Activists / Artists / Open Magazine

Chandraguptha Thenuwara: The End of Fear


It was 33 years ago, but Chandraguptha Thenuwara still remembers the group of men stopping the bus and clambering on. They had a seemingly bizarre demand, going from passenger to passenger, insisting that he or she say the Sinhalese words for pen and bucket – pǣna, bāldiya. Tamil tongues twisted different around these syllables, making it easy for the assailants to sort members of one of Sri Lanka’s ethnic communities from the other. Thenuwara, who is Sinhalese, was passed over. Others who struggled with the pronunciation were dragged off the bus to meet uncertain ends. The vehicle was waved on.

An ambush by Tamil insurgents had blown up a truck carrying 13 Sri Lankan army soldiers a few days back. There were immediate retaliations on civilians in the North. The unrest had spread, and now smoke was rising over Colombo as rampaging mobs set homes and business alight. Thenuwara decided he wanted to see what was happening for himself, and he set out to walk from Colpetty to the predominantly Tamil neighbourhood of Wellawatte, a distance of some 5km along Galle Road. “It happened in front of me. I can’t forget what I saw,” he says now. “Wellawatte was burning.” All seemed to be anarchy, but the police stood by as the mobs wrecked their vengeance, and the leaders were seen to be directing their attacks with the aid of electoral registers.

In the weeks and months that followed, the riots of Black July would loom in Sri Lanka’s national consciousness as an event that sparked an exodus of Tamil people from these shores and made open conflict between the state and Tamil militant groups like the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam LTTE seem inevitable. Hundreds were killed, many thousands displaced, and millions of rupees lost as a result of arson and looting.

Thenuwara himself would leave the country to pursue a Masters in Fine Art in Russia. He watched helplessly from a distance as Sri Lanka drowned in a bloodbath. As the violence escalated in the North and East of the island, insurrections by the Janathā Vimukthi Peramuṇa (JVP), a Marxist and Sinhalese nationalist political party, brought chaos and death to the South. When Thenuwara returned home in the 1990s, he found a country at war with itself, being transformed by encroaching militarisation. Thenuwara’s response was to mount a challenge. In 1997, he held his first exhibition to commemorate Black July.

Today, the exhibition is a long-running tradition. This July will mark the 18th time he has held it, only having missed one year in the middle. It is a singular event in many ways, not least because of Thenuwara himself.

Among Sri Lanka’s foremost contemporary artists, Thenuwara is unique among his peers. He is an inherently political animal, as comfortable in front of a canvas as he is out at a street protest. He has often been invited to speak at rallies and on talk shows on national television.

“Thenuwara is widely recognized as both an artist and a political activist,” says Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, the Executive Director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) in Colombo. “His exhibition every year commemorating July 83 attests to his uncompromising belief that uncomfortable truths have to be confronted if reconciliation is to have any meaning, unity any value.” Saravanamuttu is frank about the risks Thenuwara has taken in being a vocal critic of the state, even in times when such outspokenness has led to people being threatened, disappeared or assassinated.

Having seen him in action many times, Saravanamuttu says also that Thenuwara is a particularly compelling speaker. “He does not make political speeches like a politician, instead he is charming and articulate. He has a biting sense of humour. He is in every way a political artist.”

Thenuwara has always drawn strength from time spent outside the studio, in the thick of the crowd. The last time he received a death threat before a rally, he went anyway, hiding his face under an umbrella as a friend smuggled him past the men waiting with rods and batons. His sculpture ‘Monotony’ could be inspired by the experience – it features a hulking, faceless soldier crouching behind a shield. From his back cascade arms like tentacles, each clutching a long rod. The figure polices a series of others; the incarcerated are trapped in solid brick, only their heads are left vulnerable and bare; their mouths are sealed shut. The black metal figure is oppression and violence given physical form.

When he is not hiding under umbrellas, Thenuwara’s face, framed by those bristling white sideburns, is familiar to many.

At a time when the Federation of University Teachers Association (FUTA) was leading a huge protest demanding the state allocate more resources to education, Thenuwara was in the limelight throughout the year he served as its President. His was a prominent voice in the Platform for Freedom and he remains active in the organisation Purawesi Balaya or citizens’ power that served to mobilise opposition and dissent against the Mahinda Rajapakse Government, which culminated with a dramatic electoral defeat for the incumbent president in January 2015.

Thenuwara is the founder of the Vibhavi Academy of Fine Arts (VAFA), and a senior lecturer at the University of the Visual and Performing Arts in Colombo. In 2015 he was appointed President of the Arts Council of Sri Lanka.

Seemingly fearless, this artist’s outspoken critique of war, human rights abuses, militarisation, censorship and authoritarianism has seen him cast by his critics as unpatriotic and anti-national. Yet every year, he produces a new collection of work that engages critically with contemporary politics. He has consistently kept his finger on the pulse of the national conversation, one year marking our grief over the masses of disappeared civilians and the next confronting militarization through a series inspired by camouflage.

For ‘Chandraguptha Thenuwara: A Retrospective’ (Saskia Fernando Gallery, 2009) Qadri Ismail would write that ‘the force of Thenuwara’s work isn’t only political and aesthetic, but intellectual and ethical…It insists that art cannot be concerned only with the formal, the beautiful, but must also say something, be responsible (to the other).’

Anchored in this approach, Thenuwara has produced a new artistic vocabulary, rich in symbol and motif. He is perhaps best known for ‘barrelism,’ a series of paintings and installations, inspired by the streets of Colombo when they were thick with military checkpoints. The tar barrels of his childhood had been repainted in camouflage colours of green and black, with yellow highlights, and used to delineate the boundaries of army checkpoints. To Thenuwara, the colours were speaking – “those colours were both intended to camouflage and be visible at the same time,” he says, explaining the checkpoints would be situated only in neighbourhoods of some strategic importance. “I wanted to know who they were protecting. It was not the normal people. They were stopped and questioned, and lived life outside the protection of the barrels.”

In the post-war context, Thenu would incorporate barbed wire into his work, a reference to the way internally displaced civilians fleeing the warzone were fenced in in places like Menik Farm. For his exhibition on Urban Regeneration Program which had seen thousands from Colombo’s low income settlements evicted, Thenuwara created a mosaic you had to walk over. Embedded in the floor, it mimicked the new walking paths springing up all over the city. Inscribed on his tiles were the dates of riots and massacres, and in a particularly visceral piece, bone fragments were mixed in among the jumble of building materials.

“Thenu, as an artist working in a community, manages to confront us with images, motifs from our everyday, sometimes before we have identified them ourselves,” says Jake Oorloff, founder and artistic director of the Floating Space Theatre Company. Explaining that Thenuwara’s art has often provided inspiration to his company, Oorloff adds, “His work challenges the status quo, the narrative; he subverts the power of the motifs and complicates the narrative, sometimes to the point of mockery. In this way he has contributed to an artistic vocabulary, something that is not limited to one artist or one practice but influences the way other artists and artistic communities start communicating.”

Thenuwara and his wife, the activist Kumudini Samuel, live with their son Charu in a lovely, airy home. Their living room looks out over a narrow canal studded with lotus flowers which forms the border of an adjacent bird sanctuary. Sitting at her dining table, Samuel tells me: “Each year Thenuwara’s exhibition is a critique of what is happening at that time. I can see the way his politics have evolved, and that evolution is the story of our lives.”

She recalls there was a time in the years immediately after the war when dissent was a particularly dangerous thing. With journalists and activists targeted, Samuel found strangers who recognized them in supermarkets and doctors’ waiting rooms coming up to Thenuwara just to say, “Thank you for your courage, but please be careful.” Samuel, who had herself been questioned by the CID because of her human rights activism, says she began to worry that Thenuwara’s life was at risk. But he would not agree to be more cautious – “Now is the time I need to speak,” he told her.

Both this courage, and the ideology that underpins it, are strongly rooted in his childhood.  Thenuwara grew up primarily in Ampara, the son of two teachers. His father Gunatilaka’s strong socialist politics led him to lose his job, along with 123 other teachers in a controversial incident in 1956. But that was not the last blow. Thenuwara and his elder brother Rohana both came down with diphtheria. Rohana did not survive. Soon after, Thenu who was still very young, lost his mother Yasawathie to complications resulting from childbirth.

That tragedy, deeply felt, continues to haunt his work. Mothers are treated with a particular reverence, and the Madonna is a recurring icon. “It is because of my childhood that I learned to take risks,” says Thenuwara now. “Life is risk. That is why I am not afraid. Knowing that, I don’t want to be passive. I want to be active, looking forward, trying to change things instead of accepting the status quo.”

Over the years, his work has drifted far from the colourful, beautifully detailed portraiture that he originally made his name with, moving instead to installations and sculpture and featuring more sketches and paintings in black and white. His friend and fellow artist T. Shanaathanan points out that this commitment to producing an exhibition every July has had a mixed impact on Thenuwara’s body of work: “Sticking to an exhibition calendar and its focus on that previous year, has become a kind of possibility, and also a kind of limitation. It confines him to a certain kind of palette and a certain kind of imagery. The colour palette is not in his hand, it is in the country, it is in the calendar.”

For his part, Thenuwara embraces this. With this year’s series titled ‘Glitch’ he meditates both on the realisation of this country’s hope when it voted for Maithripala Sirisena in that historic 2015 election, and the ways in which the new government has disappointed the electorate since it came to power. The paintings are bursting with colour but distorted by noise, static proliferating through what was once a perfect image. The exhibition which opens on July 23 will run for a month at the Saskia Fernando Gallery.

Though he is so celebrated in some circles, Thenuwara also knows that this comes at a price. Yet it is one he has willing paid for decades. “You are doing work that usually cannot sell. People do not want to carry these tragedies back to their homes,” he says. But then, with a glint in his eye, he points out that even an unhappy viewer is an engaged viewer, and that is what he wants above all. He is content if he can make people question, even if what they are questioning is him. “People would love to forget everything easily, but I love to remind them,” he says.

Published in Open on 22 July, 2016. By Smriti Daniel. 

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