Photo courtesy of the Saskia Fernando Gallery

In this Saskia Fernando Gallery interview, Dr. Sanjana Hattotuwa speaks to Professor Chandraguptha Thenuwara following the presentation of his work Covert at the 2022 Venice Art Biennale. Covert is currently on display at the Palazzo Mora in Venice as part of the European Cultural Center’s parallel exhibition Personal Structures.

Welcome to this conversation with one of Sri Lanka’s most renowned artists, Chandraguptha Thenuwara. I don’t think those who are listening need an introduction so I will go straight into Covert, which is currently being exhibited at the 2022 Venice Biennale and is on display till November. This is an extraordinary honour for a Sri Lankan artist. Thenu, could you describe what you’ve done? I understand it is a sculpture nearly eight feet in height. What is Covert?

It is a continuation of my two dimensional drawings in a three dimensional form. I used iron rods and moulded them into the symbols in my drawings. If you walk around the installation, you can see right through it.

It’s extraordinary in its complexity, nuance, and layering but we can talk about that a bit later. When did you conceive this?

I think I already had a three dimensional sculpture in my subconscious mind when I received the proposal from Saskia last year. From as far back as 1997 I have been working with sculpture. With sculptures you can connect with people physically, whereas with a drawing it is through the mind. When you are creating an installation, you must move around it, go through it, and physically experience the space and the work itself as you exist within it.

How long did it take for you to complete?

Nearly one year. The first stage was finalising the drawing, sketching various ideas related to Barrelism and Neo-Barrelism and reflecting on my previous work. Then it was finalizing the space and getting a sense of that, which was difficult as I was working remotely. Everything else rolled from there.

Currently in Sri Lanka there is a historic, unprecedented, and organic pro-democracy movement. I am sure you will agree with me; we have not seen this the likes of this in our lifetime. Concerning the timing of Covert, it is almost as if you’ve done it for this moment. Of course, that’s not the case but it’s extraordinary your foresight in what you have created. How do you feel as an artist who has been doing this work for decades, critiquing the parliament and the government, to be exhibiting Covert outside of the country but also representing the country, especially when it is in the state that it is in today?

I have been fighting for nearly 25 years I believe. Society was listening but not hearing. I am very happy to see now that has totally changed. The movement is unprecedented, even organic. A new generation shedding old school thinking. The whole country understands we need to free ourselves from the entrapment of militarization and extreme religious agendas.

What is going through your mind, what do you feel like as an artist seeing all that is happening? 

I was here in Venice when everything gained momentum. I want to be in Sri Lanka but I cannot physically and that is difficult for me, but I am happy the young generation is taking over the leadership struggle. It is great for the future; no politician can play with them, and they are not dependent on the government or politicians. We must do our own work. That is real independence.

Covert has a lot of motifs and symbolism, coupled with a design and an aesthetic appeal that is grounded in and resonates with Sri Lanka’s socio-political, cultural, communal, contextual, and very fractured, bloody, violent history. One of the things that always strikes me about your political art over the years is that it’s aesthetically, if I dare to use the word, very beautiful. And I say I dare to use the word because what you’re depicting is horrible. How do you as an artist negotiate that contest, that struggle between creating something that is in a sense aesthetically appealing but also representing profound violence?

It is a difficult question. How do we deal with beauty? Whether it is a beautiful truth or an ugly truth you must present it in an artistic form, in your own language. I am the kind of person where my final work is aesthetically appealing, but when you dig into the work, then you start to read the motives and associations. You sit in that situation; you think and rethink as a citizen about your responsibility in society and as to why you have been blind. A new reality will begin and with this you are forcibly removing the curtain of beauty. Through my craftsmanship, because of my training, my academics, and my practice, I make the invitation beautiful so the process can take place. I don’t use blood and those kinds of horrible images to make my art appealing. I have created new motifs and images with direct associations. For example, the Lotus Bud. We have our own history with it: ideological, religious, or cultural but when I represent it, it is with a new meaning. In current times, it has been misused for an agenda. You will find Thorns, Stupas, Barbed Wire, Cotton, and Lotus Buds and yes, bodies. But these bodies are unstained by blood and are beautifully arranged. It is through the interwovenness of these motifs that I represent these chaotic situations.

If one can just visualize the cylindrical structure in the middle of a room with the foreground and the background creating a layering effect, it’s extraordinary. I see the Lotus Flower, the Lions Tail, and the dismembered Limbs as well as Guns, a Tank, the Sword, and the Stupa.  

I have emphasized the stupa atop this work due to the change in its representation following the oaths taken by the incumbent President in front of one of the most renowned temples in the country. In that moment, the image took on a new meaning and it was clear how it would be misused. It was a religious image being politicized in an attempt to manipulate our minds.

I want to place Covert in the context of your past work. In my understanding you started Barrelism in the mid-80s and when I saw Covert, its cylindrical structure reminded me of those works in its form and shape.

Yes, you are right in this association, particularly the work I did which was named The Monument.

When you look back from your artistic production from the 90s onwards and then look at Covert, what do you think has changed the most for you as an artist?

I don’t know how to answer that question.

Has your gaze shifted? Has the way the country has changed shaped the way that you produce work?

Yes.  I met a lot of conscious people when I’m presenting my exhibitions. Some appreciate and others don’t. Agreement and disagreement are both still engagement and that is very important. My work produces a reaction even without an image. You can read and you can visualize. I use this method with my work with Barrels for example, because in Sri Lankan society we tend to believe words more than images. Words are strong here and therefore misused by politicians and politics.

I want to recall an interview that you did in the first year of the pandemic in 2020 with Saskia Fernando where you say that the government is very good at camouflaging things. This was in the context of your exhibition at the time Atmosphere At/Most/Fear. I’m looking at your work Maliciously Organized Bastards from 2019 and Glitch in 2016 and Glitch+ from 2017. You were then bearing witness as a single individual, as an artist. Today you are a part of an entire society that is bearing witness in unison – part of a mass movement. What is it that you think the role of an artist is at this point of time?

My activism is not limited to making art in a gallery space. I consciously participate in activism for democracy by fighting for the freedom of expression, human rights issues, and by working civil groups. Unfortunately, I am away from the country currently. I don’t want to be an artist working in a studio alone, isolated from the people, disconnected with them. I’m very aware of that and interactions with people keep my mind sharp and conscious so that I can create as a response to the current moment.

I go back to your conversation from two years ago where you made an interesting point. Coming from my own work where I analyze the problematizing role of social media in a democratic struggle; you state that some used democracy against democracy. You were speaking about the government between 2015 and 2019, referred to as the Yahapalanaya (good governance in Sinhalese). What do you think, given who you are and what you’ve done, the role of art should be in securing democracy?

You have to be inside the democracy. There can be no double standard. If you are working toward social consciousness and you are working with political motives, you have to be really aware of it, so that you can stand for democracy. It is very important for me as an artist to stand for human rights and what’s happening in society via my art so that people can think and question both themselves and what is happening. Democracy or so-called democracy is used as a repressive mechanism by the government. With the new protests, you saw them using the police. They are camouflaging things. They are very good at that still. Still very good at it.

One of the things that I see currently and maybe you see too is an extraordinary explosion and blossoming of protest art. In the protest spaces on the ground across the country but also on social media. It’s young people: cartoonists, illustrators, designers, artists. It’s extraordinary what is blooming and blossoming at an incredible pace of production being posted on social media, especially in relation to what you’ve been doing for many decades. The question I have for you, as a seasoned activist-artist, what is your bias or preference? Particularly when dealing with the issues you deal with? Is it reacting immediately in a sense or is it taking a bit longer to reflect and produce more reflective art? Is one better than the other and if so, what do you have your preference towards? What are you biased towards?

For me, I think reflectively because I must formulate, otherwise it becomes a kind of rough work. There are art forms that can happen reactively, for example: graffiti and posters. My practice involves drawing, painting, installation, and sculptural work which requires a reflective period. My work is not contemporary, it is temporary. It relates to whatever time I’m living in. At the same time, it motivates me as an artist to think. It encompasses both the pleasurable and in hard times, the painful. It will take you maybe two minutes to view a piece created by me, but it’s creation is a long process. It reflects my whole history.

I remembered your 2018 exhibition Executive Demon and one creation called the Lotus Swastika. You then followed with the exhibition Atmosphere At/Most/Fear in 2020. You are an artist who for me has been so prescient with the critique of the Executive Presidency, even predating the moment when Gotabaya Rajapaksa came into power. In 2020, Atmosphere At/Most/Fear was a response to the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa who, at the time, was one of the most feared individuals to ever occupy that God-like office. In 2021, you started Covert without knowing that you would be exhibiting it in the moment that we find ourselves in today. Looking back your critique of the Executive Presidency and now, in relation to Covert and discussions back home, I wanted to ask you to reflect on the past two years of the exhibitions.

As you know I present an annual exhibition in July. We all know the 1983 riots happened in July. Regarding what is happening now, I am already thinking about pieces for this year’s exhibition. Perhaps building on my Covert concept but using a different medium: paint. I want to question democracy and how democracy is misused. One work will be a classical painting. As a follower of democracy, I stand for democracy. Parliament and democracy are very important things and therefore it’s a very dangerous thing when it’s used in an anti-democratic moment. What we observed in 2019 and thereafter are hidden agendas or Executive Demons, high powered individuals who did not fulfil the peoples wishes.

My profound thanks for your gaze, your critique, your art, and your life. Thank you so much for joining this interview.

Thank you. Thank you, Sanjana. Thank you very much.

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