Bertie Wooster: If you ask me, Jeeves, art is responsible for most of the trouble in the world.
Jeeves: It’s an interesting theory, sir. Would you care to expatiate on it?
Bertie Wooster: As a matter of fact, no, Jeeves. The thought just occurred to me, as thoughts do.
Jeeves: Very good, sir.
Two years ago, a fringe event at the Galle Literary Festival, at which the Editor of this newspaper was also a participant, looked at how and if English literature in post-war Sri Lanka would be different to that which was written during the 27 odd years of violent conflict. This will be an on-going debate in the years to come, when critically reading literature produced by both authors resident in the country, and those in the diaspora writing on Sri Lanka. We may see in the writing produced over the next decade texts anchored to socio-political and communal dynamics post-war, from voices and about places marginalised or ravaged during the war and anchored to events and issues that may not have been convenient to write about for 27 years, even through the lens of fiction. It’s a similar story with art post-war.
Moderating a session at the Colombo Art Biennale a week ago with renowned artist Jagath Weerasinghe, I thought the discussion in line with the topic of the session would have focussed on how art could increasingly and more fully reflect the changing dynamics and on-going violence post-war. Sadly however, the discussion failed to move beyond the art of the 90s. My interest in the topic was also in the interplay of technology and art – in the lives of artists whose appreciation and negotiation of the world is increasingly mediated through technology, as well as the process of creation, display and for the gallerist, curation, which can no longer be removed from the digitisation of art irrespective of whatever form it is first produced in. An example of this is Google’s Art Project. Very high definition images of some of the world’s most renowned and expensive works of art, combined with 3D tours of iconic museums and galleries that are easily and freely accessible via a web browser and a broadband connection showcases one way our appreciation of art will evolve, and how new audiences will learn to appreciate the old masters as well as contemporary art. More locally, eminent artist Anoma Wijewardene’s ‘Quest’ from 2006 suggests how art can embrace new media and technology, appealing not just to an older demographic, but to a younger audience as well.
Mental and physical spaces have also changed post-war. Projects similar to French artist JR’s Inside Out installations can now be contemplated to contest and subvert how urban landscapes should look like as defined by government. From books like Jaffna based artist Shanaathanan’s The Incomplete Thombu, blogger and illustrator Mika Tennekoon’s digital creations to DJ Asvajit Boyle’s beautiful graphic designs, there are artists using new physical and virtual spaces to visualise Sri Lanka through perspectives and media we may not completely agree with or appreciate, but must be grateful for having more space to see and engage with than the years before.
If the 90s art movement was characterised by, to paraphrase Jagath, a rural periphery that positioned their bodies and lives as the crux of art making, and equated the personal with the political, post-war art in Sri Lanka faces interesting choices of engagement, disclosure, interrogation and framing. Bertie Wooster may have been on to something. Art needs to unsettle, question, pose the inconvenient juxtapositions and paint our compromises. Whether through pixel or canvas, post-war art can help us critically appreciate the past, and understand what we have become.
And that alone is reason enough to encourage its production, display and appreciation.
This article was published in The Nation on 26 February 2012.