In conversation with Chandraguptha Thenuwara: Art, politics and education in Sri Lanka

Chandragupta Thenuwara is one of Sri Lanka’s best known artists. As noted online, he is the director of the Vibhavi Academy of Fine Arts in Colombo, a not-for-profit art school which he founded in 1993 as an independent alternative to state-run art institutions, with the aim of teaching young and marginalied artists the basic tenets of fine art practice under the instruction of practicing artists.

In this programme we start by discussing the enduring ethnic divides and identity politics in Sri Lanka through the frame of Thenuwara’s son, and his naming. We use this as an entry point a discussion about the artist’s own identity and how it developed, growing up as he did in the East of Sri Lanka, having being born in the South and after his studies, returning to live in Colombo.

Thenuwara’s speaks about his father’s early influence in becoming an artist, and how even from a very modest household, he always had the opportunity to draw and paint as a child. He also makes the point that his father was, as a government servant and teacher, involved in politics, a trait which we half-jokingly note was clearly passed down to son.

Looking at Thenuwara’s work in the 90s, and juxtaposing his iconic Barrelism with the barbed wire that features so prominently in his art today, we discuss whether to him as an artist, barbed wire is to Sri Lanka today, what barrels symbolised in the 90s. Thenuwara talks about a society framed today by barbed wire, how space today is demarcated and defined with the use of barbed wire and the violence embedded into this.

We then talk about the politics of remembering, and why for Thenuwara the anti-Tamil pogrom and violence of July 1983 as well as the violence inherent in beautifying Colombo by erasing all markers of a violent past is so important, when government and country writ large may want to forget, and move on. Thenuwara speaks about the importance of memory, and of recording for posterity the violence that is part of Colombo’s, and Sri Lanka’s socio-political fabric. In this context, we also talk about the recent obliteration of Road Painting Commemorating Neelan Tiruchelvam on Kynsey Road, which in fact, Thenuwara painted.

We talk about Thenuwara’s association with, and by extension, approach to art as part of the No Order group, which when it released its manifesto in August 1999 suggested that art was rooted in a specific context, and that it was both a felt experience as well as an intellectual experience. Thenuwara explains this further, and also how he approaches the creation of art. We use this to explore whether as an artist, Thenuwara has sensed, since 1999, any shift in the way audiences perceive his art, and art as a political construct.

This then leads to a discussion about Thenuwara’s politics, and how it is inextricably entwined with his art, and his life as an artist. In particular, we talk about the issue the t-shirt he sports during the interview clearly flags – the on-going struggle by FUTA around increasing Sri Lanka’s spending on public, and in particular, tertiary education. We talk about whether FUTA’s struggle, and his support towards it as an artist, really has any wider social and political traction, and why the issue is so fundamentally important for the future of education in our country.

We end by talking about how difficult it is to be an activist, teacher and artist combined, and why Thenuwara – who is in fact all three – thinks it is his duty to do and say what he does.

Interview – Chandraguptha Thenuwara from Young Asia Television on Vimeo.

  • P.L.J.B.Palipana

    In ref.to FUTA stuggle for the 6%, shall we take an example; The University of Peradeniya.We could still see the University which was created by Sir Ivor Jenins of 1940s. The same buildings are un-painted for years and the accomodation is limited by the same space. The libraries are full of out dated books.There are no recreational facilities at all.The IT facilities are very poor and the English language teaching units are poorly equiped.
    The University belongs 12 miles of internal roads net work which was very badly maintained from the year 2005. There is vast amount of buildable land within the university premises. Sir Ivor dreamt an other Cambridge University in SL but our sons and daugthers never met that end of the tunnel.The University has still capasity to accomodate more than 10000 children.What waste this REGIME is doing. Unnessassary carnivals,playgrounds,Commonwealth Games festivals, Indian cinema festivals ete..ete..ete…Those monies could be easily used to develop our State University System of the country.
    Some stupid people blame our University teachers instead of observing the reality surrounding the problem. Very sad indeed!!!

  • MV

    Where exactly would all the newly erected war monuments in the North and East and the war tourism fall under in ‘erasing all markers of a violent past’?

  • N. Ethirveerasingam

    Thank you Mr. Thenuwara for wanting people to remember. “Forget the Past” seem to be the slogan by GSL since end of the war. I heard that phrase first at a lecture at the Univ of Jaffna by the Minister of Higher Education in mid 2010. The latest person who spins that phrase is G.L. Peiris. Cannot understand how a Professor could bring himself to utter such nonsense.

    A monument, such as naming the junction and a mural to Neelan is as important as monuments to those civilians who died as a direct result of the war. Tamils in the North or East cannot erect any monuments to mourn and remember their dead. The link below shows how Tamil Nadu Tamils commemorate the death of the Tamils in the North,

    http://www.newsalai.com/2012/07/blog-post_5908.html#.UBbGcwm1SlE.facebook

    Will GSL permit the Tamils in the North and East to erect a memorial like the 9/11 memorial to remember their war dead? What if the families erect a memorial in their land for their loved ones who died in the war? People need to mourn and perform the rituals to the dead to begin a new life. They left their dead in land, Vaikals and lagoons where they died. Most of those who surrendered disappeared. How can there be reconciliation in an atmosphere of fear and oppression.