After Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s assuming of the office of presidency, a wave of street art sprung up and spread across the country like a bushfire. The official version is that it was spontaneous civic-minded volunteerism by disparate groups of local youth who felt inspired by the unfolding political ‘change’.
Mr Rajapaksa’s graduation to civilian affairs after the end of the war was via the secretary of the urban development ministry. A city beautification initiative undertaken in that capacity helped foster his image of an able administrator. Viewed in that context, the state patronage in the current wave of street art may not be totally absent, though the direct state ownership of the project is limited.
Local political leaders of the SLPP and SLFP are patronising the initiative, not so much for the sake of arts, but to earn brownie points. That is, after all, a harmless initiative of the public good, and an improvement in the conduct of the political underlinings, whose proclivity to nauseatingly sycophantic gestures such as Pandals have been put to a halt by a directive of the new president.
However, even the most well-intentioned initiatives can go hay-wire. That is also true to the current movement of street art. Some blunders are embarrassingly naive. For instance, some over-enthusiastic ‘artists’ have painted over the hazard signs below the Dehiwala fly-over, which were meant to warn the motorists to reduce the speed. Neither the Road Development Authority nor were the local authorities aware of the act. The president of the Ceylon Motorcyclists’ Association Shirantha Amerasinghe has lodged a complaint at the Police headquarters, asking the restoration of the road sign, which is now being painted over by a mural that depicts the Dasa Maha Yodayas (ten giants) of King Dutu Gemunu. A simple paint job would fix the problem and save lives.
But some other faux pas calls for more soul searching. Street art were meant to inspire. But, the murals in the local phenomenon are overwhelmingly monotonous, lacking imagination, and uninspiring. They borrow heavily from nationalistic and militaristic narratives of the past and present. The aura of Sinhala nationalist fervour there, is exclusionary and far less accommodating of the diversity. They also add to the perceived and real sense of marginalisation of ethnic minorities.
President Rajapaksa could win the election solely through the Sinhalese vote, but Sri Lanka as a whole will be an unhappy place if its minorities, who overwhelmingly voted for his opponent Sajith Premadasa, feel left out. The President himself has assured that he would be the President for all Sri Lankans. Though he may not have a conscious role, the not-so-subtle gestures of ethnic supremacy in a movement inspired by his election would further dampen his image in the eyes of ethnic and religious minorities.
As much as it is a medium of expression and protest, arts can also be a medium of control and monopolisation. From Stalin, Mussolini and the Third Reich to Mao and the modern day hermit kingdom of North Korea, despots of all ideological fervour, have sought to monopolise the arts, not just as a medium of propaganda but also to serve as an educational and instructional function to reinforce cultural values of their new societies.
The Nazis laced anti-Semitism with the State approved Aryan arts and their drive to control culture. Soviet Communists proclaimed that all artists must embrace the Socialist Realist philosophy and style, which glorified communism and loyalty to the Communist party. Mao mobilised revolutionary art to build a cult for himself. During the height of the Cultural Revolution, his portrait was published in an estimated 2.2 billion copies.
Art is also liberating. In the hey days of communism in Eastern Europe and military dictatorships in Latin America, street art and graffiti became a form of psychological warfare against the ruling elite and dominant narrative; a culture of resistance. A similar role is pursued by many contemporary artists, Banksy an anonymous street artist based in England is a cultural phenomenon himself.
It is hard to rein in a discordant and un-organised wave of artistic activism, assuming Sri Lanka’s recent movement is genuinely grassroots-oriented. However, one should ask where this would lead? Are they representative of a free-wheeling liberating expression, a counter culture or a subversive epigram you would find in the Street art Meccas of the world’s capitals. Or do they look more like stifling, regimented and state approved arts propagated by monopolistic political and cultural elites?
In a year or so from now, would our streets look more like those of North Korea or Eritra or would they be chic inspiring passages of artistic diversity and pluralism?
Sadly, the over zealous artist of Sri Lanka’s street art phenomenon has misconstrued the soft power of Sinhala Buddhist heritage of this country. A religion or cultural phenomenon is appealing to the outsider only to the extent it is accommodating of others. Drab, monotonous and overtly ethnic supremacist murals are more likely to intimidate a visitor. That is because they shed light into the innerness of the nation.
Probably this one is not the government’s making. It would be unwise and unwarranted to expect the government to rein in the wave of nationalistic murals. That would be tantamount to censorship. The society as a whole has to find a fix.
It is definitely not the best of our artistic talent that is dabbling with the paint brush right now. That also explains why much of the murals are dull, sub-par and of poor artistic quality. Students of fine arts colleges and universities can be encouraged to take part to draw some real stuff. City walls can be auctioned for artists, who can be compensated for their artistic contribution. The private sector can be invited to chip-in.
However, the bigger problem, in the long run, would be inculcating a degree of cosmopolitan pluralism to the hordes of aspiring ‘artists’ and the youth in general.