My first trip to Jaffna revealed to me a world that had been foreign to me during my childhood. A landscape that differed from the country I had known and people in a world that had suffered greatly for 30 years. I visited the University of Jaffna and of course got in touch with Professor Thamotharampillai Shanaathanan, the one contemporary artist from the north consistently working and exhibiting throughout the course of the war, and thereafter whose work has been instrumental in the change to the art scene that is being developed in Jaffna today.
An image of Shanaathanan’s that has stuck in my mind ever since I first came across his work is an etching of a man lying on the ground being sniffed by a starving dog. The image is haunting, much like the artists other work. His work confronts the loss and trauma of those in the north and creates an effect similar to a memorial of sorts, leaving the viewer shamefully curious to discover the layers beneath his documentation.
In addition to his own work Shanaathanan’s work as a teacher stands out amongst a handful of others whom are responsible for what is now a scene that has moved from being relatively unacknowledged to experiencing a steady growth and a certain increase in attention. While he left the island to complete his PhD in New Delhi at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, he returned to Sri Lanka in 2011 and began his work as Professor at the University of Jaffna. I browse through the establishment’s website, it’s no doubt thorough and incredibly professional in presenting their programs and facilities. While Shanaathanan no longer works at the university he continues to mentor the most motivated young artists and shares with me his experiences of teaching many younger artists, including the first student from the tea country who presented her work at the exhibition Open Edit organized by Raking Leaves.
Raking Leaves is the organization headed by renowned curator Sharmini Pereira and is better known to-date for their projects involving publications that with each edition transcended the gallery structure by presenting an exhibition of work that could travel worldwide and be purchased by anyone, in the form of a printed book. Pereira’s last book project titled ‘The Incomplete Thombu’ presented the work of Shanaathanan in the form of translated drawings inspired by the collected stories of families who had lost their homes in Jaffna during the war. This work of art consisting of layered architectural drawings, typed stories and artist interpretations today stands as the only (incomplete) record of those who were misplaced in the north during the war.
Pereira’s latest project began with a collaboration with the Asia Art Archive, that documents art in Asia. The project was titled Open Edit and involved Raking Leaves collecting publications from individuals and establishments in the art industry in Sri Lanka to be presented in Jaffna as a mobile library that later moved to Colombo. Alongside the presentation of the archive young artists, including the student of Shanaathanan above, were invited to present a proposal for a work that was inspired by this mobile library. These works were presented at the Colombo library presentation alongside talks discussing the archive and archiving in Sri Lanka.
Following this project Raking Leaves was keen to maintain this archive and continue to present the resource to the students, particularly those in the north, whose access to information was relatively more limited than those in the south. Pereira was able to find a house to contain the library, kindly donated by a local art patron. The library stands today as the Sri Lanka Archive of Contemporary Art, Architecture & Design and hosts numerous presentations open to the public that encourage the education of the creative industries to those in the north.
It is perhaps too easily said that Raking Leaves and Thamotharampillai Shanaathanan have been the only instrumental figures in the development of the art scene in the north. In addition to them artists such as Chandraguptha Thenuwara, Jagath Weerasinghe, Pala Pothupitiye and Pradeep Thalwatte have been actively involved in exchange programs during which they spend a considerable amount of time teaching young students. I too admit that my knowledge is only that of an outsider and therefore limited in the goings on in the last short period of time. Shanaathanan informs me that the first batch of fourth year graduates will exhibit their work next year, this will without doubt be an exhibition to visit. Efforts by the Centre for Performing Arts in building a gallery are also to be acknowledged. The Ministry of Defence has also announced a state-of-the-art cultural centre to be built for 1.2 billion, the centre is a gift from the Indian government and is scheduled to open in 2018. Time will tell how things progress but the promising nature of these developments give us hope that in the future there will be a ‘then’ and an even more promising ‘now’.