‘Quest’ invites a consideration of blinders
By Malinda Seneviratne
If a drop of poetry or love could have quelled the anger of
someone like Prabhakaran, he would be in some ashram quietly
meditating with remorse over his many and terrible crimes
against humanity. Life doesn’t resolve like that, unfortunately.
This does not mean that poetry and love does not have a place in
social and political intercourse, however. To the extent that
such things inform us of who we are, the problems with what we
believe, reveal to us our blinders, love and poetry can help
make our interventions more informed and therefore more
I went to see Anoma Wijewardene’s maiden digital art exhibition
‘Quest’ harbouring what I believed was a healthy degree of
suspicion. A friend of mine had told me that there was a lot of
mischief in the production. He said that the artwork was
attended by quotes attributed to characters whose political
leanings are suspect in my book.
Not knowing much about art, I confess, the quotes interested me
more, not least of all because of my friend’s comment. And so
the names Jehan Perera and Pakaiasothy Saravanamuttu (and to a
lesser degree of importance, A.T. Ariyaratne) jumped out of the
walls at me not soon after I walked into the National Art
I did the rounds, appreciated the play of colour and form,
merging and inter-locking of disparate visuals and even expended
some effort to draw some meaning that could be called coherent.
I was distracted. So much so that I even wrote a comment in the
book kept for this purpose, questioning the choice of quoting
people who are loath to call Prabhakaran a terrorist and
pointing out that there was a certain character laundering
evident here. I took issue with the artist and the organisers
for having the quotes only in English.
I was disturbed to be told by Krishantha Sri Bhaggiyadatta that
there were Sinhala and Tamil translations as well. Never mind
the fact that the originals almost without exception were
English and this constitutes a footnoting of Sinhala and Tamil
voices, I wondered why I had been blind to this. I managed to
figure out two possible reasons. First, my viewing was
conditioned by my antipathy to Jehan Perera et al. They, I knew,
never write in Sinhala or Tamil. Secondly, looking around the
gallery, the faces and attire, I found, were eminently
‘English-speaking’. A possible third would be the greater
command (at least in terms of vocabulary) that I have over the
English language as opposed to Sinhala. ‘Blinders,’ I told
The creatives were not all stripped of political identity as
Anoma claimed. There was for example the juxtaposition of two
soldiers with the not-so-casually ‘located’ sticker ‘Son of a
gun’. I spoke with Anoma and apologised for not-seeing the
Sinhala and Tamil translations. I also objected to the fact
that she had conferred some respectability to some shady
political characters. She said anyone can interpret anything
anyway and that the ‘political’ was not considered in the
choices made. She will come to know, sooner or later, that the
political arrives, with or without invitation. ‘Where, for
example, is the so-called ‘extremist Sinhala Buddhist’ voice
among these quotes, if you are so keen not to take sides?’ I
For all this, the digital art and the multimedia presentation
were tastefully put together; powerful and with an inescapable
poignancy that persuaded reflection.
Me, I don’t know much about art to fully appreciate, but
metaphor is something I do understand. And so, when the
explanatory notes talked of ‘deconstruction’, ‘manipulation’,
‘juxtaposition’ etc and claimed at the same time that there was
no ‘documentary’ or ‘reportage’ involved, it all sounded
I read a review of the exhibition where the reviewer went ga-ga
about hybridization pertaining to identity. There are no pure
strains, of course, but this doesn’t preclude coherence in
identity either. And when ‘scholars’ claim the Sinhalese are a
hybrid lot (and therefore ‘Sinhala’ an untenable notion) but
does not dare venture into questioning the purity of Tamils
especially in a context where certain people claiming to
represent Tamils talk of ‘traditional homelands’ and coolly
speak these notions with guns, bombs and whatnot, I think
‘fraud’. Using ‘Quest’ (an authentic if innocent attempt to
portray complexities and awaken the more benevolent humours that
inhabit our sensibilities) to roll out a problematic (and
violent) political thesis I found to be a bit unpalatable.
Some people think, for example, that just because Anoma is a
woman, ‘Quest’ is some kind of feminist expression or has to do
with gender and nothing else. Reviewers are free to promote
their ideologies via review. I do it all the time because
there’s a where-I-come-from involved.
Anoma is not to blame of course; to each his/her interpretation
in accordance with the perceived truths (and blinders) he/she
has embraced, myself included. Layering and fusion, overlapping
and repetition…these things belong to a canvass of multiple
possibilities, interpretation and realities, Anoma says. And she
is right. Life is not too dissimilar from such processes and
neither is politics.
Some may say that Anoma’s is a quest for peace and indeed she
herself may believe this is what her work is about. But peace,
unhappily, is a term that sycophants and jokers of all hues have
defined beyond recognition. If wars are made in the name of
Jesus Christ, then this is not something to be surprised about.
If Jesus Christ can be hijacked, Anoma is eminently qualified to
be hijacked as well.
On the other hand, what happens to a work of art goes beyond the
political canvass over which the artist has control. The artist
is not to blame. Quest will be a different quest for each person
who sees it. This is a good thing. I asked my five-year-old
daughter which painting she liked best. She showed me two. She
pointed to a picture of a Buddha statue (one which the tsunami
had left untouched) against a stormy backdrop and a leaning
coconut tree. ‘This is what I like best,’ she said. ‘But the
hondama eka is this,’ she pointed to another frame that had
beautiful shades of purple.
Anoma should take this exhibition out of Colombo. She unsettles
the viewer and this is a good thing. In that unsettling, the
viewer can re-imagine, and not necessarily in the ways that
Jehan and others imagine and believe are God-given. Let them
come to their own conclusions. Deeper reflection can do no harm
and Anoma certainly invites this through ‘Quest’.
Notes to a book of answers
Does the full moon fertilise the earth as it moves from
liyadda to liyadda?
Does the sun break up the earth so it can crawl through the
radiating cracks and claim a deserved residence?
Will the story of the hare and the tortoise ever go out of
fashion and will we ever learn that it is about the games that
Isn’t it true that those who set fire to the thicket do so
because they are intimidated by the dark and its secrets?
If the world’s nostalgia were amalgamated and given tangible
form, would we obtain paradise or an aberration we will never
Didn’t you know that mists are the souls of forsaken lovers that
derive life from the sighs of lovers at parting and then only
for a moment?
What is sadder, a falling star or a falling kite?
Isn’t it brine that runs in the veins of fishermen and isn’t the
flesh of farmers made of grain?
What is the occupational affliction of the powerful, vertigo or
When we wear the clothes that are demanded of us, do we stuff
our unhappy skins in a trash can or turn them into drums beaten
to unfamiliar rhythms?
What is it with grass and cockroaches that they are never
stamped into the ground forever?
If loving is giving, how is it that lovers can never resist the
comfort and agony of jealousy?
What is love if not a need to write a short story with lips and
to lose identity in her eyes?
What is love if not waiting for a century to consume a moment
where fire unites with water and where moonbeam and ray of
sunlight weave an exquisite pattern that vanishes with a kiss?
And what is the final resting place of orphaned blood if not the
memoirs of a madman who would not differentiate love from