Groundviews

Can art still take up a social function?: Two examples from Sri Lanka in the context of post-conflict reconciliation

Decorated Kitchen Knifes, Sculpture and Canvas Installation, Jagath Weerasinghe, courtesy Mediated by Saskia Fernando Gallery

Speaking about the capacity that art may have to contribute to a social achievement like building sustainable peace or national reconciliation goes somewhat against the tide of the Western contemporary art. This approach could easily be perceived as naïve in the context of today’s contemporary art whose only defining criteria seems to be its degree of transgression. I think this situation is a result of an art that I would like to define as “reflexive”. What do I mean by “reflexive art”? It is an art which is wholly preoccupied by its own matters and which expresses nothing but itself; it is a form of art whose means and subject are nothing else but art itself. It is the affirmation of “formal art” and the logical outcome of the so-called revolution of the “Modern” artists of the 19th Century that we call the historical avant-garde.

But art that I would like to take into account here is of another sort: one which assumes a social role in its thinking and its execution. Attributing any sort of “social responsibility” to Art could be negated as an anachronism and an outdated attempt in the Western thinking. My effort could also be interpreted as one, which is based on the so-called “modernist meta-narratives” of the past, which are considered to have failed in quite a spectacular manner during the first half of the 20th Century. It is the failure of the Modernist discourse which might have paved the way to Post-modernism. Furthermore, after the downward spirals that we can observe during the first half of the 20th Century when art tried to cultivate liaisons dangereuses with politics (in one hand, the avant-garde was repressed and banned and on the other the role of the artist was reduced to that of a civil servant), affirming that art still serves social causes is a risky thing. But I’m keen on to take up that risk.

The sort of art that I’m going to defend here is an art, which reflects not only itself (if it did not at all, it will be anything but art) but also the context it emerges from. It’s a form of art which is deeply rooted in its time and its social reality. Those who produce this art analyse the status quo of their time and space through their artistic production and sometimes even take the opposite stance of the prevailing thinking when this latter becomes condemnable. Some of these artists demand also an active participation from the part of the public in the process of thinking and execution of their art.

I’m going to bring up two examples from Sri Lanka in order to illustrate the idea of how art and culture can be used as an alternative path in the peace-building process. One of the examples is set in the conflict era, back in 1997, while the other is set in the post-conflict period.

The first example is an installation by the Sri Lankan artist Chandragupta Thenuwara. The work is his emblematic “Barrelism”. Thenuwara coined the term “Barrelism” from the word “barrel” in a period where this object played a crucial role in the subconscious of Sri Lankan people. During the war period, from a simple utilitarian object, the tar barrel turned into a symbol of oppression and an attitude, which undermined civil liberties. At that period, the barrels were put alongside the roads to form security barriers in front of which people were required to undergo identification controls. Moreover, these objects were painted in highly aggressive commando colours and camouflage patterns which, in contrary to the camouflage context — the battlefield and the forest — stood out eminently in the urban areas with an irrefutable chromatic aggressiveness. Thenuwara literally brought these barrels into the space of the art gallery, which was an unprecedented and audacious artistic gesture in the local context of art. In an approach, which has its references throughout the history of modern art, ranging from Marcel Duchamp to Andy Warhol, from Pop Art to Minimalism, Thenuwara elevated these unusual objects to the status of a legitimate work of art. From then on, “Barrelism” became the centrepiece of his oeuvre and an ambassador of those that the war and its direct and indirect results had asphyxiated. This work of art made by a Sinhalese artist did not have any ethnical identity though. The only identity it had was that of the oppressed. People from different ethnic and religious backgrounds could identify themselves in this piece of art. One day or the other, every civilian had to queue up in front of a barrel barricade and let her body-checked by military personal. The coherent programme of awareness that the artist tried to achieve through his work of art was unquestionable. Before seeing the barrel within the space of the art gallery, people seemed to have accepted this strange yet threatening object as something almost organic of their “natural” environment. But from the moment Thenuwara displaced the object and placed it in a new context, people started to realise how much their democratic and civil space had been compromised by this foreign object and by extension by the contentious situation that the object so eloquently symbolised. With his work, Thenuwara incited people to actively participate in the process of peace building.

The second example that I am bringing forward is a film by the Sri Lankan director Ashoka Handagama : “Ini Avan”. The Tamil title of the film is a pun. “Ini avan”, when written separately stands for “the man, here after”. As one word, the title means “the beautiful man”. The film is an articulate example to affirm as to how cinema can operate as a means of understanding the “other” and of social reconciliation after a disastrous civil conflict. The film directed by the Sinhalese director is shot in Tamil language, in the Northern area which was torn apart by the civil war. The film itself is an important landmark of Sri Lankan cinema. It is an act of great courage — and a risky one! ­— from the part of the director to claim to have a deep understanding of a culture other than his own. The film is the narrative of an ex-LTTE soldier who, after the war, comes back to his native village and tries to be integrated into a “normal” life within his community. During the wartime, though, the man had recruited young people from his village by force. Now, no youth among those recruits has survived. Only the protagonist has made it to the post-war era. Thus, he is condemned to survive the catastrophe and to live with his own demons and with the ghosts of his past. The film is about the difficult integration of a man into social norms, after having lived in a parallel reality.

These kind of artistic experiences, which, beyond ideological, ethnic or social differences, appeal to our human intimacy, are undeniable and invaluable assets during a period of national reconciliation. While allowing us to probe into our own inner self, this kind of work help us open ourselves towards the “other” in an unexpected way. I reckon that formal education or deliberate awareness programmes would take much more time than art to accomplish such deeds.

Directly or indirectly, all forms of art – both “reflective art” and “social art” which formed the dichotomy that I opposed – may all but enlarge the reflexion of Man and uphold her humanness. Art may also attribute the individual a critical gaze towards life and society and make her more sensitive to the beauty of life. Furthermore, art may show us the complexity of human condition, its ambivalences, dialectics and ambiguities. Thus art can make people aware of the universal values such as the spiritual fulfilment and the respect of the “other”. Those are for sure valuable assets during a peace-building process.