Photo courtesy of Lars Waldorf
“Come, join us in jail!” read the invitation to artist Sujith Rathnayake’s exhibition-cum-provocation, Crisis & Struggle. Indeed, a visitor to the Lionel Wendt Art Gallery in Colombo was quickly confronted by a police bus door, a remand cell gate and paintings of fallen protesters.
The exhibition was a timely riposte to a bankrupt regime’s lavish-under-the-circumstances independence day celebration on February 4. It also was a timely commemoration of the Aragalaya, the mostly peaceful protest movement that upended the country from March to August 2022. Most importantly, though, it was a timely wake up call to Sri Lankans that many more of them – not just Tamil and Muslim minorities or human rights activists – are now vulnerable to abuses of the Prevention of Terrorism Act.
When we met Rathnayake last September at his temporary studio, he was surrounded by art, posters and detritus salvaged from the art gallery he helped set up at GotaGoGama, named after the rallying cry for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to go. There, we saw a neo-expressionist painting of a protester on the ground holding a sign proclaiming “People’s Sovereignty.”
At the exhibition, the canvas was set into a large, rusting iron frame with words riveted on the top “Prevention of Terrorism Act 1979” and the bottom “Enforced also during the economic crisis of 2022”. When we asked him about this, he explained, “I used metal frames to show how we are restricted and trapped by this old, rusted, outdated act…to show how state terrorism makes all of us who are subjected to it vulnerable.
The (re)framing also captures what happened when the hopeful, prefigurative politics of the Aragalaya collided with a 43-year old law that legalizes state repression.
You Can’t Beat the Feeling
At heart, the Aragalaya was a protest movement against an unprecedented economic crisis brought on by the ruling Rajapaksa family’s corruption, profligacy, and mismanagement. Faced with severe shortages of food, petrol, electricity, and medicines, thousands of ordinary citizens – many of whom had enthusiastically voted the Rajapaksas back into office in 2019 – started calling for their removal.
On April 9, 2022, tens of thousands came together under the hashtags #OccupyGalleFace and #GotaGoHome at a site of political significance and potent symbolism. Galle Face is bounded by the Presidential Secretariat to the north and a hulking statue of former Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike to the east. Bandaranaike’s 1956 Sinhala Only Act laid the groundwork for a brutal, 26 year civil war between the majority Sinhala government and minority Tamil separatists that ended in 2009 with the then Rajapaksa government’s defeat of the LTTE amid war crimes and crimes against humanity. Galle Face also reflects Sri Lanka’s highly indebted and highly unequal economic situation, hemmed in by a Rajapaksa construction boom gone bust: a luxury shopping mall and high rise Shangri-La Hotel on one side and the Chinese financed Port City on the other.
On May 9 violence first erupted when Rajapaksa supporters rampaged through GotaGoGama and other protest sites, beating protesters and destroying structures, including the art gallery. Some protesters retaliated with violence but by the end of the day Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa had resigned. A month later, on June 9, former Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa resigned as an MP. Another month later and another Rajapaksa brother made an exit. On July, 9 thousands of protesters stormed the President’s residence – though some couldn’t resist a dip in the pool. Four days later, President Rajapaksa was finally gone, first to the Maldives and then on to Singapore, before quietly returning some months later. Stepping up to take his place was Ranil Wickremesinghe, a political fixture who had already done five stints as prime minister and whose house had been burned down on July 9.
GotaGoGama quickly rebranded itself as RanilGoGama. Despite his neo-liberal, technocratic reputation, the new President called protesters fascists and terrorists on national television. Less than 24 hours after his swearing in, he had thousands of security forces clear protesters from the Presidential Secretariat and a large swathe of Galle Face Green in the early morning hours of July 22. The government’s own human rights commission called that action “a total violation of the fundamental rights of the people by the executive.” A subsequent police order forced protesters to dismantle the remaining structures by August. 10 Since then, the government has used the Prevention of Terrorism Act to detain and prosecute protesters – even though President Wickremesinghe, in an earlier liberal incarnation, had pledged to repeal that law.
The Aragalaya may have lasted only about 124 days but it accomplished something previously unthinkable in Sri Lankan politics: the removal of a sitting prime minister and president – the strongmen Rajapaksas no less – through popular protest. While the movement has been criticized for not paying more attention to minority grievances and demands, it did make important, symbolic efforts to bridge ethnic divisions that the Rajapaksas were only too happy to exacerbate and exploit. At GotaGoGama, people of different faiths came together during Ramadan to help with evening meals to break the fasting. More remarkably, people of different ethnicities at the protest site held a commemoration ceremony for the thousands of Tamils killed and disappeared during the final phase of the civil war – the first public commemoration ever held in the capital.
The Aragalaya was many things to many different participants and observers. We would argue that it was – in part – a Sri Lankan variant of the inclusive populism that appeared in earlier Occupy movements and that has been theorized by Chantal Mouffe. And, just as in those earlier movements, artists and “artivism” played a key role in building a shared aesthetic of political and affective solidarity.
Things Go Better with Coke
Rathnayake hails from the rural south – a strong-hold of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism and the Rajapaksa family’s power base – but his politics have always been reliably left wing. By contrast, his art is confoundingly unpredictable: he shifts between high and low art, gallery and street art, individualist and relational aesthetics, charcoal line drawings and impasto acrylic paintings and pop art and neo-expressionism. In one of his pop art homages, Ka-Ga-Ja 10 (2004), he critiques the Sri Lankan fetishization of artistic authenticity, high art, political repression and global consumerism by layering different signages against the familiar white on red swoop of a Coca-Cola sign. This work later featured in an exhibition of Sri Lankan “artful resistance” in Austria and Germany.
Rathanayake’s artistic resistance took on a more collective and participatory form when he helped establish the GotaGoGama Art Gallery. As he told us, “There are lawyers, doctors, trade unions, journalists…who set up their own tents here. I came here for the first time as a painter to represent my profession. My task here is to paint things relevant to the protest.”
The gallery served several functions. It made posters, banners, and billboards for the protest, representing their fighting slogans as art. It gave free art classes. It provided something for people to do when they came to the protest site. And it raised awareness of art; the aesthetic appreciation of art seeps into society along with people’s conceptualization of the protest through art.
Rathanayake didn’t just manage the gallery, he also lived in a tent at GotaGoGama. He talked about the difficulty of doing his own art under such conditions: the heat, the noise, the constant interruptions, and, of course, the attack on May 9. “I’m not someone who cries easily but…I couldn’t help but cry when I saw the gallery burning. Only one of my paintings was burnt but there were many burnt that others had drawn…As a painter I cannot approve burning of art, whether it is at Galle Face or at Ranil’s house.”
He rebuilt the gallery with help from other artists and GotaGoGama residents.
It’s the Real Thing
The opening of the Crisis & Struggle exhibition recaptured the carnivalesque creativity of GotaGoGama with a noisy parade led by several performance artists and musicians including Jehan Appuhami, Namini Panchala and Ajith Kumarasiri. That performance emphasized how the exhibition “is a transition from unconventional, outdoor space to established, enclosed gallery space, to continue the Aragalaya discourse and to assert that the overall struggle still continues,” in the words of the Exhibition Committee.
The exhibition itself was an interactive mix of installation, sculpture, painting and drawing that incorporated aspects of Rathnayake’s experience at GotaGoGama: his paint splattered clothes and a burnt drawing with the lettering “Do Not Burn Art!” But that work’s title – “Artist’s painting set on fire by the artist (2023)” – laces that political didacticism with dark humor, while proving that Rathnayake’s iconoclasm extends even to his own work. In a similar vein, the police bus door with a painted policeman staring out is titled, following Magritte, “This is not the police.” And, like Rathnayake’s earlier Coke sign, hardly “the real thing.”
But Rathnayake’s show was more concerned with connecting the treachery of images to the treachery of the state. Three paintings of subjected bodies and two paintings of incarcerated faces are titled “Aragalaya and the Rusted [Prevention of Terrorism] Act.” The installation with Rathnayake’s clothes on a metal bed and a copy of the Sri Lankan Constitution underneath is titled “Rusted Constitution operational also during the 2022 economic crisis.” As these works make painfully clear, Sri Lanka’s latest executive president has, once again, turned the people’s rule of law into the state’s rule by law. While that counter revolution may not get televised the way the Aragalaya did, Rathnayake has ensured that it will at least be exhibited and artfully resisted.