by Prof. Sasanka Perera
Walking and driving around in Delhi as well as within the halls of our own university, I have been reminded more than any time before the spectrum of extreme contradictions within which we live and take for granted. In the larger context of South Asia, rather than being an exception, the contradictions that Delhi and India offer are an extension of a larger reality. These are often funny, but sometimes insidious when one thinks about the implications. It is one of these contradictions from Colombo, Sri Lanka that I want to write about here where reality generally varies between pretty bad art and uninteresting death within the space of the country’s National Art Gallery. When one refers to an entity that calls itself the National Art Gallery, it is reasonable to assume that such an agency is of countrywide or national importance. In the context of comparative experience from other parts of the world, such an agency would be vested with the role of promoting contemporary visual arts in a given society and maintaining a collection of important visual art works over time in a carefully curated permanent collection. As such, a ‘national’ art gallery should have essential expertise and services: it should have warehouses to store important works, curators, art critics in its staff or on contract and contacts with other galleries in the region and elsewhere.
Nevertheless, perhaps due to the peculiar development of both politics and culture in Sri Lankan society, Colombo’s National Art Gallery situated in prime real estate seems to be fulfilling an entirely different set of duties. Today, rather than being a depository and promoter of the country’s visual arts, the National Art Gallery is better known as a funeral parlor for perceived cultural icons such as television actors, film directors, singers, politicians and the like.
I remember when the corporeal remains of Mr. Edwin Kottegoda were exhibited at the national art gallery on July 25th 2002 from 01.00 PM to 05.00 PM. In fact, it was after seeing this very peculiar ‘exhibition’ that I first thought of writing this essay. But the National Art Gallery has hosted such mortuary exhibitions before that and after. Nevertheless, to be fair by Mr. Kottegoda, in his own way he had done much to collect, record and preserve Sinhala folks songs known locally as ‘jana gee’. The point however is this: irrespective of a person’s perceived or real contribution to the country’s cultural scene, why should there be a compulsion to exhibit his or her remains in the National Art Gallery? It is unfortunate that the state’s cultural commissars do not have the intellectual capacity to comprehend a very simple fact. That is, there is a very significant difference between an art object and a dead body, even though that dead body may be that of a well-known person.
The deterioration of the National Art Gallery to the level of a state sponsored funeral parlor has to be understood both in the context of the historical evolution of the gallery itself along with the deterioration of the country’s politics. Though initiated in 1932 on very sound cultural rationale by sensible people, in 1952, through an Act of Parliament, the National Art Gallery became a part of the Department of Cultural Affairs. The institutional foundation for the establishment of the mortuary tradition of the Art Gallery emerged in this context where the gallery became a government-controlled political entity in a country where all state organizations went through a steady process of vulgar politicization. It also marked the diminishing of the Gallery’s original agenda of promoting visual arts.
Today, the gallery is run by a group of government bureaucrats with no sense of contemporary art and without the expertise of professionals who should be knowledgeable about art-management. The National Art Gallery at present does not have a curator or an official position for a curator. That serious responsibility is vested with an individual whose official duty is simply to hang paintings. Besides, according to artists, gallery reservations can be cancelled at any time if a minister or any such political heavyweight demands the place for an alternate event such as a funeral. On the other hand, the space dedicated as the permanent collection is a sorry excuse for a country’s permanent collection in visual arts. In this general context, it might be more practical to convert Sri Lanka’s National Art Gallery more fully into a proper funeral parlor for perceived cultural worthies as the mortuary tradition is already well established and accepted by both the permanent bureaucracy as well as the political establishment and much of the citizenry whose appreciation of the arts is at best is dubious.
Moreover, the country’s cultural bureaucrats already have plenty of experience in organizing state funerals as opposed to their complete lack of knowledge in contemporary art practice and theory as well as art-management. It would make sense to appoint a commission within the Art Gallery or better still, in the Ministry of Cultural Affairs to find out ingenious ways of displaying corpses of perceivably important characters in the National Gallery.
One can learn a lot from the Funeral Commission that was established to find ways to preserve the body of soviet leader Vladimir Lenin. That commission which was later officially renamed ‘The Commission for the Immortalization of the Memory of V.I Lenin’ defined its task as the preservation of the late leader’s corpse “in such a state that it can be viewed, and that the external appearance of the body and the face should preserve the physical features of Vladimir Il’ich in just the same way that he looked in the first days after his death.” Similarly, the commission that might be established in Sri Lanka could be called ‘the National Commission for the Preservation of the Corporeal Remains of Culturally Important Personalities.’ Alternatively, it could well be a similar mouthful of an alphabetical soup that the intellectual limits of bureaucrats and politicians in charge would determine.
It can easily decide whose corpses will be exhibited in the National Gallery, and which one of these worthies would be added to the ‘Permanent National Corpse Collection’. In any case, since the existing permanent art collection of the National Gallery is in a terrible state, we might as well completely remove it, and convert the space into a permanent mausoleum where politically defined cultural worthies could be exhibited in perpetuity after their death.
They might be embalmed or like the work of the British artist Damien Hirst, these remains might be placed in containers filled with formaldehyde solution. If we decide upon the Damien Hirst option, we would even be able to call these exhibits artworks, as there is already precedence for that in some of the less imaginative schools of artistic thought in Western Europe. If this option is made, it may not take too long for dead local politicians floating in formaldehyde solution wearing ill-fitting national costumes be exhibited in the Tate Gallery in London or elsewhere.
The people who initially mooted the idea and ensured the gallery’s establishment had a very clear idea what this was all about. But at present, there is no serious art consciousness at the popular level or at the level of the urban elite and within the different layers of the middle class. That is why it has been so easy for the National Art Gallery to become a funeral parlor without encountering any serious opposition.
In the context the visionless politics and monumental lack of imagination that typify much of contemporary Sri Lankan reality, a fully-fledged funeral parlor run by the state at the present National Art Gallery is more plausible than the emergence of a dynamic and creative space for the arts. Personally, I have decided to write into my will that when I die, my corporeal remains should not be taken even by accident anywhere near what used to be the National Art Gallery.
(A longer version of this essay under a different title was initially published in 2002 in the author’s column, ‘Alternate Space’ in the Colombo-based daily, The Island. It has been edited to suite the present context)
Website for the image: http://colomboartbiennale.com/national-art-gallery/