"By sharing their inspirations and making exhibitions together,
Tamil and Sinhala artists start to question narrowly defined notions of what it means to be 'Sri Lankan...'"
Anoli Perera, artist and board member at Theertha Arts Organization, May 2008

Creating expression across ethnic lines in Sri Lanka

Conflict and psychology

In Sinhala “theertha” means sacred journey. In Sri Lanka- an island draped in natural beauty with exquisite beaches, lush forests, and rolling tea plantations- theertha is a long and tumultuous path towards peace. Still grappling with an array of postcolonial conflict, this tiny country has witnessed decades of violence, including a youth uprising in 1988 and a 20-year armed ethnic conflict between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamil communities.

T. Shanaathanan, 'Paradise Bed' (2004)

Since 2000, the Theertha International Arts Collective, an autonomous artist-led organization in Columbo, has been at the forefront of Sri Lanka’s arts community. They drive creative initiatives, such as the Art Lab journal, and support ideological change through art workshops and residency programs. However, the war has greatly affected the general psychology of Sri Lankans. This means Theertha’s ambitions to facilitate peace through art and culture is far from easy.

Collaboration between Sinhala and Tamil

Trying to engender feelings of trust amidst the insecurities of war is extremely difficult. When tensions are high intra-cultural differences become more pronounced. At Theertha they organize and facilitate collaborative projects between Tamil and Sinhala artists with a two-fold goal: to acknowledge each other’s artistic talents, and to recognize intra-cultural similarities and differences in a broader social context. Theertha acts as a neutral home base- one that is open to different religions and ethnicities. Tamil and Sinhala artists are given the opportunity to develop their ideas together, to discuss and collaborate, challenge, and question each other’s work. Social and artistic endeavors can be used to breakdown the daily realities of ethno-chauvinism. Under a non-threatening ‘guise’ of artistic production, Tamil and Sinhalas can create in an environment that is absent of class systems, religious biases, or ethnic exclusion. There is truly freedom of artistic expression. Through their individual work, artists highlight their diversity. However, by sharing their inspirations and making exhibitions together the artists question narrowly defined notions of what it means to be “Sri Lankan”.


'Pasting the Pieces' (2004), performance by G.R. Constantine

“Our work is to facilitate the process of introducing alternative ways of looking at culture, nationalism and diversity using art as a tool,” explains Anoli Perera, an artist and board member at Theertha. “We emphasize fusion and collaboration as a possible methodology, but this will only happen if organic connections are made between artists.”

Art skeptics

“Convincing possible local funders and the general public that what Theertha does is important to the art community is difficult,” admits Perera. “At the state level, political interventions- including their inefficiency, suspicion, corruption, sheer stupidity and anti-NGO attitude- tend to interfere in how we may work together or connect in any constructive or meaningful way.”

There is an ideological disparity between Theertha’s work and the skepticism by which state officials regard their ideologies. As a result, they have stopped investing energy in trying to convince the government. Rather their attention has turned towards more ‘grass root’ initiatives such as teacher training programs directed at educational officers.

LTTE collaborate with Sinhala artists

Among Theertha’s most successful initiatives was the Aham-Puram Art Exhibition held in Jaffna in 2004. As Perera explains, “this event was about ‘transformative politics’…it helped build a ‘cultural map’ where community members discover the significance of their surroundings, inclusive of other ethno-religious groups.”

The exhibition combined works from the largely unrepresented Tamil artists from SETHU in the north, with the Sinhala Theertha-based artists in the south. Their goal was to become aware of how war, anxieties, and fears similarly affect their lives. The result was a popular success. Over 72 artworks were shown and a public audience of nearly 8000 attended. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) - the militant Tamil nationalist organization in the north- also acknowledged the event as an attempt at cultural exchange. They commissioned the southern Theertha artists to repaint and conserve the murals of the Nallur Temple, one of Jaffna’s most powerful and sacred temples in the North.

“This was a gesture unthinkable under hostile conditions that Sri Lankan politics were treading on,” says Perera. “But this change of attitude in the patrons of the Nallur Temple was possible only because of the connections and trust that Theertha has been able to achieve through their work with the Jaffna based artists.”

Amanda Fortier



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