Images of a ravaged culture
Aham Puram, an exhibition depicting the horrors of war by gifted artists from both the North and South will be open throughout this month at the Jaffna Public Library. Frances Bulathsinghala reports

As a young boy Pakianathan Ahilan used to often watch the sunset. From his hometown Araly, a remote village in Jaffna overlooking the sea, he would observe beyond the horizon, how the sun would make its glorious exit from day and sink in the sky just behind the edifice that the Tamil people considered part of their intellectual heritage - the stately structure of the Jaffna Public Library. This image he would later sketch if there was sufficient chalk in the house.

Ahilan was too young to be familiar with the vast number of texts and chronicles that existed within those imposing walls and going to the library for him then was as ceremonious as attending the yearly cultural festival with his parents. However he dreamt of the day he would be able to enter those hallowed precincts and discover the key to knowledge.

His eight-year-old dreams were shattered on May 31, 1981 when his horizon became submerged in fire and all that was left to view were charred remnants and a burning city.

It has been 23 years since the burning of the Jaffna library by political goons and the fuelling of a bloody ethnic conflict opening the gates of terrorism. Ahilan who is qualified in art history and in art criticism stands in the premises of the old Public Library. Surrounding him are new walls. New books. A new phase. A new version of the old library. And in this new library which was opened to the public in February this year, is the one month long art exhibition opened on September 5 of which Ahilan is one of the key organisers and curator.

The biggest ever art exhibition so far to be held in Jaffna with the participation of over fifty Southern artists through sculpture, paintings and installation creates an awareness that is harrowing. And the Jaffna Public Library which stands as witness to a senseless , politicized war seems the most appropriate place to have the exhibition dealing largely with the theme of war and peace leaving it to the viewer to imagine the horrors of those who lived through what was acted out in real, cold blooded, life.

Titled Aham Puram (translated from Tamil meaning 'inner' and 'outer'- the two words also could be interpreted as home and world), the exhibition is the result of the labours of the organisers - Jagath Weerasinghe and a group of artists from Colombo belonging to the Theertha International Artists Collective and a group of literary and aesthetic figures based in Jaffna and affiliated to the Jaffna university. The exhibition is also mainly the brainchild of the study site for visual culture, named Sethu, an organisation launched in July this year to improve the arts in Jaffna and especially propagate artistic communication between the South and the North.

With over fifty paintings mostly oils on canvas portraying the various aspects of conflict displayed, the exhibition has a large number of installations with a separate installation titled 'History of Histories' which takes up two halls of the library. This art installation consisting of 'war remnants' collected randomly from 500 houses within the Jaffna peninsula captures vividly the ashes that the twenty- year- old conflict created in the souls of the Jaffna people.

A board describing this art work 'History of Histories' has this to say : "Loss, destruction, despair, disappearance, suffering, death, exodus and nostalgia became part of mundane and ordinary experience. There is no house or street or village or town without the touch of war. Even though the people restarted removing the physical destructions of war and engaged in reconstruction, they still live with their inner wounds in the 'no war' time'.

Plastic bottles cut into half and sealed with the tops of the bottles turned inward contain 'ordinary' things : an identity card , a Ministry form filled by a desperate wife looking for her missing husband suspected to have been taken in by the military under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, an empty cigarette packet, a knife, a rusted door knob, a faded photograph of happy times… The list continues. Ordinary things rusted in time in the receding memory of war. Every assembled item could be taken for its own symbol. The knife for the hope, joy, and life the war has severed, the door knob for the opening of the doors of terror and again (if a positive note is to be forced) for the opening of the doors of peace. Pieces of rusted and broken lamps for the snuffing out of the light of living.

Among the items in this display are many identity cards of owners whose whereabouts were never known. Ahilan walking through the two halls containing this artwork explains that it was specially done for the Jaffna Public Library. He points out that even after the conclusion of the exhibition this installation might get its permanent place in the library as the two halls it is displayed in are so far vacant.

"In this particular installation it is for the people to make their own impressions. We are forcing nothing upon them but give them 'reality' in aesthetic hues," explains Ahilan who says that there have been many visitors from Colombo since the opening of the exhibition on September 5th.

Speaking of the paintings from Southern artists including veterans such as Chandragupta Thenuwara, Jagath Weerasinghe, Sarath Kumarasiri and Anoli Perera he says that although there was no formal theme in particular for the selection of works, all the paintings invariably dealt with war and peace "This is the 90's trend," he says by way of explanation and states that this trend had most of the artists juxtaposing Buddhism against conflict and terrorism. This he says is a campaign against the institutionalization of Sri Lankan Buddhism as a political tool.

Among the paintings is Chandragupta Thenuwara's famous depiction of war in the form of 'barrelism' as exhibited from the beginnings of the 90s in Colombo. Although the exhibition clearly deals with a past that is wrapped in darkness and which seems to still have only glimmers of light, T. Shanaathanan who is a Jaffna based artist and affiliated to the Jaffna University in the capacity of lecturer in the Department of Fine Arts says that more than the past or the present the exhibition is aimed at focusing on the aspect of transition.

"The existence and meaning of aham (inner) is dependent upon and inclusive of puram (outer) and a yearning to grasp the subtleties of aham takes us to the wider world of puram. The anxieties of suspicion and fear that ensues when confronting puram makes us realise the meanings of aham," explains Shanaathanan delineating the spiritual cum philosophical aspect of the two words and their implications.

The most unique art installation 'The table of food' which has a remarkable sense of acuity, is in the form of a dinner table, covered by a white tablecloth, with white plates, where the 'food' burnt to cinders is placed. The menu includes among other sooty 'delicacies', a severed hand.

This creation of Sanath Kalubadana delivers the message by its concept but it is in the handwritten 'menu' fixed on the table at every plate that the weight of the message comes through. Within a folded sheet of paper with red letters that states ‘menu’ is the statement with space for comments that says : "I have only this to offer. Since this food is inedible, please write about a culture that can produce edible food".

This message epitomizes the message of all the artists. Existence is no longer human. Politics is no longer there to serve people. And religion a political rhetoric.

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