Photos courtesy Saskia Fernando Gallery

Between August 1989 and January 1990, 48 school children in Embilipitiya were abducted and murdered. Several of their bodies were found in a mass grave nearby. Some of the perpetrators, including military personnel, have been brough to justice. As a result, their families have been able to find some kind of closure. Mothers in Kilinochchi, however, do not have any idea where their children are after handing them over the military in the expectation that they would be returned.

When artist Jagath Weerasinghe did a series of clay representations on the forcibly disappeared, he witnessed a stark contrast between the mothers of in Kilinochchi and the Embilipitiya mothers. The mothers from the North did not want the clayimpressions of their clenched fists fired because they had unfinished business while the mothers from Embilipitiya did not mind the firing.

The fist impressions were created as a part of the now demolished public monument Shrine of the Innocents built at Battaramulla in 1999 memorialising the innocent victims of violence experienced in the South in the late 1980s and early 1990s and also as a part of a television programme to commemorate the Embilipitiya massacre.

“The Kilinochchi mothers wanted to keep one piece. They told me that even if they are not there anymore, their children will take it on. After the war they trusted the one thing they are supposed to trust and gave their children over to the army; they are not ready to accept that their children are gone.

“With this shrine, I am not letting you to accept it either. No one can erase this shrine. I can make it again and again if necessary,” said Jagath in an interview with Groundviews.

This month the Saskia Fernando Gallery is presenting Impetus, an exhibition of Jagath’s early works created from 1989 to the first half of the 1990s.

Impetus presents the artist’s spontaneous and sporadic response to the brutal violence and tumultuous social and political events in Sri Lanka between 1983 and 1989. This reactionary outburst of intense emotions, particularly through the medium of the woodcut print, foreshadows the recurrent themes and streams of philosophical rumination that have defined his oeuvre in the last thirty-odd years. The themes of decapitated heads, broken stupas and beastly human figures with contorted and elongated features become the visual devices that guide his intellectual inquiries and were first conceptualized in his years as a postgraduate student at the American University. These early works of the artist lay the ground for his subsequent contemplations and critique of Sri Lankan society and the breakdown of ethical and moral order in works such as Who Are You Soldier? and Shiva,” a press release from the gallery said.

Jagath coined the phrase 90s Art Trend to describe the socially conscious art that he and some of his contemporaries were introducing to address political and social issues of the time. His work has examined and critiqued themes such as nationhood, religion and identity. Often expressed in black and white and containing visceral and violent images, his work reflected the horror and tragedy of the JVP uprising and the ethnic war.

Jagath has a Master of Fine Arts from the American University in Washington DC. He is the co-founder of the Theertha Collective. His work has been featured at the Singapore Art Biennale, Art Dubai and Aicon Gallery in New York and belongs to collections at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the US and the Fukuoka Art Museum in Japan.

Jagath spoke to Groundviews about why he is revisiting his early work, about uncomfortable art and how he feels about the demolition of his shrine.

What is the significance of revisiting your early work now?

I have realised that the exhibition tells me how much I have changed. It challenges me about how much I have been co-opted to the system and the market. No matter how radical you are in critiquing the state ideology and structure, your work will end up in dining rooms of wealthy people. I can’t deny contradiction; everything happens with big money. One of things that shocked me about my early work was how lonely and self-critical I was as a graduate student. During the 1988 to 1989 period I was studying at the American University getting news about what was happening in Sri Lanka. I was listening to Nanda Malini and crying with my headphones on. I was angry and lonely. Also the stamina I had during that time amazes me and challenges me.

Do the themes reflected in your work from the early 1990s still resonate today?

They still resonates today. That’s what frustrates me. My 1992 Anxiety show was a turning point because in that exhibition there were no beautiful landscapes or abstracts that were pleasing to the eye. Instead there were broken stupas and decapitated bodies. It inspired people to create art that tells a good story; a narrative. I have no art that makes you comfortable. It bothers me that the younger generations is not taking this risk but are caught up in the corporate art market. Then we had no art materials or private galleries and the art market minimal. We wanted to tell a story. Two decades later, art has been taken to a superficial level with no critical sense. It doesn’t challenge the status quo. It is snug and comfortable, hung in dining rooms as gentrified suffering for the art consuming public. Art must reveal something not just to say something and it should take you to different depths. It should push viewers to that edge.

Why are many of your images in black and white?

For these stories, black and white lends itself to what I have to say. It also comes from my childhood. I used charcoal to brush my teeth and used charcoal to paint on walls, much to the annoyance of my father because we were living in a rented house and he had to clean the walls. I was breaking a law given to me by my father and attacking the system. I am a black and white graffiti artist at heart.

Many of the work depicts violence. Is that a reflection of our society?

The fact is that we are all part of the problem but we are also a possible solution too. I am a Sinhala Buddhist and a product of my upbringing, the school I went to and where I grew up. It is self-deception that puts us into trouble. You need to know that you are capable of being a devil and that you can transcend that. The problem is that people think they are not capable of violence when they actually are. There is an impulse for collective violence. Nationalism and racism is in the air we breathe; we are brought up like that.

Do you think your work over the last three decades has made a difference to the situation?

I can’t deceive myself that I have made an impact on younger artists to make a different type of art. However, a certain group of art lovers in Colombo have been forced to change the way they think about art. There are no public institutions that present the history of modern art to a larger public therefore the impact is minimal.

What was your reaction when the shrine to the innocent was destroyed?

It made me feel lonely and neglected and rejected in several ways. The only people who supported me were Sandy Ekneligoda and some young leftist boys. No one took care of it, no one was bothered about it.

How can the system be changed?

The aragalaya is most important political event that has happened in post independent Sri Lanka. It was hijacked by politically interested parties but a younger group of youth made such a thing happen without the leadership of a political party. There was no political theory or class politics, just a certain kind of energy against the idea of Rajapaksas. The relationship between idea of state and people is very complex. Getting rid of 225 parliamentarians is trying to escape the real problem. People are part of the problem; they have depended on unrealistic socialism and the subsidy system. We voted for them so we as a people are the problem. We are beneficiaries of a corrupt system. People heading government institutions have so much power that they are able to do anything without consulting others. There is no discussion. The state runs on documents so system change requires rewriting acts for participatory democracy in government departments.

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