dark manners
Dark Manners / Photo provided by artist, with whom copyright resides

The other day, my friend was hanging up this piece of art that he had just purchased from his artist friend Sue Kneebone. He wanted to know what I thought of it.

It was one of those puzzling but engaging pieces of art that takes a while to get your head around. Luckily, the artist was also there. It is about “hypocrisy and the civilised pretence “she explained. She wanted to portray the insensitivity shown by British establishments to yield to Aboriginal demands – to return the bones of their dead to their native land.  She was angry that British institutions still don’t get it. Reading about it later made me understand what she was talking about.

Our belief is that when our people’s remains are not with their people and in our country then their spirit is wandering,” says Aboriginal elder Major Sumner. “Unless they are going back home the spirit never rests.”

There are historical records in Australia; that an aboriginal kid was asked to be shot by collectors who were keen on his skeletal remains. This piece of art has an unsettling feeling about it. It was about the remains of people who died in horrible conditions; while it portrays the pride, wealth and arrogance of the British Empire, the feathery tie and a large grotesque ugly finger keeping a fine handkerchief in place tells a different story.

So what did I think of this work of art?

My friend was keen to know. Hmmmm…It was difficult for me to explain to my Australian friend.

Have we not witnessed in Sri Lanka even greater ugliness?  Have we not cruelties of our own far worse to consider?  Have we not in our recent history created a great number of unburied souls? The cruelties of the colonial regime now pale in comparison. We have begun to see the Colonial period in a positive light. No. We are in no mood to condemn them. We speak their language and practice their Demo-Crazy and also play cricket. They introduced us to Scotch, good manners and to the fine art of hypocrisy. Compared to us, they really don’t appear that bad at all.

I went to school in the 70s. I still remember the very first Independence Day celebrations (I was just 8),) held in our school grounds. I can still remember cheering wildly as the then Prime Minister  Mrs. Bandaranayake hoisted the Lion flag. But I did not know what Independence meant. The word “in dependence” sounded oxymoronic – not that we understood what that meant either. My father too was not able to explain it. He just poo pooed the whole thing. History was re-written and so were our text books.  We had to memorize the names and deeds of minor defiance of all our great heroes who had apparently fought for Independence. But it was only much later, that we learnt that our first Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranayake disclosed in parliament that “No. It just came overnight. We just woke up one day and we were told, ‘You are a dominion now’. It looks more like, the British just dumped us, due to some trouble makers in India, leading to religious squabbles that divided that Nation. But we started bleeding much later.

Once Her Majesty’s men had left our shores, we had the rewards that independence brought – communalism and conflict.  The wogs had suddenly turned native – they had to, to get the votes; more native than the other. Destruction followed fast. Sinhalese was made the national Language in 24 hours. Communalism became official and reactions to it followed, issuing its own brand of brutality.

I am still not sure, after a loss of more than hundred thousand lives, rapid race to the bottom on all measures of human condition, how many in Sri Lanka (except the monolingual voting majority) think that native rule did them good ? Even if we avoid in this survey our citizens who are unnecessarily dead, the tortured and traumatized and those who labour in Middle Eastern homes under horrible conditions to provide the earnings the country requires. Should we be annoyed?  or remember fondly instead the happier times when we were part of Her Majesty’s Empire?

So now, what do I think of this work of art ?

The positive thing about the British Empire was, what was good for the Empire was automatically good for us, because we were all part of Her Majesty’s holdings. We were subdued and uncomplicated natives, often needing protection from each other – which the British provided. In our case, it worked out well. But in the case of others, especially the Aboriginal people of Australia, it led to their relocation and decimation. But according to the government spokesmen – it was for their own protection.

So now, what do I think of this work of art ?

What I like about it is the portrayal of the British as well-dressed men with finesse, sporting a delicate scarf and handkerchief held in place with a shrunken and shrivelled leg of an emu – a native bird represented on Australia’s national coat of arms. In this portrayal, I noticed a raw sense of anger – from a white Australian artist, regarding the insensitivity of England towards Aboriginal people who suffered dearly in the hands of colonial settlement.   But I sensed a shared despondency and in that, a very different sense of Australianess ; with an evolving social consciousness of past mistakes and national crimes and a willingness to rectify some of them.

But then, what about their government? Australia and Sri Lanka have much in common. The majority arrived there by boat – rejected by their own creed on account of their bad behaviour. They both took a terrible toll on the lives of the pre-existing native population. It is therefore both natural and unnatural that they resent the arrival of new boats, even from Commonwealth countries. Every boat arrival seems to trigger waves of national paranoia.  So the Prime Minister of Australia will be most certainly there, dressed in a fine suit just to make sure that no more boats come his way. He will not sneeze like his Canadian counterpart and soil that white hanky. The Indians too will be there, Just to make sure that the Chinese do not make a late entry into the Commonwealth as they did with Tibet. So everyone will be there for their own good. Her Majestys men will certainly be there to conduct the rituals while their real alliances lie across Atlantic, in a more humbling inverted form.

So now, what do I think of this work of art ?

It is “ a good one mate”  I said to my Australian friend. Its clearly about Her Majesty’s well-dressed men – the proud collectors of Her Majesty’s wealth. I am not in favour of boycotting ceremonies of any kind. We should welcome her Majesty’s men for old time sake and if the weather is good, for a good game of cricket: Because this is an occasion of no significance. After all, the Commonwealth has not turned out to be what it was supposed to be. It is a tooth less tiger that no one wants to shoot, because it harms no one and it is destined for extinction. If at all, it needs protection, for once in our history it was a majestic beast. The sun has long set on the British Empire. The British Government knows that well. It is only the colonized that seek some credibility; especially the ones with deeply embarrassing records. But then it does not really matter, because it is a government to government thing. The wogs were long trained to handle the rest.

The British Government faces a difficult choice – between holdings on to Commonwealth values or holding on to that handkerchief. The chiefs there have made their choice –  the hanker chief, because it more useful; while it lends some finesse, it can also be used to wipe the dirt off.

This painting “Dark Manners” portrays that well. They just don’t want that hanky to slip.