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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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'.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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".
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.