When Genocide makes art

A response to ‘The Beauty Behind Barbed Wire’

| by Aarti
(The views expressed are author’s own)

( June 26, 2012, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) Art For The Sake Of Art bases itself on the notion that art needs no justification, that it need serve no political or social interest, that the art work just is.

There is no such thing as apolitical art. Every piece of art has a story to it: the story of the artist, where they come from, their place in the social hierarchy, their influences, how they live their lives. This story is what makes art political. Then of course, there is the art work itself: what is it made out of, where it is made, how it is made, why that particular theme, what is the relationship between the theme and the artist…the list goes on.

While there is no such this as apolitical art, making art work that has direct, strong links with another person’s suffering is as much a problem as ‘apolitical art’ is. What is the responsibility of the artist towards the issue s/he is basing the work on? Is it enough to just make the work and receive applauses for it? What kind of space is the work being shown in, and who are the people who will view it?

In this light we look at a show in Colombo that will commence on the 1st of September. It is a 180 day long art show at the Bandaranaike Memorial Hall. Ironically, under the patronage of the Ministry of Human Rights Disaster Management, the show titled ‘The Beauty of Barbed Wire’ will showcase various uses of barbed wire and its relevance in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka is known worldwide for its crimes against its Tamil speaking population from the North and East of the country. After nearly five decades of a violent battle against Tamil liberation organisations fighting for a separate Tamil homeland (a cause eventually usurped and mishandled by the LTTE), the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) launched an all-out offensive in order to end the war and eliminate its enemy. In the process, lakhs of Tamil people have died and lakhs of people have been driven out of their homes, and into State sponsored camps. Chemical weapons (such as Triethanolamine and Phosgene) and everything short of a nuclear bomb was used to annihilate the population of the North and the East of Sri Lanka. A genocide ensured, and thousands are missing.

In the face of such a colossal humanitarian catastrophe, what relevance does art sponsored by the Ministry of Human Rights Disaster Management have? And what does it mean to construct a white-box like gallery situation, to use vivid symbols of the war to make art work, and take it far away from the people who are in the war zone? What does it mean if a Colombo Biennale makes big, colourful splashes across Southern Sri Lanka in the name of reconciliation when the GOSL does not acknowledge that a genocide, a systematic ethnic cleansing, has taken place in the North and the East of the country? What good will the same Biennale do if it doesn’t address issues still faced by the Tamils of Sri Lanka, but insists on fast forwarding to a shallow, meaningless reconciliation?

Now the tents are pitched for a second circus. The Colombo Government will be putting together a self proclaimed “cutting edge” show that will use barbed wire, and select notions attached to it, to make beautiful art. Why? Because the Sri Lankan Government is tired of looking at photos of Tamil refugees behind barbed wire fencing and wants a ‘change of image’. Deputy Minister for Human Rights Disaster Management, Dr. Rajpal Wijekoone explains to Groundviews, that barbed wire usage is actually a part of Sri Lankan culture, and that it is purely the uninformed Western perception that links it to camps, that this show will correct everyone’s view.

Though it cannot be denied that there is an enormous difference between what barbed wire means to the average Sinhalese in the South and the Tamils in the North and East, it is a every elitist notion to solely understand barbed wire as a object that protects. For the Sinhala poor, barbed wire would find its associations during the JVP insurrection where close to 30,000 Sinhala youth disappeared or got murdered in the 1987 to 1989 civil war. To the southern privileged, it is supposedly a part of their “culture”, it is the fence that differentiates their property from others’ or public property. It provides security against intruders, it keeps people safe. As Lucien Rajakaruananayake writes in his article titled ‘The "Appalling" chorus against Sri Lanka’,
…the vast, majority of people who own property in Sri Lanka use barbed wire for boundary fencing. This is not to prevent the owners or residents on such property from escaping, but to keep unwanted outsiders from entering.

For the people of the North and the East this very barbed wire symbolises displacement, pain, separation from loved ones and their land, death, and 30-40 years of brutal war. It symbolises a systematic military occupation (the North and the East has been under military occupation since 1979, which begun in the 1960’s out the need to tackle smuggling between this region and South India.) It symbolises the post-war situation of an open, ghetto-like, legalised jail that lacks basic amenities such as housing infrastructure, clean water, adequate medicines or doctors.

He further writes,

Those who write about barbed wire surrounded concentration camps show pictures of these places, where the strands are thin and so far between that it cannot prevent anyone from easily creeping through. Hardly the stuff of concentration camps…

The refugees or IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) in these camps are either forced to live in them by the GOSL, or because they are afraid of living outside. Escape from these camps and go where? The overtly militarised North and East have the largest numbers of armed security personnel compared to anywhere else in the world. What is appalling is the ghettoisation of the Tamils in the North and the East that happens behind the barbed wire. It is not just any fence we are talking about here.

This show looks to romanticise the idea and use of barbed wire, the objective being, to disassociate the object’s relevance to the war. By dislocating a very strong, widely recognised image of the war, and placing it in a context that is rosy, clean and insensitive to the Tamils, the GOSL goes against the original premise of the show, which is to better the image of Sri Lanka for the outside world. A show like this will only anger people on the outside, and make them wonder what exactly the GOSL hopes to achieve through a show like this. Do they want to further divide the Tamils and the Sinhalese? Do they want to display their arrogance? Or is this an open invite for barbed wire manufactures to set up units in the country, to produce more barbed wire, to construct more camps?
Any form of trying to counter this new improved perception of barbed wire is thrown out or hidden away from international media, just like what happened with the war until 2009 (also known as the War Without Witnesses). This is clearly stated in the article by Groundviews report, though it is classified as unverified information:

…of one of the exhibits a map of Sri Lanka done in barbed wire – has been pulled out of the exhibition due to Ministry officials’ concerns that it could misrepresent the country as an open prison…

To make matters worse, the Groundviews article talks of a certain Ms Gracious (Katherine Gracious, the curator of the show) who will be sitting in “…a tent framed with coils of barbed wire…” for a few hours a day. Are they suggesting that by doing this, they can be likened to lakhs of people living in camps in the North and East? This ‘art work’ will then probably be talked of as an installation, maybe even a ‘live performance’.

It is preposterous to even suggest it, let alone do it.

Further, constructing and designing the ‘Rose Barbed Garden’, the ‘Vegetable Coil Garden’ and the ‘Ayurvedic Hook Garden’, will only add to the enormity of the joke. Again, I am forced to ask a question out of pure disbelief: what exactly is the GOSL trying to achieve through a show of this sort?

Art and culture circles, for the longest time, have been opinion forming spaces for the middle and upper classes. Once artists and writers and filmmakers, intellectuals of that sort are taken care of, public opinion is taken care of. And this is what the GOSL is trying to tap into. Which is why, it is important to try and decipher the goal behind each of these wonderfully colourful shows and see the GOSL in that light.

Present day Sri Lanka is a country that is trying to white wash its bloody image using arts and culture. From the Bollywood sponsored IIFA in 2010 (immediately after the Mullaivaikal genocide) to the Colombo Biennale in February 2011, to ‘The Beauty Behind the Barbed Wire’ in September 2012, these spaces that promote art and culture are based on the underlying theme of ‘…lets forget the bloody, and move towards a better future…’. When will the GOSL begin to listen to the grievances of the people of the North and East, and DO something about it, without harping on and on about forgetting the past?

Shows like this makes Art for the Sake of Art suddenly seem safe.


Groundviews report on The Beauty of Barbed Wire. Last seen on Sunday, June 24th, 2012: http://groundviews.org/2009/08/20/the-beauty-of-barbed-wire-sri-lanka%E2%80%99s-cutting-edge-exhibition/ 

Lucien Rajakaruananayake’s article titled ‘The "Appalling" chorus against Sri Lanka’. Last seen on Sunday, June 24, 2012: http://www.defence.lk/new.asp?fname=20090531_01

The Seattle Times: Barbed Wire, Hostility Separate Sri Lankan Groups By Vijay Joshi. Last seen on Sunday, June 24th, 2012: http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=19921101&slug=1522080

Sri Lankan Government uses Chemical Weapons in Vanni (Northern part of Sri Lanka) Warfront, WWW urges immediate dispatch of independent observers for inquiry into war crimes. Last seen on Sunday, June 24th, 2012: http://www.warwithoutwitness.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=102:sri-lankan-government-uses-chemical-weapons-in-vanni-northern-part-of-sri-lanka-warfront-www-urges-immediate-dispatch-of-independent-observers-for-inquiry-into-war-crimes&catid=39:by-war-without-witness&Itemid=62