Trekurious sat down with artist Jagath Weerasinghe to get some insight into the artist who is the host for the first Artist’s Table at the Saskia Fernando Gallery
By Sareena Hussain
Jagath Weerasinghe is pivotal to the exposure of contemporary Sri Lankan art, and has been a significant driving force in its development since the early 1990s.
His own art, mostly as a painter and draughtsman, is deeply informed by his society’s actions. His work examines and critiques Sri Lankan anxieties, responding to collective attitudes – as he identifies them, taking themes such as nationhood, religion, identity, and confrontation for commentary. The artist’s work reflects his unresolved dialogue with his subjects, as shown through a number of series of recurrent themes.
The driving force behind his creations
Speaking on his work and the driving force behind his creations, he said: “There are several things that I can think of, firstly, living today has become a major hassle. You can’t make sense of what’s happening around you, it’s not only because of politics but also because of the condition of the late capitalist or modern period.
“In a place like Sri Lanka it can be even more confusing because, the question of ‘have we ever been modern?’ comes into play. We know that we are, in certain ways, post traditional. But, we are not really truly modern as such. This being said, nobody can define what modernism is; including people like Bruno Latour (The author of ‘We have never been modern’).
“But, we can be assured that what’s happening in Sri Lanka and elsewhere is that the rights of religious institutions have become the rights of individuals and families. The general perception is that when we become modern we relinquish these bondages, but what has actually happened is that we have taken it from one institution to another. An example is abstract art which is considered to be modern yet spiritual hence reflecting on how the same thing is done through different institutions.
“In conclusion, my work helps me make sense of the state of being para-traditional and para modern. This is a good enough anxiety and crisis to live with for the rest of my life; this is not only for me but everyone living in this country. This is essentially what prompts me to do what I do at a much larger level.”
He adds: “At a more personal level, it is the predicament of the individual in this wonderful chaos. I don’t blame it or run away from it. I simply think it is a wonderful chaos or predicament. If you look at society, it’s a mess but you can always make sense out of it.”
How does he make sense out of it?
How does he make sense out of it? “There’s only one way, which is art, which is essentially my art i.e. something that I produce is a reality that I create. This is the only way I can make sense of a good reason to live. Of course there are other reasons, but they are all transient whereas art is something that nobody can take away. It is a tool that I have cultured within myself to make sense of everything.”
Speaking on the role of art as a tool for social activism he said: “I believe in the power of the person. I make art for myself and my friends and the people around me because I believe that you cannot save the world but you can change yourself for what you believe and let others see that. We don’t change ourselves or change the people we love. So this is the political purpose of my art, it is to change the world, but I believe that changing the world happens in a very personal level.
“I do believe, however, that art can change society if done in a certain way. Creating art is a civilisational aspect where every society engages in activities that are not directly utilitarian in purpose, they can be symbolic and interpretive and referred to as rituals; in the modern culture we refer to it as ‘art’. Our notion of art did not exist before the 16th century, they are modern capitalist introductions. Some cultures don’t even contain the word art. But, everybody engages in this activity.
“If making art or making symbolic expressions is a civilisational thing, why can’t we use this foundational aspect of human nature or existence to solve problems when we use economics and war (both foundational aspects)? That is my conviction, I maybe idealistic or totally fooled by my own theories but, I believe in it. This is why I don’t create works that just sell. I always need critics, if everyone loves it; it means I have not done anything radical or bruised any shoulders.”
Public art as a tool for activism
Weerasinghe also highlighted the importance of public art as a tool for activism: “I also use art as a key channel, a similar way in which politics and economics are used. This is where we conduct art programs with the participation of certain communities. One of these programs titled ‘Let’s Take a Walk’ is conducted in several villages and even in Maradana.” For this initiative they invited children from low income houses and asked them to create a picture of their neighbourhood to be shown to visitors.
“We ask them to think of their environment as a representation of themselves. These children created different images of their neighbourhoods while everybody had a few things in common. In Maradana for example, most children identified with the bulu tree of the neighbourhood, and I realised that the tree had become a heritage. There was also a fruit-seller who they also identified with and included in their drawings.
They were then asked to make a map of Maradana and they were essentially creating a map of their heritage. Following this exercise, we made these huge paintings which we also exhibited.
“In addition to this, we also completed a peace train project during the war. This was a very symbolic act as the whole train was painted in white. Practically speaking, it would not have made any sense as the train was never going to remain white. This is also similar to peace, where if it is not maintained, it will end up tainted.”
Jagath, being a contemporary artist, adds that contemporary art plays an important role in the current context. He said: “I’m not a modernist artist; I’m a contemporary artist as my work is mostly conceptual. My way of thinking about art is slightly different. It does not come as a critique but as a revealing of the subtext. I think of myself as being part of the problem rather than completely pure. Technically, we are all part of this problem.
“In my opinion, the more necessary political action that can be taken is to interrogate the violence of religious institutions which is what I’m doing. For example, in my work depicting the dance of Shiva, you see that it is not the head of Shiva but the dance, the sheer energy of dancing which is a disruption, gives a course to destroy ignorance. It has ‘Amurtha’ coming from one of his hands; it is an ancient Hindu belief which is a very violent act. Because of 20th century party politics, people killing in the name of politics claim it is in the name of ignorance. Therefore it cannot be a good thing.
“Thus, the main problem is pulling religion into politics. So my job as a half-baked intellectual is to question institutions such as universities which are full of self-deception. Without being aware of the violent procedures in which we are participating, we cannot change society. Rhetoric cannot be turned into meaningful political action if they are directed only to particular individuals and not institutions as a whole.”
Conveying a message through art
Speaking on the ability to convey a message through art and the ease with which an art work can be deciphered, he is of the belief that “art is a body of knowledge, which has a capacity to make a strong presence. This does not necessarily mean that individuals can read what the artist is trying to say.”
He added : “My notion is that people cannot decipher an art work in terms of the intention of its author as such, because, an artwork when shown in an art gallery becomes a social work. Why? Because you thought it was so important to be shown to the people, you then price it and thus give it value following which you give it a name so as to be able to uniquely identify it and lastly you take them into your work. The combination of this makes your piece a social work.
“There is something very arrogant in the art process, a privilege given by the art lover, critic, etc., to the artist. Thus, once it becomes a social work, the author has no way of communicating its capacity because the elements the author has used in his work are not his own anymore. In that sense, before becoming a document of aesthetics; it is a historical work from within. “Thus, the moment the artwork is brought into another person’s eyes, the author disappears, irrespective of the fact that he tries to manipulate and rephrase it. Thereby, as it is a social work, the author has no right to enforce its meaning, thus people can always understand art because it makes a presence. Those who claim not to be able to understand it confuse the idea of understanding as they are unable to verbalise it. But, not everything needs to be expressed in words.”
Use of different tools
Being a conceptual artist, he also emphasised on the use of different tools to create the type of work that he does: “What I use more extensively in my work are metaphors. For example, when monks become violent, it is as if the knives in our kitchen turn yellow. Which is why in one of my collection, I have depicted a series of kitchen knives in different colours to depict their metaphorical connotations. I also use the idea of juxtapositions to highlight the various levels and angles of my work. Although my work can be largely described as political, I am not being party political. I do not question just dialogues but rather the practices that allow them to do what they do.”
Change in perception
Was there a moment of awakening for you, where there was a shift in your style of work?
Like most artists, he too had a change in perception of art as a whole. Speaking about this, he said: “In the 1990s, I became aware of the meaninglessness of aesthetics, where I realised that I had become a part of a system that was colonial in nature. During this period, artists were regarded as pure superheroes, above people who do meditative work.
“Thus, my perception of abstract art changed, where I realised that it was mostly used for decorative purposes rather than create meaningful dialogue. This is why my art focuses on being more conceptual as it cannot turn a blind eye towards the current context.”
He added: “A part of being human is that you always think of yourself in relation to a certain community. When you feel like you can make sense of yourself in terms of a certain time and place. Every human being thinks like this creating the root of nationalism. In order to fight nationalism, we need to be able to put the nationalists at check and identify with the root. Thus it is not easy to think outside of a place and time or imagine the future without relating it to a past which is rooted to a space. This aspect of being human constitutes the kernel of human nature.”
Future of Sri Lankan art
Jagath also added that the future of Sri Lankan art is headed in a positive direction. “This is the best period in Sri Lankan art after the 1940s. What is interesting is that most established artists now are not from the universities but from outside the art schools and are from different fields. Young artists at present, tend to think and work differently thus creating a group of dynamic individuals and I am glad to be one of the people to make it happen.”
Join Jagath Weerasinghe at the Saskia Fernando Gallery on September 26 as he takes you on a private tour of his work and gives you a greater insight into the philosophy behind his thinking as well as work. You can book your experience at www.trekurious.com.
(Trekurious together with DailyFT explores Sri Lanka for the curious traveller. Trekurious works with talented individuals and great brands to create amazing experiential tours, activities, and events in Sri Lanka. You can find out more at www.Trekurious.com.)