Photo courtesy Vikalpa’s photo set of the exhibition

Leading Sri Lankan artist Chandraguptha Thenuwara’s most recent exhibition entitled Beautification makes parody of contemporary Sri Lanka by suggesting that peace is but a façade and that the conflict is in fact on-going. Beautification serves as a reflection of life during and post-war. My conversation with Thenuwara led me to believe that his strong opinions, coupled with the fact that he had witnessed and experienced the war first hand, were vital ingredients in creating art of such calibre. Through a combination of outstanding mosaics, sculpture, drawings and paintings, Thenuwara infers his ideas with great power, whilst concurrently using his art, which cannot be controlled nor suppressed, as a display of rebellion.

The exhibition’s composition takes an appropriately untraditional form to pre-empt its untraditional content. Upon entering the Lionel Wendt gallery, I was somewhat surprised not to see paintings hung on the walls. Instead, as I entered, the walls appeared to be entirely white. It was only once I looked around the seemingly plain room, simple in its structure, that I noticed that behind the corners there were paintings, drawings and works of mixed media hung on the walls. The exhibition was assembled in such a way that Thenuwara was able to immediately confront the viewer with one of the exhibition’s fundamental requirements; that is to actively look, rather than passively gaze, at the art. Thenuwara expressed his belief that as humans, we are condemned by passivity, and that every human has a duty and an ability to make peace, should he or she make an active attempt. By challenging the traditional gallery composition, Thenuwara engages the active mind of his viewers from the offset, as he requires the viewer to actively search for the hidden artwork. These hidden elements represent his assertion that what one sees at first glance is a superficial snapshot of the wider picture, and that one has to dig deeper in order to gain a true knowledge of what lies beneath, both within the gallery and within contemporary Sri Lankan society.

Directly opposite the entrance to the gallery lay the severed blindfolded head of Themis, a Greek goddess who embodies divine order, law, custom and most recently justice. To the left of the head lay an extended forearm, which tightly grips a double-edged sword that symbolises the power of reason and justice, and to the right, in the corner of the room, there lay a set of broken scales. The execution of Themis serves as an assertion that justice does not exist in today’s society. This is a brave and somewhat profane statement. But through such a bold statement, Thenuwara, again, succeeds in his ambition of making the viewer engage with his work whilst concurrently raising the status of sculpture as a form of political expression.

The Dhammapada triptych comprises three large canvases with acrylic paint. The monumental size of each painting encourages the viewer to engage with the painting and suggests that its meaning is one of great significance. It is made up of three large canvases hung next to each other on the wall. There is one canvas assigned to each army camouflage colour: a yellow canvas, a green canvas and a black canvas. Each painting, since the time the original colours were painted on, has been painted over with white paint to give a white-wash effect which inevitably softens the appearance of the original colours. Immediately, there is an unmissable juxtaposition between the camouflage colours, with connotations of war and of conflict, and the white, with its connotations of serenity and peace, which attempts, but fails to eradicate these colours. The artist’s on-going attempt to eradicate these colours is evidenced by the varying thickness of the paint. This represents society’s endeavour to rid of the camouflage colours, which are emblematic of hatred, and replace them with white, which symbolises atonement and calm. Each canvas contains a Buddhist teaching which is written in an aggressive manner to contrast to its meaning. Yamaka Vagga, 5, which is translated as “In this world hatred never ceases by hatred; it ceases by love alone. This is an eternal law”, is scratched onto the yellow canvas. Damma Vagga, 2, translated as “All fear punishment; all fear death, comparing oneself with others, one should neither kill nor cause to kill”, is etched into the green canvas. Damma Vagga, 1, translated as “All fear punishment; to all life is dear. Comparing oneself with others, one should neither kill nor cause to kill”, is engraved on the black canvas. I found this triptych particularly potent and it evoked strong emotions amongst other viewers too. Thenuwara uses the ancient Buddhist text to suggest that Buddhism, being a religion that spreads tolerance and peace, has been appropriated at times to promote conflict and on-going divisions.

On the opposite side of the room, but still hidden from initial sight, were hung three black canvases that made up the triptych named ‘Lines’. The positioning of ‘Lines’ and its heavy, dark colours create an immediate contrast to the Dhammapada triptych. This contrast is only emphasized by the fact that the black canvases are also presented alongside the camouflage colours: green, yellow and black. Horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines create a sense of claustrophobia and are placed in a rather sporadic manner, which I interpreted as a reflection of the lack of stability and order Sri Lanka has experienced in recent years. The lines unify each painting, which encourages the viewer to engage in the painting as a whole – the wider picture – rather than focusing on the detail of one part of it. This represents Thenuwara’s call for the people of Sri Lanka to examine what is really happening in the grand scheme of things, rather than focusing on what might appear immediately obvious. There are thirty lines in total. Thenuwara says the fact that there were thirty years of war was not what he had in mind when painting this at all. Rather, this was a coincidence, and what he wanted to depict by painting the harsh lines was the binding constraints of the Sri Lanka of the last thirty years. Thenuwara’s manipulation of the contrast between the black and the yellow, green and less severe black is a highly effective way of representing pain, suffering and oppression.

The grid-like floor was perhaps the exhibition’s main focus. As I entered the exhibition, I noticed four squares of white cement mosaic bricks upon which was painted the heavily featured camouflage colours. In the middle, directly in front of the entrance, was a square of bricks upon which Thenuwara had painted dates of memorable events that had occurred during the thirty years of war in Sri Lanka. To the right of the entrance, eight mosaic squares could be seen. These were direct cement casts of bones and casts of barbed wire that served as symbols for those that suffered and are suffering, died and are dying, because of the war. Being on the other side of the room to the camouflage bricks, there was a strong sense of separation between the army and the victims. Thenuwara’s use of the direct cast technique made the bones seem extremely realistic, with every crack and crevice visible, which made the mosaics very poignant and made one feel as if they were looking at graves.

The majority of the floor is made up of grey bricks that are appropriately dull in order to make the artwork on the floor stand out. The outer edge of the gallery is made up of red bricks. I questioned whether these could represent blood, as many of the mosaics were directly connected to the idea of stolen life and suffering. Thenuwara did not refute my interpretation, but reiterated that the beauty of art is that we take away from it what we want. For him, the red and grey bricks represent the regularity of space as well as connecting the content of this exhibition to the outer world and placing it in the context of contemporary Colombo. Order is what they symbolise: the red areas represent the painted areas where pedestrians may walk and the grey areas represent designated driving zones. By placing his artwork either outside or within these areas, Thenuwara makes it clear that his artwork is not something that was intended to be conformist.

By going to an art exhibition, one enters into a contract with the artist to be shown his or her ideas for a certain amount of time. By displaying art, the artist seeks to educate or at least present his or her ideas to the viewer with a view to nourishing or shaping the viewer’s own ideas. Here, Thenuwara exposes the harsh reality of the current situation in Sri Lanka by depicting obliquely whilst simultaneously shattering the illusion he thinks society is under, and encourages his viewers to come to the same realisation. According to Thenuwara, “without memory, civilization cannot survive”, and in our discussion he emphasised the importance of using memories of past experiences as a way of learning. His frequent thought-provoking exhibitions signify his on-going endeavour to highlight the problems that fracture Sri Lanka’s contemporary society. It is necessary that one remembers these prestigious exhibitions in order to trace and document events and to learn from past experiences.