20 September 2011

Returning facsimiles of loot does not compensate, sorry

On February 21, 2008, during a debate between then candidates for the Democratic Party’s nomination for the US presidency, Hillary Clinton took a stab at Barack Obama: ‘"If your candidacy is going to be about words, they should be your own words," said Clinton. "Lifting whole passages is not change you can believe in, it's change you can Xerox."

The reference was to Obama using some lines penned by a friend who suggested that he use them.  Clinton’s prepared barb fell flat.  She was booed and subsequently lampooned in the media but not before Obama came up with the classic ‘this is where we get into the season of silliness’. 

Xerox is a Fortune 500 global document-management company. Its range of range of color and black-and-white printers, multifunction systems, photo-copiers, digital production printing presses, and related consulting services and supplies has such a huge share of the US market that brand name is now used for product.  In the USA, people don’t photocopy; they xerox.

Obama and Clinton have since that debate proved that they are both experts at xeroxing age old US policy preferences in global and globalized thuggery, theft, sanitization of crimes against humanity, brazen double-standards and many-tongued ways of diplo-speak.  No surprises there.  What brought the xerox-silliness to mind was a news item and a comment about an insult dressed up as a compliment and a favour. 

What the British did was no different.  This is reproduction, but the act itself was hardly 'facsimile'.
‘A Return to Sri Lanka’ is the appropriate title of an exercise that lacks taste and is utterly in-your-face insulting in these particularly obnoxious xeroxing days. It’s a travelling exhibition (September 14 to November 24) and is ‘blurbed’ thus: ‘covers nearly 300 years of the country’s history through 150 digital facsimiles of materials from major British collections, including maps, manuscripts, prints, drawings and photographs as well as other artifacts’.   I asked myself: ‘Only 150?’  

It brought to mind Juliet Coombe’s brag that she protested moves by the British Museum to charge a fee.  She acknowledged that the facility held a lot of artifacts robbed from this country.  She has not protested, to my knowledge, the fact of theft nor agitated for the return of stolen goods to rightful owners, the people of this country.    It’s all same-old, same-old with the organizers of this particular exhibition, isn’t it?

The Country Director of the British Council Colombo, Tony Reilly, has described the exhibition as ‘a partnership (!) event where accessibility is a main feature by first and foremost traveling across the Island but by also having an online version of the exhibition which can even be logged onto from your mobile phones. He has stressed that ‘the main aim of the exhibition is to share it , to experience, to enjoy, to argue and talk about 300 years of cultural diversity described in each piece’.  He has left out ‘theft’.

At the end of the tour, ‘A Return to Sri Lanka’ is to be donated to the Ministry of National Heritage.  Perhaps Tony and the co-curators of the show, Menika van der Poorten and John Falconer expect us to say ‘thank you, thank you, you are so kind, we are so undeserving!’    If so, the ‘undeserving’ part would make sense.  Only that.

In the news item referring to the exhibition, Sumaya Samarasinghe of The Sunday Leader waxes eloquent about Falconer describing ‘with calm and passion’ the work and the artists he admired most.  The ‘dedication’ of the organizers, especially Falconer, is saluted and we are told that this is all the more reason for us to go see it.  It gets better.  The exhibition is funded by the ‘World Collections Programme’.  I was thinking: ‘spawn of that other collections programme called ‘imperialism’?’ And it’s endorsed by the Ministry of Heritage, I am told.  Says a lot about that ministry’s sentiments on the subject.

All I know is that it was not facsimile versions of my ancestors who were slaughtered by the thousands by the British.  It was not facsimile versions of temples and libraries that were burnt down and churches erected on their foundations.  It was not facsimile versions of forests that were torn down to plant coffee and tea.  It was not facsimile versions of gems, spices, statues and countless other treasures that were taken and later housed in the British Library, the Victoria and Albert Museums, the Natural History Museum, London and other loot-holding facilities. It was not facsimile versions of our whatnots that are getting played here and I doubt that van de Poorten, Reilly and Falconer are unaware. 

I can always trust my always-alert fellow Yaka and long-time friend to put things in perspective in his own English dialect and unique syntax:  they fokkin' brazen aint they? so let's see, they steal and then show us pix of what they stole but wont return? No one asking for reparations or loot? Is there a catalog of the stolen in collections? Is Keppetipola's skull still in Scotland?’

This is not a ‘return’ to Sri Lanka.  This is about slapping one cheek and slapping the other too for good measure.  ‘Returns that can be Xeroxed’ sums up the season of plunder that does not seem to have ended after the British ‘left’.   They could return what they robbed and keep the facsimiles in their collections, after all. 
This is adding insult to injury, humiliation to insult.  This is xerox we can do without, really.  



Stan said...


Will you organise an exhibition about the '83 riots, or the burning of the Jaffna Library?

Malinada Seneviratne said...

i have never organized exhibitions Stan, but i have written about both these things. what's your point, though?

G. de Silva said...

Looks like we are going to need awful lot of exhibitions - starting from vaddukodi massacres, 83 riots, burning of Jaffna library, horrendous killings of all those who raised their voices against the LTTE, many suicide bombings and expulsion of Sinhalese and Muslims in the North with final exhibition of the death of a racist megalomaniac in a dirty lagoon. We are all for you Stan, on this.

Stan said...

Yes guys, and that's my point. Let's be honest ourselves before we expect honesty from all others. Let's have all those exhibitions the GdeS suggests because when we live with so many double and triple standards why point fingers at others?

Malinda Seneviratne said...

Stan, there's been more than enough honesty on our part.

Malinda Seneviratne said...

Stan, there's been more than enough honesty on our part.

G. de Silva said...

Stan, we do need to point the fingers at the European Masters who subjugated (and continue do so) the people of Sri Lanka for the last 500 years. This is our history so it is more important for us to accept the reality of what happened during the last 500 years compared to the last 30 years. This is a key issue. This is why our people run after the European masters without resolving issues among ourselves. They some how other feel that the colonial masters have the solution for us. Our history is full of people who opted to lick the boots of the West for political and personal gains. Some believe that the infamous Norwegian CFA was signed because some of our people wanted to get the Nobel Peace Prize by agreeing to do so! Even the Pol Pot of Sri Lanka would have done far better had he not relied on the West and came to genuine and open negotiations with the Govt at the early stages. A big price to pay for such a trivial lesson but have we learnt the lesson yet? I think not. It appears there are quite a few in Sri Lanka who prefer to lick the colonial masters boots and then get kicked in their back in return. Time to stand up for ourselves.

Rory Winter said...

It is only now that so many cases of genocide committed by the British during the days of Empire are emerging. So far, the history books have been kept clean of any such blots. We know about the Irish Potato Famine but very few know of the famine in 1940s India where millions died and for which Winston Churchill should be held directly responsible. Similarly, the genocide committed in Kenya has only recently emerged from Whitehall's Top Secret files.

So if the Sinhalese were slaughtered by the thousands by the British I would be interested to know more, for example in what circumstances did such genocide occur? Similarly when and where the British burnt down Sinhalese temples and libraries. I am assuming that these incidents have been well catalogued?