Art in and as activism

The Wendt, the National Art Gallery, Sapumal Foundation, Barefoot, JDA Perera, Red Dot, Theertha and other spaces associated with the visual and performing arts today didn’t exist or were entirely alien to me growing up, in the 80s and early 90s. Colombo at the time was a city of checkpoints, high-walls, barbed-wire and armed, stentorian sentries. In addition, a lower middle-class family couldn’t afford an engagement with the arts. My parents, who meticulously planned our outings during the day especially during the UNP-JVP ‘bheeshana yugaya’ and when violence in the North strongly suggested retaliatory attacks in the city by way of suicide bombings, never prioritised the arts or visiting the few places at the time one could engage with cultural traditions and practice.

There were more pressing existential priorities – not always being together in case one of them was killed, leaving Akka and I orphaned; stocking up on food, in case curfew was suddenly imposed. Keeping the petrol tank always full, and never undertaking journeys without a time by which one would be home, before dusk. In all the family trips to Colombo around 30 years ago, I remember the architectural scars of July 1983 and at the time, more recent kinetic scars of suicide bombing shrapnel, enmeshing and dotting the city. The anxiety was palpable, and the fear, real. I do not know what it was like for the higher echelons of society, but for us, the necessary performance of mundane, daily rituals – around school, groceries, work, housework, visits to relatives, visits by relatives – was the lens and vector through which society writ large was engaged with. Though it wasn’t evident at the time and there was no choice in the matter, it was a very limited frame, in every way imaginable. Art simply didn’t enter it, especially for a lower-middle class family.

My first acrylic encounter and artistic framing of Sri Lanka (and its systemic violence) was through the now renowned T. Shanaathanan’s art in Delhi, India. I was doing my Bachelors. He was also a student, doing his MFA. Shanaathanan continues to define, for me, an artistic endeavour that bears witness to inconvenient truths which is intellectually engaging, never sterile, continuously refined and inclusive. By this I mean the production of art that is geared not at collectors, the wealthy or merely to adorn an otherwise empty space on a wall that matches the room décor – but art that informs, illuminates and ultimately, is a call for engagement – art that subverts. As quoted in Open Magazine after I saw Shanaathanan’s ‘Cabinet of Resistance’ at the Kochi-Muziris Art Biennale earlier this year, “By presenting the lives of others through this work, [he] is able to transport us, through index cards, into the banality of violence, in all its forms— beyond the enfilade of a battlefield, to the domestic; beyond the headline-grabbing deaths, to loss so painful it can only ever be told as parable; away from the communal to the deeply personal.”

The singer-songwriter M.I.A. (Mathangi ‘Maya’ Arulpragasam) has an interesting art book based on her music, and what inspires it. M.I.A. is more popular outside of Sri Lankan than in the country, where her considerable talent in music isn’t recognised by local radio stations, perhaps because of controversies surrounding her equally considerable ignorance in domestic politics outside of histrionic sound-bites. But the book – in the psychedelic and shocking in the signature style of M.I.A – is a compelling, unusual visual story of resistance, violence and ultimately, the systemic nature of racism in Sri Lanka, which for most is so invisible, it is vehemently contested when surfaced.

On similar lines, it’s easy to flag and find the more popular and visible acts of resistance and activism through art. It’s harder to appreciate the smaller acts of artistic resistance – street and performance art, mural, graffiti, symbols and signs in public spaces. Godwin Constantine’s 1994 performance ‘Broken Palmyra’, Haththotuwegama’s street theatre, the creative scripts and performances during the ‘Bheeshana Yugaya’, as documented by Ranjini Obeyesekare, which foresaw violent Police intervention at the end of a play to break up performance and audience, and wrote this into plot and action – are markers of a rich tradition of resistance in the performance spaces and theatrical traditions of Sri Lanka.

Post-war and since 2009, through the Colombo Dance Platform, Colomboscope and smaller platforms facilitated by Theertha, performance as resistance and reflection has seen an up-surge, dealing with complex yet urgent social, political, economic and cultural issues mainstream artists, with a more commercial bent, have shied away from.

Today, Facebook memes often constitute individual acts of resistance, and collectively flag a burgeoning critical review of politics that is born digital. From cartoon and satire to animated GIFs and short videos, the rise of social media has spurned new forms, techniques of and platforms for art that offer new engagement dynamics. The subjects of critique find they can no longer capture, contain, censor or kill art, and its producers, easily.

Ridicule, revulsion, recognition or respect now has digital form, and established artists like Anoma Wijewardene have been in recent years experimenting with locating their output at the intersection of where the real and the virtual meet, or collide. But the rise of digital platforms has also led to new artists – from photographers on Instagram to illustrators and cartoonists on Behance, from videographers on Vimeo to music productions on SoundCloud, a rich diversity of art also embraces creative forms of resistance, in new spaces online.

And therein lies the challenge – how to inspire, going forward, art that is political, and yet appeals to more than those already tuned into the politics of the frame, space or performance. Gallerists and curators will have a key role in this, imagining first new frames that artists are invited to inhabit, collaborate within and ultimately, redefine. But there is a role for us too – as those who see and support the arts. We can and must be resistant to what is often a lazy, ill-conceived and intellectually vacuous presentations and output that of late overwhelms well-known and much visited art platforms. The most compelling art may best spring from austerity, but also flourishes in a tradition where it is robustly contested – where the conversation around art is not about price or proof of purchase, but about the ideas presented.

Ultimately, it is not about the art and artist. It is about us, and what kind of society and world we would like to see in concrete form, which sometimes is most powerfully and first glimpsed through the abstract, ephemeral frames art affords.

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