Posts Tagged ‘barrelism’


Introspection that the War forced upon Artists Anoma Wijewardena and Chandragupta Thenuwara

In Thoughts on May 22, 2011 by azybazy Tagged: , , ,

The aim of this post is to highlight the way in which Sri Lankan artists Anoma Wijewardena and Chandragupta Thenuwara responded to the ethnic war through their works of art within the theoretical frameworks of the alternative narrative, memory, nationalism and militarization. In doing so, this research paper shall also analyze two other factors. Firstly, it shall identify whether the response of the artists created an alternative narrative which differed from the ‘state narrative’. Moreover, it shall also attempt to identify the limitations these artists faced in expressing their voice and perspectives in a nation where narratives that do not support the interest of the state are censored. Secondly, this research paper shall highlight the attempts made by these artists in light of a social activist who has a larger social agenda.

The rationale for choosing the artists Anoma Wijewardena and Chandragupta Thenuwara among many in the art circles are due to the following reasons. Firstly, due to the fact that their works of art have gained immense recognition in Sri Lanka and elsewhere for their creativity and style. Whilst Wijewardena has her paintings exhibited in the galleries of London, Brisbane, Singapore Dubai, V&A Museum and the House of Commons (Anoma Wijewardena’s Official Website, 2010), Thenuwara’s works have been included in the collections of the Queensland Arts Gallery, Fukouka Asian Art Museum, John Moore’s University of Art Collection and the Fine Art’s Museum in Udmurtia ( website, 2010). Secondly, they have both addressed the issue of the ethnic war in their pieces of art extensively and effectively. For example Wijewardena dedicated her work that represent her response to war in an exhibition named ‘Quest’ which took place at the National Art Gallery in Sri Lanka. Furthermore, Thenuwara curated the exhibition named ‘Visual Responses During the War’ at the Lionel Wendt Gallery and the Harold Pieris Gallery in 2010.

Finally, and most significantly, I chose Wijewardena and Thenuwara due to the fact that their works of art are different from each other. For example Wijewardena’s work embraces the medium of digital art and video installation which incorporates elements of images, colors, words, sounds and movement. Moreover, her photographs are deconstructed, layered, and manipulated which range from stark reality to the surrealism (Wijewardena’s Official Website, 2010). However, Thenuwara provides alternative art education that functions on an ideological position different from the conventional. For example, his concept of ‘Barrelism’ that is represented through actual barrels is very significant as it incorporates an actual artifact as a work of art. Hence these variations in terms of Wijewardena’s and Thenuwara’s approach in responding to the ethnic war will be an interesting study in order to understand the various ways art allows one to respond to a social issue such as war.

Anoma Wijewardena’s Art

I have selected two of her works of art that was exhibited at ‘Quest’ titled ‘Check point by Hindu temple, Colombo’ and ‘Camplife’ (Wijewardena’s Official Website, 2010) for the purpose of analyzing Wijewardena’s response to the ethnic war. I chose the above pieces from this exhibition as it depicts the struggles of ordinary Sri Lankans in the face of both natural and man-made disasters (Wijewardena’s Official Website, 2010). Furthermore, these works of art are also significant as they have been layered, fused, blurred, and sharpened thereby revealing Wijewardena’s mark as a new media conceptual artist.

‘Check point by Hindu temple, Colombo’ is an interesting piece that is layered with multiple meanings. It is a painting that has a checkpoint on the pavement of the road adjoining the wall of a Hindu Temple. It is only possible to see the top of the Hindu Temple as the wall covers the depiction of the rest of the building. Furthermore, this work of art also shows a motorist travelling on the road passing the check point.

At first glance, this work of art seems to be very colorful as it includes many bright colors. For example the wall is in bright red and white, the temples are in silver and gold and the check point is in bright green. Hence initially the use of color in this painting for me presented a rather sensational and a rather delightful experience. However, if one looks closely it is evident that it is the opposite of my initial sensation that is presented. This is clearly brought out through the representation of gloom and dullness in the sky. The fact that the sky, which traditionally symbolizes hope is in grey. Consequently, a color that is commonly used to depict sadness, uncertainty and anguish. Henceforth, I believe that Wijewardena is stimulating her audience to think deeper about the contradictions that are presented in this work of art through the use of colors.

Moreover, I feel that the artist is making a very political statement through the depiction of the Hindu temple and the checkpoint together. Firstly, it highlights the way in which the state, which is represented through the presence of the checkpoint, is disgracing the religion that has the second largest followers in Sri Lanka. Furthermore, the state’s the primary justification for implementing check points is to prevent terrorists from causing harm to the civilians and those who hold important positions in the state. The fact that this checkpoint is situated right next to the Hindu Temple reveals two interesting factors. Firstly, it clearly shows the way in which the state posits those who belong to this religious group as a threat to the sovereignty of the nation. Secondly, it invariably posits this religion as one that symbolizes terrorism in Sri Lanka. In fact, Anderson (1983) defines a nation as an imagined political community, which is both inherently limited and sovereign and also mentions that the nation, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail, upholds a deep horizontal comradeship. Moreover, Smith (2001) mentions that a nation is an ideological movement for attaining and maintaining autonomy, unity, and identity for a population which some of its members deem to constitute an actual or potential nation. According to the above definitions of a nation, it is clearly evident that the incorporation of a checkpoint adjoining the Hindu temple clearly disrupts the concept of a nation as one ethnicity/religion is posited as harmful.

Henceforth, I believe that Wijewardena is responding to war by highlighting the existence of an ‘Ethnic Nationalism’ as opposed to ‘Civic Nationalism’ in the war trodden context of Sri Lanka. Harris (2009) mentions that ‘Ethnic Nationalism is collectivist, illiberal and contradictory to democratic citizenship because it defines its group as a community that belongs to a particular ethnicity’. I believe that Wijewardena is portraying the existence of ‘Ethnic Nationalism’ as opposed to ‘Civic Nationalism’ which is antithetical in character, inclined towards an inclusive definition of the nation as a community of equal citizens (Harris, 2009). I believe that the artist is promoting the concept of ‘Civic Nationalism’ due to its benign characteristic and its complementary nature to ‘democracy’ through this work of art. Therefore, I feel that Wijewardena is criticizing the form of nationalism that is promoted by the state through the juxtaposition of the Hindu Temple and the checkpoint effectively. Thus, it is evident that Wijewardena’s response to the war is not only emotional, but is also political in nature.

Moreover, De Mel (2007) mentions that a ‘militarized society is one where the military has taken ascendency over civilian institutions and is predominantly and visibly relied upon to police and regulate civilian movement. Furthermore, she also states that “checkpoints inhabit ordinary, daily routines in a manner that naturalizes and masks our own embeddedness within it’. I believe that the above notions resonate with the intention of Wijewardena in depicting a checkpoint in this work of art. I feel that Wijewardena is also highlighting the process of surveillance one goes through even in their daily routines through the inculcation of a checkpoint. Interestingly, Hyndman and de Alwis (2004) mentions that “Nowhere has checkpoint culture become more developed than in Sri Lanka”. Therefore, it is evident that Wijewardena is implicitly criticizing the militarized nature of Sri Lanka because it threatens the right to ‘freedom of movement’.

Significantly, the process of surveillance is so entrenched that it is symbolized through the red and white stripes in the wall that remind us of sarongs, which is the most comfortable garment for a physically disabled person. This technique used by the artist clearly resonates with the situation of civilians, especially ones who belong to the Tamil ethnicity. Even this aspect is brought out clearly through the depiction of the stripes all over the Hindu Temple wall whilst only a very few extending to the road. Additionally, Wijewardena creatively highlights the way in which the persons on the motor bike are not subject to a serious form of disability in comparison to those who belong to the Tamil ethnicity through the blurring effect of their faces. I feel that Wijewardena shows the Tamil community as more deprived than the Sinhalese community because they cannot travel as and when they please due to the strict process of registering that is required only for them. Hence it is evident that the artist is making a very political statement against the practices and approaches of the state in seeking a resolution to the ethnic war through unequal treatment.

Wijewardena’s ‘Camplife’ is also another significant piece to analyze in order to understand her response to the ethnic war. This work of art situates a female child in the midst of a camp that is abundant with household items including a mat, gunny bags, utensils, a basket and other items. Interestingly, everything except for the face of the child is blurred. This work of art is definitely a product of new media as the photograph has been manipulated, sharpened and layered to provide a surreal effect.

Firstly, it is rather interesting that Wijewardena has painted a picture of a child as opposed to a grown man or woman. This attempt made by the artist clearly shows her way of highlighting an alternative narrative about war through the lens of a child. This is a rather interesting move made by the artist as it also highlights her interest in the needs and rights of a child.

I believe in this painting Wijewardena has used her ‘individual memory’ of her childhood to present catastrophic repercussions of war on the life of a child on a war trodden context in Sri Lanka. Jelin (2003) mentions that ‘individual memories are always socially framed. These frameworks bear the general representations of society its needs and values. They also include the worldview and language of a society or a group’. The fact that the child in this painting appears to be sad and blocked by many utensils and objects within the camp clearly shows her entrapped state physically and psychologically. I believe that Wijewardena is using her individual memory of childhood to paint a picture in contrast to that in order to highlight the plight of a child who has been affected by the consequences of war as opposed to a child who has not been affected by war, like her childhood. Moreover, I believe that through this sorrowful depiction of the child, Wijewardena is also presenting the way in which the child is deprived of her right to play as a result of war.

The fact that this child is living in a refugee camp clearly shows the social and economic instability the war creates. Furthermore, the fact that the mat that is depicted in the painting is closed as opposed to being open is also rather interesting. This is because the folded mat indicates that the child is not able to sleep due to fear of possibly either being abducted, raped or being haunted by the memory of traumatic experiences. Henceforth, it is evident that Wijewardena is responding to the war by highlighting the injustices that are faced by children effectively through her works of art. Interestingly, I believe that Jelin’s (2003) following statement is very appropriate in understanding the agenda of Wijewardena in this piece of work. ‘Actors and activists use the past, bringing their understanding and their interpretations about it into the public sphere of debate. Their intention is to establish/convince/transmit their narrative, so that others will accept it’. I feel that this statement is relevant to Wijewardena because she too is transmitting the narrative of this child about the consequences of war to her audience.



Chandragupta Thenuwara’s Art

In order to analyze Thenuwara’s response to the ethnic war, I shall analyze his piece of art titled ‘Barrelism Tourist Map’ at the ‘Visual Responses During the War’ Exhibition that was held at the Lionel Wendt in 2010 and also this exhibition itself as an initiative in highlighting the works of art of contemporary Sri Lankan artists. I chose these particular works due to two reasons. Firstly, ‘Barrelism Tourist Map’ explores the concept of ‘Barrelism’ in a creative and unconventional manner. Secondly, due to the fact that the ‘Barrelism Tourist Map’ and the exhibition are contesting the practices of the state effectively through forms of art.

The website (2010) mentions that the concept of ‘Barrelism’ was coined by Thenuwara in 1997 in a public declaration at an International Artists Camp in Sri Lanka. Moreover, this website mentions that until then he had chosen to draw the human figure but on his return to Sri Lanka he found the capital drawn into war. Thenuwara mentions that barrels have occupied the space around Sri Lanka so much so that he was inspired to draw ´Barrelscapes´ instead of landscapes.

The ‘Barrelism Tourist Map’ is a Sri Lankan map that does not only point out conventional interests of tourists such as archeological sites, historical places, wildlife, places that promote sports, leisure and nature but also places where there are barrels functioning as barricades. Interestingly, in pointing out the places where barrels exist, Thenuwara manages to conform to the requirements of a tourist map as it highlights ‘spaces of culture’. I would like to term the barrels as ‘spaces of culture’ because ‘barrels’ play a key role in highlighting the forms of culture that is promoted in Sri Lanka. Significantly, right below the Sri Lankan map in ‘The Barrelism Tourist Map’ Thenuwara also showcases a range of barrels in different designs and colors. I chose to interpret this aspect as Thenuwara’s attempt to highlight that barrels do not only highlight only one form of culture but many.

However, I believe that his primary motive in representing barrels as a ‘space of culture’ is to highlight the culture of militarization in Sri Lanka. De Mel (2007) mentions that Cynthia Enloe defines militarization as ‘a step-by-step process by which a person or a thing gradually becomes controlled by the military or comes to depend for its well-being on militaristic ideas’. I believe that Thenuwara’s concept of Barrelism strives to highlight the way in which the military is playing an immense role in controlling the lives of citizens and their movement. The fact that this map has barrels drawn all over the island clearly shows their dominance and rooted presence.

Secondly, I feel that Thenuwara highlights barrels as a ‘space of culture’ as it attempts to highlight the fact that anyone who does not conform to the political agenda of the state are not tolerated. I believe that Thenuwara is attempting to present these barrels as metaphorical presence of ‘barriers’ for those who believe in alternative strategies in resolving the conflict rather than ‘fighting to gain peace’. For example journalists such as Richard De Soyza, Lasantha Wickramatunge and others who were against the ideologies promoted by the state were assassinated due to the immense amount of ‘barrels’ that represent ‘barriers’. This is because they did not conform to the interests of the state. Henceforth, I believe that the barrels highlighted in this tourist map is very significant as they highlight the closed and militaristic culture the state is promoting in Sri Lanka along with the tourist attractions.

It is also interesting to note that Thenuwara highlights this concept of Barrelism in a tourist map due to the following reasons. Firstly, it highlights the way in which Thenuwara camouflages it in a map that is very colorful and vibrant in nature, due to the various colors that are used to categorize tourist attractions. Therefore, by placing colorful barrels in a colorful map he does not draw very special attention to the form of social protests he is making through this work of art. Consequently, this may have been done purposely in order to certainly highlight his alternative perspective of militarization without getting his work concealed in a nation where everything that does not conform to the political agenda of the state is censored. Secondly, it highlights the way in which Thenuwara is drawing attention to the form of culture that is being promoted in Sri Lanka to the international community. I believe that Thenuwara made a conscious effort to place barrels on a tourist map in order to draw the attention of the west which supports freedom of expression, free press and a civil society.

I consider the exhibition ‘Visual Responses During the War’ curated by Thenuwara as a work of art because he brings together works of art by other artists. He brings in the works of experts such as Anoma Wijewardena, Jagath Weerasinghe and Kingsly Gunatileka along with Anura Krishantha, Kusal Gunasekera and Chammika Jayewardene who are establishing their careers as artists in Sri Lanka. The conduction of this exhibition is rather interesting to analyze on many levels because it also highlights Thenuwara’s response to the ethnic war effectively. Firstly, it shows that Thenuwara does not only respond to the ethnic war through his art alone but also through the works of other artists. Consequently, this shows Thenuwara’s attempt in bringing together like minded artists in order to voice out the concerns of artists in a collective manner for purposes of effectivity. The fact that he is highlighting alternative voices to the consequences of war clearly shows that he does not merely want to present his thoughts and perceptions. However, he also wants to create a social and political change in Sri Lanka by stimulating the Sri Lankan public to critically think about the ideologies and practices of the state. In that sense, I feel that Thenuwara is making a very strong case by presenting the existence of alternative voices to the Sri Lankan public.

Nonetheless, it is also interesting to note that although Thenuwara is making a very strong political, it is not presented in a way to attract the masses in Sri Lanka. I believe that it does not attempt to publicize it to the masses due to the following reasons. Firstly, this exhibition was publicized only in English newspapers such as the Sunday Times, Sunday Observer, The Sunday Leader and the Daily Mirror. Advertising an event in English newspapers can only create awareness to a comparatively smaller audience due to the popularity of these newspapers amongst the English speaking community. Secondly, the fact that this exhibition was chosen to take place at Lionel Wendt and the Harold Peiris Gallery clearly denotes a sense of elitism and exclusivity. Therefore, it is evident that the reach of the alternative voice created through these works of art would not have been far.

I believe that Thenuwara had no choice but to present his work in a space of elitism in Colombo 7 and mediums that reach an exclusive audience. This is because if an individuals attempts to challenge the ideologies of the state, his work and his life is at risk in an ‘almost’ autocratic political situation in Sri Lanka,. Consequently, this not only highlights the pathetic situation of the inability of an individual’s right to freedom of expression, but also measures taken by artists to balance out their response to the war and ensuring the probability of getting their work censored.


Wijewardena and Thenuwara’s Roles as Social Activists

Therefore, one can come to the conclusion that Thenuwara is a social activist as much as he is an artist. This is because like a social activist, he too creates awareness about the existence of an alternative voice with regards the political situation in Sri Lanka. As pointed out before, Thenuwara highlights the existence of a culture of militarization and censorship against any form of opinion that does not conform to the agenda of the state through the concept of Barrelism. Moreover, the fact that he brings this out through a Sri Lankan tourist map clearly indicates his motive of gaining the attention of the international community possibly for purposes of intervention. Therefore, we can come to the conclusion that Thenuwara can be considered a social activist not only due to his attempts in challenging social practices, but also in engaging with those who are ‘like minded’ in changing the mindset of people through exhibitions.

Jelin (2003) mentions that  each and every decision to build a  monument, to set up spaces for memory in places where serious affronts to human dignity were committed, to construct museums and install commemorations is the result of the initiative and the commitment of social advocacy groups. According to this definition, it is evident that Wijewardena too is not only an artist but also a social activist. Her role as a social activist can be argued due to her criticism against ‘Ethnic Nationalism’ that is promoted in Sri Lanka instead of ‘Civic Nationalism’. I believe that Wijewardena can also be called a social activist because she not only condemns practices of state in her works of art, but she also attempts to create awareness about the social and political situation of Sri Lanka abroad through her exhibitions. The fact that she showcases her working with regards to peace and reconciliation will clearly attract the attention of the international community regarding the injustices that take place in Sri Lanka. Therefore, her exhibitions that take place abroad can be considered as a platform where Wijewardena presents the case of Sri Lanka in order to motivate the international community to intervene and pressurize the government into implementing free press, freedom of expression and child rights.

Therefore, it evident that the response of Wijewardena and Thenuwara to the ethnic war is not only emotional and personal, but is also very political. Therefore, we can come to the conclusion that the process of introspection that the war brought to these artists is immense. I believe that the process of introspection was so effective that it transformed their roles from being artists to a social activist due to the form of political change that they present. Moreover, the success of these artists in Sri Lanka is not only due to the way in which they manipulate their art through unconventional forms and postmodern approaches, but also due to their ability to contest practices of the state in a manner that does not qualify as a work that needs to be censored due its controversial nature. I feel this stance taken by both artists is very strategic as it does pave way for the controversial message to be transmitted to the public. Weiss and Camnitzer (1928) mentions that a precise definition of an artist is not important, but the impact that his artistic production presents is what defines a true artist. Therefore, I believe that Wijewardena and Thenuwara are exemplary artists as there works do not only create a great impact to their audience, but also makes them question ideologies and conventions one is imposed with in a critical fashion.