‘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 meaningful.
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 Gallery.
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 myself.
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 asked.
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 hypocritical.   
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 lovers play?
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 embrace?
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 claustrophobia?
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 revolution?