As a newcomer to Sri Lanka I felt honoured to be at the opening night of this exhibition.  The two artists who were showing their work offered me, and I am sure many others, a new understanding of the way memory in Sri Lanka is used and abused.

There were two artists at the Hempel Galleries on the 12th of May 2011,  Pradeep Chandrasiri and  Bandu Manamperi.  This show concerned the memories of each of these artists, their own memories and the collective memory of their country. They are exploring the way memory has been honoured and dis-honoured through a very physical reaction. Both artists explore the nature of the violent man and how he becomes a victim of the violence which informs his character and his memory.

“Red, Black and White” by Pradeep Chandrasiri

Chandrasiri  repeatedly uses red and black snakey lines throughout most of his work, these are the bloodlines, where the memories run. In his series Manna I-III the lines act as a backdrop to the photograph of a violent man. The black and white life size images depict the half naked man with his back turned to us holding a weapon in pure simplicity between his shoulder blades (Manna II) and the same man in Manna III has his hands on his hips while the weapon is tucked into the top of his jeans. In Manna I we see two men side by side turned away from us and in the other half of the picture the two men have turned to face us holding the weapons at their waists. These are very powerful images, the confrontational nature of a photographed man is hard to ignore and its iconic strength makes him a symbol of the future as well as the past.  Pradeeep has confronted us with the individual representing a violence which has not faded away. The memories, held within the bloodlines are present for Pradeep who talked to me about how so many students like him lost years of their lives in the war. He has worked on the theme of memories since he discovered, seventeen years ago, that this was the way to process his art and his experience.

On the other side of the room is Pradeep’s series of acrylic images painted again in red and black. The mountain which appears in much of Pradeep’s work appears again here in Man on the Mountain I-III, Mountain V and VI and At the Foot of the Mountain. Pradeep told me that this mountain was the place he missed most when he left Kandy and came to Colombo. It was the place he and his friends used to sit to discuss politics and art. This mountain seems to have become a symbol  of memory.  In some of the pictures it is made up of the black and red snakes and in others it is simply the red or black shape which either holds a man within its form or provides the seat on which the man can consider what he is. We see in these figures the physical embodiment of memory, the blood which is infused with thoughts that become the man and become his art.

“Perforated Body” by Bandu Manamperi

Manamperi exhibited his work in performance and also within the phyisical frames which held beautiful and distressing portraits. This series of work is all untitled and the faces which appear in many of the pieces are disfigured and anonymous. Some of the most arresting pictures (Numbered I, IV and V) are displayed is the main gallery. In IV Bandu has created a violent and mesmerising three dimensional image using strips of charred board which he then molded to create the contours of a face appearing from the background. The face is burnt and scarred and in the same way as Pradeeps’ Manna series, this is a face of violence we are forced to confront. Memory for Bandu is violent in itself. The scars left on these disfigured faces are created by memory. As Luis Buenel says, ‘Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action.’ Bandu shows us in these pieces what we are made of. As well as the scars and the disfigurement there are beautiful motifs taken from the Budhist moonstone reliefs  and Singhala letters  imprinted onto the card and sprayed with gold paint. (Numbered V) This textured background provides the context for the faded figure within the picture, who appears as a shadow, blackened and disappearing within this prescribed memory. Is Bandu suggesting that people have lost themselves in the way they are being asked to remember? Certainly in Bandu’s performance piece the audience must consider the idea of a cover up.

It was fantastic to be part of the audience watching Bandu that night. He appeared amongst his five life-size human plasters casts which were hanging from the ceiling . These five men, each cast in the stance of a man full of rage, with one hand clenched and the other splayed at his sides. Each hanging man was imprinted with different motifs, one seemed to be made up of shellfish, one tattooed with the Sinhala alphabet. Each of them scarred in their own way and each of them covered by the ideologies and impressions  which have determined their bodies and therefore changed who they have become.

We were all very quiet as Bandu appeared and took off his t-shirt to reveal a weapon tucked into the back of his jeans, just as the man in  Praddeep’s images. As Bandu covered himself in thick white paint the gallery visitors who had now become audience members,  reacted immediately,  some giggled but held a curious silence.  Bandu smeared himself slowly and methodically with the white paint until his whole body was covered from head to foot. He then crawled onto the map of Sri Lanka that lay before him. The map was highlighted with red dots at the places in Sri Lanka where the worst attrcocities of the war were committed.  Bandu got to his knees and began to rhythmically use his body as the brush with which to cover the map with the white paint. We all stood transfixed,  Bandu was making this map disappear, the red dots became blurred and ran into the white paint like blood. Bandu was determined to cover ever part, every corner of the map so that we see nothing underneath, memory has been symbolically suffocated by man.

Bandu is one of three performance artists in Sri Lanka at the moment. These three now run workshops on performance art, they are bringing a new medium to the country.

Both Pradeep and Bandu have given me the feeling that Sri Lanka is a long way from forgetting its past, and the importance of recognizing true memory and how memory can manifest has never been so crucial.