Thenuwara’s ‘demon’ | Sunday Observer

Thenuwara’s ‘demon’

The riots of July 1983 are seared into the mind of anti-war artist Chandraguptha Thenuwara.

Arriving in Colombo for the first time just two days after the killings of 13 Army soldiers in Tirunelveli, Jaffna by the LTTE, a 23-year-old Thenuwara encountered sights of absolute terror as mobs ravaged the city in a racial furore. The scenes of innocents believed to be Tamils being dragged out of buses to be questioned and tortured while mobs looted Tamil businesses helped by soldiers, policemen and even Buddhist monks, left a lasting effect on him. Thenuwara remembers that day 35 years ago, when Sri Lanka was fundamentally altered, leading to a civil conflict spanning three decades in the country victimising both the North and the South.

As a result, since 1997 every July 23 the self-styled anti-war and political artist has been commemorating what he calls this ‘commemorative’ dark period in the country’s history through his artwork. Drawing inspiration from ongoing socio-political and ethnic issues, Thenuwara weaves memories of July 1983, more infamously known as Black July into his work.

Twenty one years since his first exhibition, this year, Thenuwara takes aim at the Executive Presidency which he sees as the root of all evil in the country’s corrupt political system and the cause of many societal problems. The exhibition named ‘Wida-yaka’ (Executive Demon) will portray the Executive Presidency in its current form as a warning to the public of its dangers and to impress upon them the importance of its abolishment.

“People today, have this perception that the Executive Presidency is needed to maintain a peaceful country,” he says, adding that people often look for a king or leader like figure. “Feudalism is alive and well” he points out. In a society attached to the term, ‘executive’ many today get confused with the discussion of abolishment, as they then seek out who will be equal to the President next, if the post is no more. “People cannot break away from it,” he says.

Explaining his reservations regarding the Executive Presidency he points out that the 1983 riots along with the following pogroms throughout the country’s history were orchestrated by those in the Executive Presidency. “The J.R. Jayewardene administration colluded in the 1983 riots. The Government disregarded the advice of the Army thereby creating the needed scenario for the riots to occur,” he points out. “Extrajudicial killings, drug menace, organised crimes all take place under the Executive Presidency” the artist accuses.

Thenuwara believes that serious abuse of power and repression of the people happens because all the power is vested in the fist of one individual.

Having experienced both, the rule under the Presidency with nominal powers and with executive powers, Thenuwara feels the Executive Presidency is an obstacle for the people to practise their democratic rights. “After the introduction of the Executive Presidency in 1978 instead of every five years people had to wait for 17 years to see a change of power,” he points out.

With the new government coming into power on the promise of abolishing the Executive Presidency, Thenuwara says, it was only partly delivered through the 19th Amendment. “There is no repression now but others are now orchestrating this freedom gained to gain power once more,” he warns. “The Executive Presidency is still in existence so we must be careful,” he says.

Thenuwara wants people to remember the past. “Under the previous regime and the Executive Presidency family and friends also wielded great power as long as they belonged to the same clan,” he said. In the current system of Government in Sri Lanka, it was families or clans that ran the country in reality because of the amount of power vested in the office of the presidency.

The artist also believes the executive presidential system hampers genuine reconciliation. All powerful Presidents are guided by monks and ‘war-heroes’, Thenuwara believes. However, the same courtesy is not extended to the Tamil community however, he said.

“Today, Buddhist monks have the upper hand but if Buddha were alive today he will not agree with Buddhism in the modern context,” he says. To Thenuwara, this is an era of orange camouflage fatigues due to the growing number of militant monks. The patronage these groups receive is another negative aspect of the Executive Presidency, he said.

This year therefore, the exhibition of Chandraguptha Thenuwara’s work will be a kind of warning to people about how dangerous and susceptible abusing the Executive Presidency can be. To him, the executive presidential system is demonic, in that it grievously damages the fabric of society. The Presidency wielded by Mahinda Rajapaksa between 2005-2015, is an overbearing and powerful influence in the artist’s work.

Thenuwara says, Mahinda Rajapaksa is treated like an idol or God. “He has blind followers trailing him,” he explains. The dangers of the recent past lurk in the shadows, despite some democratic transformation that has taken place in the country since the fall of Rajapaksa’s authoritarian regime.

Once in a while, Thenuwara says, old habits manifest themselves. When journalists ask questions that Mahinda does not like, he resorts to threats and intimidation, he explains.

Thenuwara’s impression of the Executive Presidency will be portrayed by a statue influenced by a piece he created in 2014 called Bala vannama (dance of power) and statues found in Jaffna. The Wida-yaka idol will in one hand hold a mace signifying the power the Executive Presidency has over Parliament while in another hand, he will hold the crushed lady of justice to portray that the judiciary is not yet truly free. “Gangsters and organised crime will be held in yet another hand,” the artist says adding that the statue will also be seen holding the tail of a lion, a symbol for nationalism prevalent in the country today. The remainder will show the statue as holding lotus buds.

All these facets come together to create the Presidency. The golden idol which will portray its venerability will be displayed as fallen on its side. This is aspirational, the artist says, “because one day, the Executive Presidency must fall.”

Another of his exhibits is a Pharaoh-like figure, still unfinished. This is a reflection of the artist’s impression of leaders who behave like Pharaohs in the country, while their brothers are dreaming of taking over the Presidency next, he explained.

According to his critics, the artist Chandraguptha Thenuwara keeps rehashing the past, refusing to allow the country and society to heal. This exhibition, like all others will also focus on some of his anti-war creative pieces from years past. Answering his critics, Thenuwara says, the reason civilisation has come so far is because of the power of memory. “If we don’t remember, we cannot move forward, whether the memory is good or bad,” he explained. It is because of humanity’s recollection of Hitler and his cruelty that human civilisation knows it cannot allow such a tyrant to hold power again, the artist says.

For Thenuwara, the loss of friends in the media, like the Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge has had a lasting effect. “This is why people fear going back to such a time,” he said, recalling the previous regime’s brutality. “Remembrance is so important, so we know what we don’t want to go back to,” he says. Without memory, the artist says, today’s context becomes skewed. Lack of historical context has made brutality look good again today, he says. “Those who colluded in burning down Dharga Town are now attending Ifthar ceremonies acting like saints” he pointed out, “this is why people must always remember the past,” he says.

The artist hopes his exhibition this year will be a space that will open up for honest discussion about the Executive Presidency. People are so used to having others think for them, it is important to make them stop and realise what is happening in society. He believes this to be the main purpose of his work. With a similar goal, Thenuwara in the past introduced a concept of ‘neo-barrelism in his work. Blocking his exhibits with yellow bars, he wanted people to understand how barricades take away the right to movement. “It was when they visited that it finally hit the people and made them see what was right in front of them,” he says.

But over the years, Thenuwara’s work has also changed. The colour palette he used in the past was often dark and dreary. Lately, it has changed to slightly brighter colours to signify that the freedom of speech has been restored to some extent under the current administration. As an artist however, Thenuwara says his work has always been deeply political. He says he can’t just paint beautiful pictures.

“I have tried to change my style, but the issues in society are always on my mind,” he explained. But in no way does this exhibition or any of the others aim to do the bidding of any political party, he added. “I have always been political but it has got nothing to do with party politics,” he says claiming that he is only doing his duty as an artist to society. “It is my voice that is heard through my work, not anyone else’s” he assures.

Because of past experience however, Thenuwara continues to worry for his personal safety. Since he was an outspoken critic of the former regime, he has been under surveillance in the past, and people have followed him and intimidated galleries that exhibited his work. As a result, his family breathed a sigh of relief when he was overseas on short visits, he chuckled. Friends would always advise him to travel in different vehicles. Thenuwara says that when nails were found under the car belonging to the former President of the Federation of University Teachers’ Association, Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri, during the Rajapaksa regime, it had put him on edge.

“I would walk around my car checking under the tyres” he recalls. Fear was rampant at the time, he explained. “They rule with fear and do not know any other way,” he says. If the autocrats return, he fears he will be harmed. But that will not stop him.

Chandraguptha Thenuwara says he will continue to create art that will encourage people to think and understand the truth. “Through my colours, shapes and forms I am trying to free your minds.” 

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