a turning point in Sri Lanka’s art scene, influencing a firm socio-political direction. Other artists from the Theertha Artists’ Collective, which Weerasinghe founded, such as Pradeep Chandrasiri, Bandu Manamperi and Anoli Perera, have also formed a bastion of active artistic critique.
Artists from minority communities have recently emerged as a powerful voice. What has become known as ‘the Jaffna School’, given leadership to by T. Shanathananhas been foremost in this regard. His work, and of much of his students, is firmly rooted in the immediate and personal experience of violence and conflict. His work, Cabinet of Resistance, is an innocuous seeming installation that detailed ways in which ordinary Tamils adapted their lives to years of conflict and suffering. His book The Incomplete Thombu, published with Sharmini Perera’s Raking Leaves, takes the form of a land registry and is a poignant reflection on displacement and loss. Raking Leaves, itself a groundbreaking publishing company known for its conceptual art books, will soon release the A to Z of conflict, an extensive work on the conflict encompassing ten local artists.
Other artists from Jaffna and Batticaloa like S.P. Pushpakanthan (whose meditative and complex reflections on wartime trauma makes for some compelling art work) M. Vijitharan, Susiman Nirmalavasan and Nalini Joseph form a bastion of emerging artists from the North and the East whose voices will increase in influence as the art scene evolves into the post-war future. Galleries such as the Saskia Fernando Gallery have been instrumental in seeking out and promoting the work of such artists.
With the advent of social media, and more attention being focused on Sri Lanka’s art scene, contemporary art is slowly becoming more and more visible to the general public. With more public engagement and interest, these and other artists work can potentially create crucial public conversations. Through contemporary art’s supra-linguistic intervention comes the power to subvert dominant ideas and penetrate into a deeper understanding of what it means to be in a peaceful Sri Lanka today.