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Jagath Weerasinghe

Sri Lankan Contemporary Artist
Born 1954, Colombo, Sri Lanka
Lives and works in Colombo, Sri lanka

Jagath Weerasinghe’s politically engaging art stems from the context of the civil war between the Singhalese and the Tamils in Sri Lanka. His drawings, watercolours and installations attempt at unfolding stories of inhumanity and barbarity that repressive regimes are capable of on their own citizens. Also at crossroads is his identity as belonging to the majority Singhalese community.

Education

1991

MFA in Painting, American University, Washington DC

1988

Conservation of Rock Art, Getty Conservation Institute, Los Angeles

1985

Conservation of Wall Paintings, International Center for the Scientific Study and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM)

1981

CBFA Honours in Painting, Institute of Aesthetic Studies, University of Kelaniya, Sri Lanka

 

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LIFE AND WORK

UNDERSTANDING Jagath Weerasinghe

The role of the artist as an active agent of change is his core philosophy

The question of engagement and responsibility is a foundational core for artists like Jagath. As an artist caressed in historical moments within larger political and social debates surrounding them, the artist, according to Jagath, will have to assume not a subservient role in the system, rather one that activates a change. The engagement with the current is a significant role that the artist has to play.

Art then becomes a politically motivated agenda to usher in a radical change from the statist propaganda. Art moulds itself as reactionary as well as activism for Jagath. Art no longer confines itself within the constraints of just an aesthetic framework, but create a meaningful dialogue about the relations of power between the oppressor and the oppressed, the government and its citizens.

Jagath Weerasinghe discussing his art with students.

The dance of Shiva portray the violence embedded in religious discourse

Jagath has used the cosmic dance of Shiva, appearing in the form of Nataraja to comment on the implicit violence in religious discourse. The dance is an act of destruction of a universe paving the way for something new and better to be created. This constructs the idea of the necessary evil for goodness to prevail, or how violence in enmeshed within peace, a means towards an end.

Siva Nataraja series, 2009, depicts the cosmic destruction with energetic strokes, sometimes in black and white, and others with swathes of colours defining the background or the anatomy of the god of destruction. This dance becomes a contemporary metaphor how religious discourse has within itself ingrained forms of violence to ratify the ends of proposed peace and stability. This is in a continued vein of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism, in the guise of state powers, where it acted as a main denominator in the ethnic and identity clash over the Tamils during the civil war in Sri Lanka.

Jagath Weerasinghe, Siva Nataraja, 2009, acrylic on canvas

The riots of 1983 and his abduction and persecution proved to turning points

In July 1983, the seeds for a full-blown civil war between the Singhalese and Tamils were sown in Sri Lanka. Known as Black July, these series of riots between the two ethnic groups claimed thousands of lives and proved to be a critical turning point in the relations between the two groups in decades to come. Jagath as a witness to this pogrom made him feel implicated, at least psychologically in the event. The infamous photograph of the Tamil youth stripped naked and later immolated at the Borella bus stand that stood for the atrocities committed against the Tamils, assumed a spectral significance in Jagath’s life. This photograph became a recurring phenomenon in his works, and later this very same image became a stencil for one of his works.

In the 1970s, Jagath was abducted by government agencies and tortured. This episode stirred in him the reactionary to the repressive actions that totalitarian governments usually acted with. Having grown up in an educated, Marxist household, his awareness of rights as a people stood in defiance against this selective persecution by the government.

These events in his life, more particularly, moulded a politically inclined and ideologically firm artist in Jagath.

Jagath Weerasinghe, 2006

Identity politics of the nation and his self mingle in his art

An artist's witness to a pogrom as a citizen can have overarching political implications in his entire artistic trajectory. And this implicated presence for the artist can be further complicated if he belonged to the majoritarian populace. Jagath's identity has consistently provided him with markers throughout his career. His identity as a Singhalese Buddhist, in the backdrop of the civil strife and genocide against the minority Tamils in Sri Lanka, initiated and vilified by the state apparatus, becomes a conscious condemnation and tacit negotiation.

His disagreement with the violent state policies against the Tamils and his identity as a majoritarian Singhalese with non-violent principles as a Buddhist has continually informed his artistic career. He started off, in the 1990s, with his art speaking in a confrontational tone with selective usage of motifs and symbols to convey his stance against any form of violence.This actually led him into a systematic isolation by his friends who belonged to the Singhalese community.

Jagath Weerasinghe, 2006

The Shrine of the Innocents and the antipathetic government

Jagath Weerasinghe was the artist behind the Shrine of the Innocents, a memorial built in the mid-1990s for the lives lost during the massacres of 1988-1991 in south of Sri Lanka. As the civil war raged on, the memorial site started looking like a site of ruins with systematic destruction and dismantling acting on government’s directions.

The act of memorial building becomes an act of the nation’s purgation, a therapeutic touch for a collective trauma and the idea for a remembrance of the unforgettable. But the loss or destruction of such a memorial is taken up by Jagath in a more conceptual paradigm. For him, this destruction or disappearance is also one of appearance, one that reflects the current political and social society of Sri Lanka.

Jagath Weerasinghe, The Shrine of the Innocents