17 February 2023

Sujith Rathnayake and incarcerations imposed and embraced

‘Crisis & Struggle’ is the title of an art exhibition that was recently held at the Lionel Wendt Art Gallery. Sujith Rathnayake, the artist, calls it a visual art attack. Nice line. It is presented by, so the poster claims, ‘Art Gallery of the Galle Face Protest Site.’

Sujith Rathnayake’s stature as an artist got considerably enhanced during the ‘Aragalaya.’ Put another way, his stature as a conscious objector to perceived tyrannies or rather tyrannies perceived was elevated during those months.

Now we do know that the Aragalaya spawned a lot of unsavoury characters or rather brought them to the fore. Among them were ‘artists’ and some of them were funded directly or indirectly by the US State Department, especially through NED (National Endowment for Democracy), the successor to the CIA in overseas operations designed to destabilise nations considered ‘unfriendly’ or bring them under Uncle Sam’s sway. It is unlikely that Sujith Rathnayake had membership in that particularly distasteful club of con-artists.  

The artistic worth of Sujith’s work will have to be evaluated by art critics. Political fellow travelers will no doubt celebrate a comrade, but perhaps the full significance of one particular exhibit might be lost on them — the installation piece where a prison door and a mirror compels ‘viewer’ to consider his/her incarceration(s), aptly captioned with a Vicent van Gogh quote, ‘conscience is a man’s compass.’

It is pertinent that the quote is an extract from a letter Vicent wrote to his brother Theo (in December 1882) who supported the artist financially and emotionally. The entire letter makes fascinating reading, but let’s limit this to the paragraph that contains the quote, as translated by Theo’s wife Johanna van Gogh-Bonger:

‘One must go on working silently, leaving the result to the future. If one prospect is closed, perhaps another will open itself - there must be some prospect, and a future too, even if we do not know its geography. Conscience is a man's compass, and though the needle sometimes deviates, though one often perceives irregularities when directing one's course by it, one must still try to follow its direction.’

Sujith’s invitation is one for self-examination, a consideration of possible complicity. The image of the artist, self-incarcerated and self-framed by a reference to the conscience, is certainly powerful. It cries out, ‘I shall begin with myself.’  Maybe Sujith will, accordingly, express in art or in other form what he contended with in this journey.  He hasn’t yet, that much is clear from the rest of the exhibition.

It is a call nevertheless and since the entire exercise is Aragalaya-toned, so to speak, one cannot be faulted for wondering whether the comrades-at-arms were spurred to engage in the self-reflection prescribed.

The target of the ‘attack by art’ is the status quo, the state, the government then in power, the rulers of that time. The installations and the paintings state the artist’s discontent and indeed livid objection to all that. Perhaps in the calculation of ‘musts’ and ‘perhaps later’ Sujith decided not to question himself, his comrades, fellow-aragalists, relevant paarshava of the Aragalaya with regard to the choice of slogans, the tone of protests, arson, robbery, murder and other despicable acts which, ironically were important issues ranted and raved about by the agitators. Perhaps it was not the time to question, for example, the petikiriya of fellow-aragalists or unwrap the contradictions that were so apparent at Galle Face or, as they called it, GGG (Gotagogama).

Sujith Rathnayake is an artist. He is an activist. He stands up for what he believes. It is not unfair to ask him to subject himself to the tests he has prescribed for others. Time has passed.  A lot of time. Things have happened. One could ask, ‘what kind of reflection has the artist done in the time that has passed?’

Sujith will, I am sure, respond as he will. When he feels it is appropriate. For now, what’s most important, for me at least, is the invitation he has so eloquently ‘worded’ with mirror and frame, incarceration forced, willing submission submitted to imprisonment of one kind or another.

No struggle is perfect. No struggle is smooth. All struggles are marked by setbacks, confusion, betrayal etc. Sometimes, the worst betrayals are those perpetrated on account of ignorance and arrogance or, indeed, those which resolutely refuse self-criticism.

Sujith Rathnayake has put many things in perspective. Sujith Rathnayake has turned a searchlight inwards. The light has also fallen on the agitators and the agitation, whether or not this was intended. It is an important and necessary intervention by an accomplished artist and a man for whom conscience is a compass for it could result in the realization that conscience too can be subjected to incarceration. Self-incarceration. 

['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below]

Other articles in this series:

Some stories are written on the covers themselves

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time 

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists?

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords

The books of disquiet

A song of terraced paddy fields

Of ants, bridges and possibilities

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva 

World's End

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse

Street corner stories

Who did not listen, who's not listening still?

The book of layering

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain

The world is made for re-colouring

The gift and yoke of bastardy

The 'English Smile'

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5

Visual cartographers and cartography

Ithaca from a long ago and right now

Lessons written in invisible ink

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness'

A tea-maker story seldom told

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart The allegory of the slow road  


Anonymous said...

සුජිත්ගේ ප්‍රදර්ශනය ගැන article එකේ සිංහල පරිවර්තනය දෙන්න පුළුවන්නම් හොඳයි.

Anonymous said...

Can you publish sinhala translation of above article.

Anonymous said...

You ate trying to put some insights of your own paradigm without knowing any value proposition of artworks n hard work made it to make it happen.
You n sujith may be having different political views n accepted.but if you font have any idea of a visual creation kindly keep silent rather than shoeing who you ate to the crowd. It doesn't pitch to the readers at all and just you alone enjoy n take muddy fruits of your own trees .wish you good health man

Malinda Words said...

Never claimed any knowledge of any value propositions of art. Merely wrote about how his work spoke to me. Really happy that you've surveyed all the readers...you must have in order to claim 'doesn't pitch to the readers at all.' :)