Curated by Senior Researcher at the Centre for Policy Alternatives and Editor of Groundviews, Sanjana Hattotuwa, and in collaboration with Artraker (United Kingdom), Watch this space: Framing the past, untying the future – an exhibition featuring Sri Lankan art and work from the Artraker “Art of Peace” series, theatre and public discussions – was an attempt to interrogate how we see the past in order to envision a better future. The exhibition was held from 11 – 17 August 2015 at the Park Street Mews, Colombo.

Read the Curator’s Note to the exhibition here.

As noted in the description of the panels held as part of the exhibition,

Should sites of violence have new lives and under transformation or remain a memorial to the crimes committed there? How should we remember the violence of the state? Is some violence more important than others, and how do these scales translate across communities, spaces, over time? How do we select what to forget or erase, with as much importance as choosing what to remember? How can memorialisation be true to the act it seeks to recall and also be relevant to changing context, time, audience, reception and reaction? Can sites of violence be shifted geo-spatially, or migrated to representation through virtual artefacts even as the physical evidence is erased? Is reconciliation possible without memory, or does memory feed into communal hagiography, impeding collective, shared narratives? How should digital cultures embrace the politics of memorialisation? What role can a divided mainstream media, supported by risk averse corporate advertising, really play in memorialising and interrogating the inconvenient?

Through this exhibition, insightful and evocative Artraker artwork from Syria, Myanmar, Pakistan, Afghanistan and other countries will be juxtaposed with carefully curated art from Sri Lanka, coupled with a theatrical production that interrogates space. Watch this space: Framing the past, untying the future is an attempt to use art that results from, reflects upon or responds to violence as a platform to foster meaningful conversations around what kind of a future we need in Sri Lanka.

Recognising that no real future can be constructed without reference to or learning from the past, Watch this space: Framing the past, untying the future offers frames through which to see the impact of violence, and the deep-seated challenges around memorialising.

Podcasts of all the panels can now be accessed here, or listened to online below.

Opening night, 11 August

  • Sanjana Hattotuwa, Editor, Groundviews and Senior Researcher, Centre for Policy Alternatives, Introduction to curation and concept
  • Ian Quick, Introduction to ArtRaker
  • Radhika Coomaraswamy keynote on ‘Going beyond war and violence: How can we imagine a just peace?’

Media and transitional justice (Panel), 12 August
“Defining and harnessing the media as a tool for reconciliation or mediation is particularly challenging in contexts where the media, and those who drive them, have had a role in exacerbating tension or promoting violence. During war, media often serve as both a weapon and a mirror of violence… “Transitional justice” occurs in a context where an old cartel, with its characteristics of dominance and control over narrative, is being transformed, and a new narrative is being created. It is useful in these moments to determine what strategies are adopted, and by which players, to modulate existing intensities.” (via Media and Transitional Justice: Toward a Systematic Approach by Monroe Price and Nicole Stremlau)

Senior journalist and media critic Ranga Kalansuriya’s social survey based research in early 2015 notes that “The primary results shows that the internet, mainly the social media, is becoming game changer within the paradigm threatening the conventional media in a considerable way” and in particular that “almost half of the sample feels that the media content impacted on their decisions to some extent at the elections while, interestingly one thirds feel there had been no impact at all. The most impacted media was the television for almost 60 percent and then it was the Internet for a group closer to 25 percent. The newspaper impacted for less than 10 percent and radio impacted on only 5 percent”.

Given oft cited features of Sri Lanka’s contemporary media landscape – including civic, participatory, online citizen journalism, civic media and mainstream media – the question remains, can what we increasingly co-create and respond to in addition to what we consume shape our responses to past violence, present conflict and future tensions? Bluntly put, what role and relevance do journalists as well as citizens increasingly producing content have in supporting transitional justice, or more simply, in how citizens see themselves and each other post-war? Can a media landscape undergirded by commercial and corporate interests really interrogate violence and its sources? How can the modulation Price and Stremlau refer to occur in a Sri Lankan context, and what role does the rise of social media mediated through the democratisation of technology offer in the service of reconciliation?

  • Nalaka Gunawardene (Columnist / Technologist)
  • Mohamed Hisham (Corporate / Technology / Activist)
  • Dushyanthi Mendis, University Lecturer and Head, Dept. of English, Colombo University
  • Moderator: Sanjana Hattotuwa

Sights of violence, sites of memory: Reframing the past (Keynote and discussion), 13 August
Should sites of violence have new lives and under transformation or remain a memorial to the crimes committed there? How should we remember the violence of the state? As Sri Lanka moves further away from the end of war, the narrative shifts from one that recalls or reacts to violence and war to one that is more forward looking, founded on socio-political realities markedly different to what pre-dated May 2009. At the same time, structural and systemic causes of war, sources of violence and voices of hate have endured, sometimes propagating vigorously. A majority, glad the war as it was framed in the public consciousness is now over, remain reticent about meaningfully interrogating the nature of the State, identity and socio-political drivers of present and future violence. With any questioning of the end of war seen as traitorous ingratitude at best, attempts to understand the present and shape a better future by interrogating the past risks apathy and condemnation. The interest of a few to keep alive inconvenient memories and sites – by preservation, discussion, archival and curation spanning the physical and kinetic to the virtual and digital – runs counter to the desire of a majority to look forward, without focussing on the past. A balance is required, but no open discussion on what this should be, and how this can be arrived at occurs in the mainstream media or politics. Some would argue that though the kinetic expression of violence has ceased, the more invisible architectures of power, control, censorship and containment, including over mainstream media, culture and politics, holds hostage Sri Lanka’s potential to secure a more peaceful future by fully confronting what drove it to brutality and violence in the past.

  • Tissa Jayatilaka (Executive Director at U.S-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission)
  • Respondent Vangeesa Sumanasekara (Academic / Lecturer in Arts)

The art of memorialisation (Panel), 14 August
How do we see our past, and thereby choose to learn from or repeat that which gave rise to violence? In framing histories, what are the politics of selection and exclusion? In a country where the single story often wins out against multiple truths, in looking back at the past, how do we capture the marginal, the violently erased, the inconvenient? How do we, in other words, frame our past to understand our present, and shape our future? The four speakers will approach the topic with different perspectives, ranging from digital photography and literary criticism to the visual arts and theatre.

  • T. Shanaathanan (Artist)
  • Selyna Peiris (Business/Entrepreneurship/ Activist)
  • Ruhanie Perera (Performer and Director)
  • Abdul Halik-Aziz (Economist, Researcher, Photographer)
  • Moderator: Saskia Fernando (Curator and Gallerist)

Transforming politics for transitional justice (Keynote and discussion), 15 August
Sri Lanka’s post-war politics haven’t demonstrated an inkling of what it means to engaging with and promote a peace beyond just the absence of war. In Parliament and in the public sphere, politicians have with depressing frequency condoned the most heinous violence, and often use an expression – revealing an underlying mentality – that serves to divide, destroy, deny or decry. A progressive political imagination seems hostage to intra and inter party political strife as well as a larger political architecture most democratic just prior to elections, and the least democratic once politicians are elected to office. The majoritarian bias of the political architecture also results in law-making that is deeply illiberal and almost always expedient. Principled opposition, evidence based policy making, a liberal mind-set, a responsibility to serve citizenry that goes beyond electoral gain remain elusive.

What role does mainstream politics have to play in memorialising the inconvenient and the violent? How can the responsibility to serve the best interests of all those in a constituency override more parochial concerns of rewarding a supine few? Does Sri Lanka’s post-war party political fabric offer space for a robust reflection on enduring drivers of violence? Given the role and influence of politicians, and what is known about mainstream politics in Sri Lanka, how best can individuals in politics, mainstream political parties and the government strengthen their capacities and capabilities to support transitional justice, reconciliation and a peace with justice?

  • Niran Anketell (Lawyer)
  • Chulani Kodikara (Activist)
  • Respondent Rohan Edrisinha (Academic, Constitutional Lawyer)
  • Moderator: Sanjana Hattotuwa

Writing transitions: Changing and changeable texts (Panel discussion), 16 August
How has art and literature (texts in the broadest sense) in Sri Lanka struggled with the politics of remembrance – the depiction of inconvenient truths, recalling and critiquing that which mainstream politics seeks to forget and erase? What role can and does art in general play in memorialising violent events, and how has this played out in our country? More generally, what is the role of cultural production and texts including digital media mediated through online fora, in interrogating a violent past? What comparable examples are there of art in other regions and contexts that have served to memorialise trauma (e.g. Berlin’s holocaust memorial). In capturing violence, how can a text highlight the multiplicity of perspectives around it, as opposed to the dominant, expected or convenient responses? Does the art of defiance and robust critique risk upsetting a fragile peace, no matter how imperfect and by extension, a return to open violence? What texts are the most effective in memorialising the inconvenient and the violence, and what contributes to this effectiveness, or conversely, ineffectiveness?

  • Jake Orloff (Theatre)
  • Thisuri Wanniarachchi (Literature)
  • Chandragupta Thenuwara (Art)
  • Moderator: Deanne Uyangoda (Lawyer, activist)