Art and Truth Telling: The Singularity of Truth

The Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), and the Vibhavi Academy of Fine Arts (VAFA) exhibition of 14 artists from different parts of Sri Lanka imagining transitional justice which recently exhibited at the JDA Perera hall was exciting from an aesthetic point but depressing from a political one.

While all art is, in one way or another political, atrocity art offers a trenchant opportunity to capture the scope and scale of a horrific act, and allows for the examining of some elusive imaginative truths of that moment. It is something graphic photojournalism often aspires to but most often fails into gratuitousness. Goya’s series on the Spanish civil war, George Bellows’ series on the German invasion of Belgium and the wood cuts of Yoshitashi are part of that pre-photographic proto-human rights tradition that predates the expressionism of the current exhibition.

One of the challenges for post-Rajapakse-lapsarian civil society has perhaps been to construct a vibrant public discourse about transitional justice. The task has not been easy. There is a natural lassitude towards truth telling, and the monolithic narcissism of the Sri Lankan state struggles to concede justice to its constituents. Within this context the exhibition is a valuable provocateur of debate.

From an aesthetic viewpoint the exhibition was an enormously satisfying engagement of the mind and the eye and offered a striking lack of ‘miserablism’ that was invigorating. Take for instance Nirmalavasan’s polyptych ‘Unthrowable Questions on Carpet Roads’.



The series in a palette of bleached browns of dried blood hung on a clothes line, portrays women with photographs of their missing. But the pictures of the missing intermingle with pictures of fish – a motif that multiplies across each painting – line upon line of fish hung out to dry – suggesting perhaps the multitude of the missing and the nature of our indifference. The fish are drawn with the same neutral accuracy of the photographs of the missing. The meditative veneer of the composition is belied by the insidiously jarring imagery and the skill with which the slow desperation of grief in the faces of the women has been captured. Traffic lines of the carpet road lace the series together.

Perhaps the high point of the exhibition must be Pushpakanthan’s triptych ‘What is your father? Where is your father’ a deeply disturbing nightmarescape response to the killing of his father in his own bed by ‘unknown’ gunmen. This is a hoarse, inarticulate scream of a painting dominated by the bizarre recurring imagery of metamorphic toads – a grief prohibited from expression sublimating into the grotesque. It is a dark imaginative detail that could well slip unnoticed into a Hieronymus Bosch painting.


Hanusha Somasundaram’s ‘Backbones’ with used teabags as a medium, somewhat archly transposes images of pregnant estate labourers with those of the damsels of the Sigiriya frescoes – the adroit reworking of two of Sri Lanka’s best touristic clichés .


What was perhaps disappointing, particularly after the common time spent together grappling with transitional justice issue, was the stark difference in the nature and scope of the imagination of the Sinhala and the Tamil artists. In fact I asked my fellow visitors to try and indentify the artists’ ethnicity…a superfluous exercise of cynicism…but nevertheless an instructive one.

For the Tamil artists the conflict is an all encompassing immersive tsunami of experience, the boundaries of which overwhelm the knowable universe. For Vijitharan’s Bunker for instance it is imagined as a topographical invasion of militarism that engulfs the landscape. Tharmakrishna’s Untitled is a myriad of floating cubes, each cube repetitively etched with symbols of handcuffs, prison bars, guns, money wheels chairs and barbed wire. Cumulatively the works reveal pent-up emotional forces at play in the Tamil artist’s mind that seek release. And the best of them recall the words of Yeats contemplating the aftermath of the Irish Easter uprising a century ago “a terrible beauty is born”.

For the Sinhala artists, the conflict is imagined as incidental – particularly in the form of explosive incidents. They conceive the suffering as a joint condition, and more significantly, an equal one. This comfortable binary of mutual suffering is the base upon which a common humanism can be rediscovered. Asoka Manjula’s binary grenadehead ‘Searching for Humanity’ or Malika Sanjeewani’s ‘Confession of Two Criminals’ are examples. On the other hand, the Tamil artists have no place to accommodate the ‘Sinhala’ in the existential horror of their past. Nor perhaps have they reached a dispassionate equilibrium that admits introspection of the violence of the past.


                                             “Confession of Two Criminals” Malika Sanjeewani

Shorn of the aesthetics, what emerges is two fairly distinct and separate narratives based on the geography of personal experience which also seems to echo the subtexts of the dialogues of the communities: the pressure cooker of anguish in the north, the claim of equality of suffering by the South and the resentment towards the structures of exploitation and neglect that echo from the Hills. The truth telling experience is a mask of fragmented, self-serving truths, a sort of visual echo chamber.

But truth telling cannot be a buffet of cherry picked platitudes. Individual experiential truths may be many, disparate, enriching, complex and cathartic but they cannot be a substitute for facts.

In fact the essential aim of truth telling in transitional justice is the deliberative flocculation of cold hard factual truths from the multiples of experiential truths so that society has a single, commonly agreed, coherent, narrative of the past.

Which is perhaps why the Truth to Truth exhibition, despite the rich and bracing art it offered, really points to the need for a deus ex machina of a state sponsored truth-telling mechanism that is able to order the truths into facts.


First published on Groundviews.

‘Truth to Truth’ coverage in Sunday Observer

A thought provoking exhibition titled ‘Truth to Truth’ is now on at the JDA Perera Gallery, Horton Place, Colombo 7. Launched with a panel discussion on the ‘Right to Truth’ on March 24, the exhibition commemorates the International Day for the Right to the Truth concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims, which fell on March 24.

Published in The Sunday Observer, 27 March 2016.

Download PDF here.

The Facebook Event Page has more details (you don’t have to be a member of Facebook to see it).

Truth to Truth



The International Day for the Right to the Truth concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims is marked globally on 24th March. It is a day to remember the victims of past abuses and promote the right to truth and justice. The right to truth is linked to governments’ duty and obligation to protect and guarantee human rights, to conduct effective investigations and to guarantee effective remedy and reparations.

The transitional justice discourse in Sri Lanka is reenergized with the adoption of the Resolution at the 30th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in September-October 2015. The consensus resolution, cosponsored by the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL), is an important step in terms of recognizing past abuses and the need to investigate, prosecute, repair and reform within Sri Lanka. The GOSL has, in addition to confidence building measures such as reforming legislation and releasing lands to original owners, promised the establishment of four mechanisms in Sri Lanka- a special court, a commission for truth, justice, reconciliation and non-recurrence, an office of missing persons and office for reparations. These are critical steps in the road to reconciliation in Sri Lanka and must be fully implemented.

2016 will be a critical year in Sri Lanka and for Sri Lankans. The promises are many for a new Sri Lanka. Recognizing and reckoning with past abuses and introducing much needed reforms are critical if reconciliation is to have a chance.

This exhibition is a joint collaboration by the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) and the Vibhavi Academy of Fine Arts (VAFA) to explore transitional justice via the medium of art. Fourteen emerging artists from across Sri Lanka discussed and debated concepts of transitional justice and its relevance to Sri Lanka at a residential workshop in February 2016 conducted by Chandraguptha Thenuwara and Bhavani Fonseka, followed by the production of art work that is on display at this exhibition. The exhibition commences on 24th March 2016, the International Day for the Right to the Truth concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims. This day and what it symbolizes is a poignant reminder for Sri Lankans of the need to recognize the past and promote truth, justice, reparations, non-repetition.

We hope the art work and literature around the theme of transitional justice will expand the discussions on transitional justice and provide a space for reflection, remedy and reform.


Read this in Tamil and Sinhala.