Political culture

The story of a Sri Lankan woodcarver who became a prisoner and a political artist

Koralegedara Pushpakumara disturbs the notions of history, politics and art in his rendering of Sri Lanka.

The Sri Lanka that Koralegadara Pushpakumara conjures in his art, is not seen in idyllic tourist guides, and it is far removed from the sanitised discussions of state officials. This is an aesthetic imagination of Lanka at the cusp of romance and reality, neatly blending his personal experiences with public history.

Pushpakumara, who is also known as Pushpe, was an eyewitness to the insurgency, violence, genocide, and civil war that wrecked Sri Lanka. The curious combination of symbols in his works present experiential accounts loaded with satire.

Pushpe’s maze of art works, including paintings, installations and performance art, earned critical acclaim in South Asia and beyond. This November, his Dissonant Images is being shown in India.

Wall Plug (16) 2013. Mixed media  on canvas 190.5 x 360 cm. Copyright: Pushpakumara Koralegadara
Wall Plug (16) 2013. Mixed media on canvas 190.5 x 360 cm. Copyright: Pushpakumara Koralegadara

The great churn

Koralegedara Pushpakumara was born to a family of carpenters, but grew up with an artistic inclination towards woodwork, especially carving. From the beginning, a source of inspiration was the famous woodcarving of the Gadaladeniya Ambekka temple in Kandy.

As he grew older, Pushpe wanted to continue experimenting with woodcarving, but life in the 1980s was taken over by Sri Lanka’s political revolution. In his childhood, Pushpe witnessed the caste discrimination his friends from lower caste groups experienced. Given his personal affinity towards a sense of Buddhist equality, he was dismayed at the caste-based divisions between Govigama (the land-owning upper caste group) and Rody (caste groups that perform work such as manual scavenging).

Like many Sinhalese youth, Pushpe leaned towards the transformative dream of the political left, and its most concerted manifestation, popularly known as the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna. Most young people inclined towards the JVP attended its lectures in isolated locations around Peradeniya and Kandy.

 Unveiling the confusion (xi)2004, Mixed media 110 x 86 cm. Copyright: Pushpakumara Koralegadara
Unveiling the confusion (xi)2004, Mixed media 110 x 86 cm. Copyright: Pushpakumara Koralegadara

The 1971 uprising against president Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s government attracted attention worldwide. The crackdown on the uprising claimed the lives of more than 10,000 youths in Sri Lanka. JVP's founder Rohan Wijeweera was arrested and imprisoned in Jaffna. This bitter defeat led to a second, longer insurgency that lasted nearly two years, between 1987 to 1989. By this time, the ethnic conflict between Tamil rebels and the Sinhalese-dominated government had begun, and in reaction to Indian involvement in according the Tamils autonomy, the JVP assumed a Sinhalese nationalist identity along with its revolutionary Communism.

They fought the Indian Peace Keeping Force and mobilised an anti-India sentiment, preventing Lankans from consuming Indian goods. However, the result of this uprising too included massive casualty of the innocent people – JVP cadres, government personnel, as well as the life of Wijeweera.

It was during this time that many who were under threat, including Pushpe, fled to Ampara in the Eastern province of Sri Lanka. Pushpe recalled wearing a cyanide pill in a locket, hanging from his neck those days, so he could commit suicide if he was ever captured.

As luck would have it, Pushpe could not evade arrest.

“In 1989, I was a final year student in school, a 21-year-old activist of the student movement attached to the JVP that rose against the Sri Lankan government." he said. "When the government crackdown of the JVP began, and I fled to Ampara, I was captured, detained and tortured. Finally, miraculously, I was released – for which the exact reason is still not fully clear to me.”

 Excavation  (school uniform,burnt tyre) 2004  Mixed media  210 x 54 cm. Copyright: Pushpakumara Koralegadara
Excavation (school uniform,burnt tyre) 2004 Mixed media 210 x 54 cm. Copyright: Pushpakumara Koralegadara

As a fugitive, Pushpe was still making woodcarvings at his brother’s workshop in Ampara. He was highly sought after among homes, for his experimental work. He had by this time, realised the consequences of the uprising: a violent loss of lives, rather than the promised structural transformation. He had witnessed the elaborate mechanism of killing those employed by both the JVP and the Sri Lankan army, as well as the rising violence of LTTE. He watched helplessly, as the the notorious “necklace”, a garland of burning tyres was used to asphyxiate the rebels and suspects.

In our conversation, Pushpe recalled:

“Many thousands disappeared and were killed both in the war and the uprising. After 15 years, being an ex-JVPer and an active artist, I joined an institute in Colombo to do a postgraduate diploma in archaeology. The assignment was about dating dead bodies. I couldn’t escape the flashbacks. I wondered – how would someone find and date the dead bodies of my contemporary youth, who disappeared, and the people who were massacred in the war in North? It will be under the burnt tyres with engine oil, in mixed, decaying, charred clothes. You wouldn’t find the typical succession of insects, other creatures and decaying patterns – you would need a different theory to explain and date them.”

Political art in Sri Lanka

Pushpe returned to Colombo and obtained a formal education at the Institute of Aesthetic Studies, University of Kelaniya, in 1997. When his art was exhibited in Colombo, Pushpe became one of the early artists in the contemporary visual art scene in Sri Lanka, which has been described as a “1990s trend” by the eminent art historian and artist Jagath Weerasinghe.

Weerasinghe, artist Anoli Perera and many others contributed to this trend, creating a new paradigm of artistic practice under the institution named Theertha Artists’ Collective based in Colombo. A vivid turn to the political underpinned the visual arts at Theertha. The political undercurrents and appeals of these artworks subsumed the individual self, socio-cultural traditions, and politico-public encounters of violence.

Goodwill Hardware 1 - IV . 2009.Plywood board, trapolene, wax, barb wire, clear hose, white car paint. 50 x 81 cm. Copyright: Pushpakumara Koralegadara
Goodwill Hardware 1 - IV . 2009.Plywood board, trapolene, wax, barb wire, clear hose, white car paint. 50 x 81 cm. Copyright: Pushpakumara Koralegadara

According to Weerasinghe, Pushpe is conscious of the socio-cultural underpinnings that form his existence as a painter – this is evident in some of his famous works, such as his series titled Goodwill Hardware and Barbed Wire, which stand in testimony to Pushpe’s quest to re-fashion culture in the time of civil war and its aftermath. He fuses the sublime and bizarre, innocuous and injurious, the colourful and banal to engender a sense of sarcasm.

Barbed  Wire (xiii) 2012 Screen Print, Acylic on Canvas 110x67.5 cm. Copyright: Pushpakumara Koralegadara
Barbed Wire (xiii) 2012 Screen Print, Acylic on Canvas 110x67.5 cm. Copyright: Pushpakumara Koralegadara

The motif of a knot, borrowed from the woodcarvings in the Ambekka Devalaya in Kandy, appears on the surface of Barbed Wire. The knotty barbs, in a frame that appears normal otherwise, unsettles the usual grammar of viewership and art appreciation. Pushpe also scatters fine dots in his works to symbolise the vocation of woodcarving by the caste of carpenters of Sri Lanka.

Violence appears frequently in Pushpe’s works: in Excavation, he puts a burnt tyre at the centre of the canvas. In Wall Plug, Pushpe paints a colourful pond with the famous Lankan flower Niyangala (Gloriosa Superba/Glory Lily/Poison Flame). The beautiful flowers have poisonous roots, which Pushpe had seen consumed by the distressed victims of the ravaged Lankan countryside.

In his rendering of Sri Lanka, Pushpa disturbs the fixed notions of history, politics, and art.

Pushpe’s Lanka comes to India in a show of his select works, titled Dissonant Images, at the gallery Exhibit 320 in New Delhi.

Dev Pathak teaches sociology at South Asian University and researches on performance arts in Sri Lanka.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
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