Chandraguptha Thenuwara presents an exhibition every year at the Lionel Wendt Art Gallery, Colombo. The exhibition is funded entirely by the artist himself and features a series of work that commemorates the riots of 1983 known as ‘Black July’, not only by the choice of his opening date, but also through the subject of his paintings, sculpture, and installation. Thenuwara is an activist, and while he is the only artist locally who has consistently exhibited his own work on an annual basis, he is perhaps also the only artist who chooses to dedicate his entire practice to the communication of his ideals and beliefs about the social, political, and cultural climate of Sri Lanka.
The images of the war victor, barrels and camouflage make continuous appearances in Thenuwara’s work. They are often hidden or act themselves as a mask to first deceive his audience and thereafter reveal his ideas. In this body of work spanning from 2012 to 2014, these images and others appear. In many ways, Thenuwara is the only transparent journalistic artist of his time in Sri Lanka.
SF: We have spoken before about the influences on your art. Maybe we can talk a little bit about your transition from canvas to paper?
CT: That is the continuation of the 2005 One Year Drawing Project . Prior to this, drawing for me was largely a preliminary study for my painting, sculpture and installations, and I never thought I would exhibit these drawings. I had an opportunity to show some of these works before 2005, but after 2005 it became a new experience for me to work on this medium. Particularly for me, as an artist working during the day on what is my ‘survival’ job, I have less time in my schedule to paint. I also prefer to paint with daylight. Drawing offered me a chance to continue living as an artist and also gave me more time to explore a new kind of expression.
I was also influenced a lot by my son. He is always drawing and starts from a tiny detail, adding to these details and hiding his work until it is complete. That’s how I started to work with my camouflage and thorns, adding on things as I went along and working on the drawing as I moved around. This for me was an experience which helped reduce impediments. In painting you have more barriers, because of professional training. It started merely as training but now is an immediate expression. Sometime I scribble ideas on envelopes and whatever I can find, and then, sometimes that idea might be developed as a drawing. I sketch and respond to a drawing from a sketch, this is the formation of my idea; that’s the beginning of my creative process and my response to what is happening around me. I need that spontaneity to pick up ideas. Identifying these motifs thereby allows me to begin weaving my own expression on culture.
SF: Speaking of the symbolism in your work, such as Barrelism, the war victor, and the mother and child, something that appeared in your series of drawings recently was the arabesque. Can you explain the meaning of this symbol to us?
CT: Everywhere I look I see growth in our country, trees and creepers growing. This to me is the rhythm and pattern of nature. The term arabesque is mostly used with reference to Islamic art and the use of rhythmic linear patterns, interlacing foliage and lines. Mine is a pattern designed from those elements. Motifs are important and, as you look at my work, you see only the first design. Since my Barrelism work, the city is the place I respond to. I observe the ivy, the palm trees, and that helps me to construct my drawings. The arabesque has become a camouflage as well; the first impression it communicates is beauty. From that beauty, you move into the image and you find more criticism and ugliness. The arabesque for me is a mask for what I am hiding beneath, and those who wish to can look beneath this maze and find what is under it.
SF: As an activist and someone who is very outspoken in your life and in your work, if you are going to look at your work and say that you give the illusion of beauty, using the aesthetic to draw people in, does that contradict your observations as an activist having to draw people in with a different view?
CT: That is my trick. That is my way to draw people in. It’s my space to manipulate and create. I want to have all the details carefully measured and completed, so with that first treatment, that’s what gives that beauty and care. They have to view it first, and then, in this way, I ask them to come and look at what lies beneath.
SF: Is there a relationship between the way in which you draw people in with the aesthetic to be attracted to your work, and after that to view the truth that exists within it, and the observations you make as an activist?
CT: I love parody. That is the one way of saying things when you can’t say something directly. I use puns and then repeat them. Coining words and juxtaposing images– that’s the way I do things. My intention is to give freedom, knowledge and critical thinking to the viewer. So they have to enjoy it. Even through ugliness we have to find our beauty and find out why life is important. With beauty I am portraying a bad situation… You have to have the capacity to listen to others while having your own opinion and having respect for others. To think about how life is important. That kind of democratic space—that, for me, is lacking outside my gallery space. The visual medium cannot be transcribed or directly presented. The image itself speaks without words. That’s how I try to work.
SF: Are there new symbols or images that have appeared in your 2014 exhibition?
CT: Yes, I am trying to change the space, and here I am adding new things. For example, I will approach the current events in the south with the riots in Aluthgama. There is a new series based on this new violent culture… I, too, am going to present it beautifully. Pistols, swords and sticks— those elements will arrive in a negative or positive space. I will play with and identify those things. Old elements and new elements will be combined, as there is one thread connecting all the drawings.
1. The One Year Drawing Project: a project by Raking Leaves involving four leading Sri Lankan artists, including Muhanned Cader, Jagath Weerasinghe, Thamotharampillai Shanaathanan and Chandraguptha Thenuwara. The project began with each artist posting a drawing to each other, the drawing inspired another and was completed two years later when the drawings were published in a book under this title.
2. Barrelism: this series of work were the beginning of Thenuwara’s representation of the city’s changing landscape during the war. The barrel, first used to hold tar to build roads, became a blockade for army checkpoints throughout the island.
3. The War Victor: The War Victor is featured in Thenuwara’s work as a man with a wooden leg and walking stick, often with a helmet on. In writing the war victor is often followed by a question mark.
4. Mother and Child – featured in Thenuwara’s early work, the mother and child often implied the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus cradled in her arms. Mother and child represented victims of Sri Lanka’s civil war.