We’ve already heard from two Sri Lankan artists: Anomaa and Venuri. Both spoke about the oppression of the Tamil minority from a Sinhalese majority perspective.

Now, we’re hearing from the Tamil perspective. Shanaathanan (also spelt Sanathanan, but he likes the “sh” form better) is an art history professor in the city of Jaffna, the biggest city of northern Sri Lanka. He’s been busy with the first classes of the teaching year, which was why he couldn’t join us earlier: he’s actually skipping a class or two so he can stay with us all the way till Singapore.
Lots of Burmese painters were in attendance at this talk, so it was a good thing he ran through the basic background of the Sri Lankan civil war and the gruesome final solution the government executed: 40,000 people dead, 500,000 people displaced, and a rhetoric of victory that’s only serving to further divide the population into winners and losers.

Then he turned to his own practice: drawings working with maps and human anatomy (a skill he picked up due to his parents’ early ambitions for him to become a doctor), the connection between the body and geography in terms of building identity, checkpoints.

He wandered into installation art almost by accident: when covering 1970s American art in a history lecture, his students proposed that they initiate some idea art of their own – “Why can’t we do an art project without skill?”

Thus History of Histories (2004), an installation of everyday objects representing the memory of a home, randomly collected from 500 people from all corners of the Jaffna peninsula. This was installed in the Jaffna Library, newly restored after its destruction in the war. This is an institution that exhibits rare materials from all over South Asia, but nothing from the recent, traumatic, people’s past – so Shanaathanan and his students co-opted the empty shelf space to show their harvest.
Nothing prepared them for the reaction they got. Donors arrived, searching for their work – but Shanaathanan had done this amateur-style, with no labels, no registry, no explanations. And the donors would realize they couldn’t tell the piece of barbed wire or broken doll they’d contributed apart from another’s submission: how shared their trauma was, and they broke down weeping.

Cf. a Jataka tale, which Shanaathanan described, wherein a woman pleaded the Buddha to restore the life of her dead son. He told her to knock on the door of every house in her district. And there was death in every house.

The success of this work led to an invitiation by the Vancouver Museum of Anthropology – seems they were drawn to the “archaeological” tone of his work. Shanaathanan would’ve just shipped over the whole of History of Histories, but the war had begun again: he couldn’t get an exit permit for his objects, and possession of some (passports, bullets) was actually criminal.

Hence Imag(in)ing Home (2009), a new work drawn from 300 individual stories of home among the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora in Vancouver. These emigres also contributed objects – often tiny items smuggled in when they entered illegally through checkpoints. These were encased in empty Pepsi bottles – vessels which had proven very useful for storing the original collection.

Shannaathanan told us the community wasn’t actually very tight-knit – it actually grew closer because of his methodology for finding participants: ask each donor to seek out other donors, so that we get a rhizomatic network of voices involved – a measure that circumvents the limitations imposed by the artist’s social class.

Also the sense of affirmation the Tamil community received from this work. Once again, the museum’s only Tamil artefacts were ancient masks. Nothing about the contemporary, modern, Canadian community. 
Shanaathanan: If you don’t have objects in a museum, you don’t have a history. If you don’t have a history, you don’t have a sense of identity in the nation. 
Ultimately, he wasn’t able to attend the exhibition – it really belonged to the donors in the end.

A final work: The Incomplete Thombu, an artist’s book consisting of testimonies of lands and properties lost. (“Thombu” is a Tamil/Sinhalese word denoting land deeds or public registers of land – originally from Greek, arriving in the language via Portuguese and Dutch traders.)

The book features the stories of 80 people who’ve lost their homes, plus architectural plans of their vanished spaces, plus Shanaathanan’s subjective sketches of these locales.

It’s inspired by the tale of a woman in London who received the dowry of a house in Jaffna, and had to tell her husband about it in detail, and he made a replica of it for their living room, and they would tell every poor sucker they’d meet about its dimensions and where the tables and bedrooms were/would be… 

Emotional architecture; the architecture of emotion. Intriguing how he once again speaks for the community almost from the outside: little sign of his own personal traumas in these works. Once again, letting communities speak.

But a jaw-dropping fact emerged during Q&As. Because History of Histories wasn’t created with a register, the objects couldn’t be returned. Nor could they be thrown away: after all, they belong to people, and the emotional weight attached to each of these objects is as heavy as lead.

So they’re buried in the ground, in polythene bags for protection. Waiting maybe not for their owners, but for the archaeologists who’ll reclaim them as history.    

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