“Absence of war does not mean peace. Meaningful peace can only be achieved by accepting separate identities and by trying to understand and accept the differences and uniqueness of cultural diversity. Peace cannot be achieved by blurring the uniqueness and denying separate identities. Peace cannot be achieved by suppression or by force; peace has to emerge from mutual understanding and respect” says Godwin Constantine.
Godwin Constantine’s work takes us to a space engulfed with acute political and social implications that are connected with ethnic conflict and the resultant war that was fought for over 30 years in the land of his youth, Jaffna. Born to a middle class family in Kandy, doing his early schooling at St. Anthony’s College and Trinity College (Kandy) and now a leading cardiologist, one would wonder why Constantine’s work does not really sync with the usual art aspirations or aesthetics of the comfortable upwardly mobile middle class. In actuality, his work constitutes uncomfortable reminders to the comfort zones of many by constantly pushing us to think beyond the surface rhetoric of politics to unearth harrowing realities and layers of ignored truths.
In his early paintings, Constantine has developed a haunting iconography within his visual language where fleshless sculls peep from every corner making the foreground, and devastated landscapes forms the backdrop. Here, his work could find affinity with Kathy Kollwitzs’ numerous drawings of ‘death’ and Anslem Kiefer’s tortured landscapes that stretch into infinity. The ‘existence’ that is challenged in traumatic circumstances of war becomes Constantine’s constant thematic. His personal experiences living in Jaffna as a youth partly forms the strength of his conceptual intensity. In these art works, the boundaries that demarcate the personal and political are subsumed into one, leaving no space for a reality other than the political.
Like with many self-taught artists, Constantine’s primary sense of aesthetics, form and structure of paintings has roots in different art historical phenomena or thrusts. His obsession with textual excerpts and collage in paintings draw its inspirations from Jasper Johns or Robert Rauschenberg’s neo-dada and pop art renditions. At the same time, Constantine’s format of placing texts in his paintings cannot distance from the format of text placements in Buddhist mural paintings. Whether consciously or unconsciously executed, such close similarities make us think of the spectrum of sources and socio-cultural influences that crisscross in the art and the thematic that Constantine tries to attempt.
“One specific work comes to my mind that carries the following disturbing phrase uttered by George W. Bush: ‘ If you are not with us you are with the enemy.’ This phrase is written on the backdrop of a star spangled banner of red and white grids and white stars on a blue square similar to that of Jasper John’s work ‘Flag’ (1954). This work was done in relation to the paranoia of the global politics seen soon after the World Trade Center bombing in the USA on September 11th2001” says his fellow artist and curator of IMAGING THE AFTERMATH Anoli Perera.
The colour bars in his current work titled “Peace Dove” uses a graphic format containing colours similar to that of the Buddhist flag. It creates a visual interplay with a repetitive image of a dove carrying a leafy twig emerging out of a background creating a sense of a mirage. At the same time, the image of the dove gets camouflaged as part of the background. This denotes our vulnerability in consuming the ideas of peace on the one hand, and its illusionary nature in the grasp of the institutionalized power of ethicized religion, chauvinist politics and divided masses on the other.
Working with images used with loaded symbolism, Constantine continuously refers to the unspoken and the tabooed in relation to issues dealing with war, conflict, violence and their scars on humanity that reappear in different forms through generations. The work “Revisiting Guernica” uses imagery and mood of Guernica, the famous painting by Picasso done as a critique of the air raid of the village of Guernica in 1937 by Nationalists led by Franco during the civil war in Spain. Conceived as a symbol that stands to memorialize the destruction of war, human tragedies and pain inflicted on individuals and communities, particularly the innocent civilians, Guernica, through generations stand as a universal anti-war symbol and embodiment of peace that has been referred to many times by artists and others. While Guernica is a universal sign of peace, Constantine’s use of Guernica as a major component in his work also highlights the nature of Constantine’s highlights the nature of Constantine’s engagement with the Tamil ~ Sinhala ethnic issue as much as the resultant armed conflict and its consequences to humanity itself. His work “Revisiting Guernica” shows a camouflaged background in green, white and black with similar forms found in Picasso’s Guernica, but though done in transparent form giving it a ghostly atmosphere. On the one hand it reminds us of the unresolved human tragedies in the aftermath of conflict where so numerous deaths, disappearances and loss of place and soul have taken place. On the other hand, it also nudges us to rethink the notion of peace and its fragile nature in situations where the human predicament caused by war is not rectified and emotional wounds are not healed.
Constantine, belonging to the Tamil Christian community, which is a minority within a minority, his overall reaction to politics and issues pertaining to the anxieties of the larger Tamil community presents a marked difference to that of highly emotional deeply personal ethicized rhetoric that comes from the deep north and the deep south. Larger part of his childhood was spent in Kandy and his intense familiarity with Jaffna began after the 1977 Tamil ~ Sinhala riots which made the family to move to the safety of Jaffna when Constantine was aged 14 years. He received his medical training from Jaffna Medical College, and during this period as a young adult he closely experienced traumas of the armed conflict in the north which made him change his beliefs and convictions towards life and humanity. While these intensely experienced human suffering and anxieties were captured in his early works done in charcoal which are powerful reminders of pain and suffering of war and death, his art articulates a suffering and affectation that somehow goes beyond the personal, and utters a universalized pain and concern. Greatly influenced by the illustrations of Kathy Kollwitz found in a psychology textbook that he once read, his initial use of visual language and aesthetic preferences were developed using transnational symbolisms and art formats rather than referencing the ethicized and historicized signs and nuances from the locally rooted history. This is not about the denial of his roots to the Tamil community in Jaffna, but it’s more about his ability to avoid burdening himself with the emotional and rhetorical aspect of bearing the history of the Tamil community. His art illustrates a position that believes ‘personal is political and therefore it also has a possibility to be universal’. His use of Guernica as a central theme in his work emphasizes this aspect and urges us to transcend or rethink our obsessive preferences and tastes for privileging exclusivist ethno-religious experiences when it comes to human suffering.
Constantine’s expressions of art transcend visual art boundaries and extend into performance work. It is not an overstatement to say that G. R. Constantine along with Bandu Manamperi established ‘performance’ as a form of visual art in the Sri Lankan visual artists’ community. As noted by Weerasinghe, their work is seen as ‘a major confrontational stance that emerged from the para-modernist ideology of the ‘90s Trend’.‘Performance’, as a genre of art has a history that is rooted in the New York avant-garde movements such as Neo-Dada and Fluxusin the 1950s and 1960s as well as art personalities such as Yves Klein, Robert Raushenberg and Niki de Saint Phalle and musician John Cage where ‘happenings’ became part of art-making. In ‘performance’, the body of the artist is transformed into an object of art, allowing it to be opened to interpretation and attack. This places the body of the artist in a vulnerable position removing the distance between the artists~author and his~her work.Performance, as an art medium that emerged in the Sri Lankan visual art within the trans-formative space ushered in by the ‘90s Trend’back-grounding a highly volatile socio-political environment, it allowed artists such as Constantine and Manamperi to engage in an intense political critique within the visual art discourse.
Constantine’s past performances includes a powerful work titled “Homage to Thiranagama” making it a remembrance of RajaniThiranagama who was killed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam in Jaffna in 1989. His performance “Shifting Identity”(1999) at the ‘No Order’ exhibition surfaced the anxiety of displacement in terms of geographical territory, history and emotional belongingness to a community ~ country. Coming out from a newspaper wrapped cocoon implying a ‘womb,’ he read phrases which unraveled the dilemma of uncertainty in displacement. The “Silent Witness” (2004) and the “Story Untold” (2005) both discussed the predicament of an individual who has to bear in silence the perceptions, stereotypes, myths and histories constructed and narrated by the media to the public about his/her own ethnic community with innumerable biases in a situation of armed conflict.
His installation work and performance (in collaboration with Bandu Manamperi) “Maze” held in 2006 at Lionel Wendt Gallery presented an intense critique on the numbness of the Sri Lankan society that precludes it from intervening against social injustice, racism and extreme nationalism.
If the 90s Trend’s major intervention is to unearth the artist’s body as a political body and to be the prime site of experience that translates into form his ~ her art, then Constantine has unhesitatingly embraced such artistic interpolations and used them as effective weapons of socio-political critique. By doing so as an artist he has taken the risk to challenge, probe and intervene in the thought processes that constantly threaten to negate humanity’s most precious element, the ‘freedom of speech’.
IMAGING THE AFTERMATH an exhibition of paintings by G.R.Constantine opens @ Red Dot Gallery in Pittakotte . The preview was held on 29th of January 2011.The exhibition will remain open until 9th of February 2011. The Gallery hours are Monday~Wednesday 10.30AM~5.00PM, Sundays 11.00AM~4.30PM.