It’s all in the wall: the art of nation building | Sunday Observer

It’s all in the wall: the art of nation building

If it’s just art, valid question is why the novel wall art tendency that’s spawned all over the country after the election of November 16, is almost the symbol of change after the new presidency took off the starting blocks?

The previous regime would have taxed the wall art at 1,000 rupees per square metre. Or so the joke goes. Jokes apart, the current wall art trend symbolizes people’s participation in democracy, and the generation of new hope …

There may be a pun in there somewhere. There is a difference between wall art and graffiti, for instance, or the aerosol graffiti that makes Berlin so famous.

Wall graffiti in East Germany, is indeed a curious case. East Germany became the citizens’ art capital of the world, because people journeyed to the East after the demolition of the Berlin Wall that divided East and West Germany, and began drawing on the drab walls that more or less signified the eastern quarter.

Graffiti was illegal in Germany, especially in Berlin, but the authorities looked the other way. Soon, the art became one of the chief reasons tourists came in their large numbers to these East German cities, boosting their economies. The fact that the East German police turned a blind eye on so called illegal graffiti, was of course ignored.

Culture in the making

In Sri Lanka, in 2019, the President has officially made a statement appreciating the team-work of the youngsters who decorated the walls with their creative expression.

Bringing forth creativity, he said, is a positive force in our society, and is symbolic of a productive culture in the making.

It’s all about the zeitgeist then, right? This is where the losing candidate in the presidential election and his backers perhaps, made the most monumental miscalculation.

They just could not fathom a sense of the zeitgeist, and thought that promising free gifts of sanitary napkins to young girls was the way to tap into the spirit of the times.

The spirit of the times instead, it seems, is to draw, or to paint. There is a whole psychology there besides taking a paint brush and daubing some colours, albeit very artistically, on the cement.

But this much can be said before going into issues such as, ‘what drives these youngsters?’

The country is collectively coming out of a hangover, from when the state diktat was all about how people will be drawn and quartered. The youth seem to be filing in their response. There is nothing inspirational about people being drawn and quartered, they are stating in one voice. But there is something very inspirational about drawing, just drawing on the walls, and that’s really something to behold.

A tiny explanation here, about the drawn and quartered culture that prevailed before it. Almost the entire tenure of the previous regime was a litany of hate. From day one, the call went out from Cabinet level ministers to imprison people, to incarcerate soldiers, and this message of hatred defined the times so much, that it was the equivalent of the dire threat in England in the times of the medieval kings, to have people guilty of high treason to be hanged, drawn and quartered. The youth of Sri Lanka have had enough. They are saying, let’s just draw, and forget about the drawn and quartered part of it please.

Brand new day

That culture of hate that was spawned purely for political gain in the mistaken notion that the opposition can be vanquished if everybody they didn’t like was put in prison, has to be studied at length on another day. At least, such a dissection would yield results for those who want to educate themselves about the psychology of malign force, driven by the motive of selfish personal gain. i.e: the former regime’s cry to imprison was not in order to discipline society, but in the hope that those calling for such sentences could rule forever, and continue to plunder the State for all time because there would be nobody left outside of the prisons to oppose them!

Let’s not sully this brand new day by dwelling on such badly failed experiments.

But the psychology of wall art has to be studied, especially in a context in which it is all happening as a spontaneous movement, soon after an election and a regime change.

For the first time we see youth engaged in an attempt to contribute to society in some way they can, rather than keep asking for more, with shrill cries or diyavu, diyavu.

Diyavu (the closest proper translation is ‘your money or your life’) became the byword associated with the sub-culture of so called youth protests, that clogged city streets and resulted in frayed nerves and traffic gridlock.

In less than forty eight hours after an election, how did that culture of diyavu, diyavu transform into a culture of let’s draw, and not be drawn and quartered?

Superstar athlete

It’s hopefully because at some time, forward moving cultures transform from a state of asking ‘what the nation can do for us’, to asking ‘what we can do for the nation.’

As a country we may be many mental light years from the time the South Koreans stood in line to donate their gold to save the nation, — or then again may be we are not so far away?

The economic slump of the late nineties hit South Korea so badly that the now developed economy which is a donor country to the world, had to in 1997, ask for an IMF bailout. The bailout was so huge — something to the tune of 19 billion US dollars — that the Koreans seemed to have no way of digging themselves out of the misery of large scale indebtedness.

But then the average South Koreans volunteered to donate their gold. People stood in line to give their wedding jewellery and their family heirlooms to the State. One superstar athlete of his time, brought in his entire haul of gold medals and trophies and announced he wants it all melted down and sent to the IMF. In a culture in which babies were given gold to wish them good health and fortune in life, family held gold was almost all the real wealth some of these average South Koreans had. But yet they stood in line and gave away the gold, and some 29 tons of gold ingots was realized from this donation drive. The government was able to melt all of this donated jewellery, and ship it to the IMF and to a great extent the people’s desire for self sacrifice saved the day for the Koreans who recovered from the slump, and went on to become one of the healthiest economies on the planet.

This kind of spirit of sacrifice doesn’t come out of nowhere. It certainly doesn’t come out of sowing hatred, and threatening each morning to imprison political opponents, and baying for blood on national TV.

Nations are not made of laws and strictures, or at least they are not made of laws and structures alone. But nations are built upon aspirations. That was certainly true of the South Korean example cited above. People collectively had an aspiration to be great, to build bigger things than just dirt roads and gullies, and they dared to dream. That’s why they stood in line for hours to give away all their family heirlooms in gold.

It’s important that this country has in some way transitioned from a culture of drawing and quartering, to drawing, just drawing, and giving shape to dreams.

Strokes of the paintbrush

The phenomenon is a far more important national milestone than it may appear to be at first glance — it’s a collective national coming of age, if you will, if this spirit could be sustained. As usual, the critics keep coming out of the woodwork. But while the spirit of hate of the previous government seemed to consume all around it, letting out the worst instincts in man, the spirit of drawing wall art and daring to dream seems to be contagious in a very uplifting way, and that is a mammoth contrast.

The next phase, we are told, is a drive for nurturing miniature plants in urban areas, and fight climate change while beautifying the urban landscape in the process.

The youth seem to be doing this because they feel there is a leadership transformation that captures the zeitgeist — their own zeitgeist.

Incidentally, there were so called international roving writers who descended here prior to the election in large numbers, who predicted that the youth vote would win Mr. Premadasa the election. But the young people voted with their feet for Mr. Rajapaksa in fact. It’s largely because they eschewed the culture of hate, untruth, and crass self-aggrandizement. As if any proof is needed about where the youth vote went, there is now the wall art. Some day, the youth of today will be telling their grandchildren how they, along with a leader who believed in the magic of national renewal, once upon a time restored all hope in humanity, with a few strokes of the paintbrush.