The past in our art: confronting the contemporary in an ancient society

by Hasini Haputhanthri

22 Jun 2021
Journal of the British Academy
https://doi.org/10.5871/jba/009s3.173
23 (pp. 173-195)

Abstract: Sri Lanka is an ancient culture that has evolved into a complex post-colonial society with a multitude of identities, hybridities, synchronicities, and paradoxes. The ‘idea of the past’ is explored by analyzing its iconographic and semiotic representations in contemporary art in work by three Sri Lankan artists. Contemporary artists respond to and re-mold their artistic traditions in depicting their day-to-day lived realities. Is the past a burden or a basis, is it inescapable or unwarranted, in projecting their contemporary truths? Does art become a practice of constant negotiation between the past and the present? How do these artists support or challenge the mainstream historic narratives intrinsic to social conflicts in the island? Ideas and representations of the past play a central role in social discourses. There are competing versions of the past: the ‘historic past’ and the ‘practical past’, which is also the past of the ‘common man’. While some contemporary artists draw from mainstream historical narratives, one finds a critical and reflective art practice in contemporary visual culture in Sri Lanka. The work of Jagath Weerasinghe and Hanusha Somasundaram illustrates how artists respond to and investigate the past, and their approaches from History, Archaeology, and Art History, the professions most associated with ‘the past’, are delineated. These artists make valuable contributions to modern historiography through their art that can be read as intricate palimpsests of iconography, narrative, and memory; through visually challenging dichotomies, making their practices signifiers of the ways in which societies understand and express their past in relation to their present and themselves.

Keywords: Practical past, history, memory, art history, archeology, contemporary art, ancient culture, iconography, narrative, post-colonial, Sri Lanka, identity, Jagath Weerasinghe, Hanusha Somasundaram.

Article posted to Journal of the British Academy, volume 9, supplementary issue 3 (Memories from the Margins: Violence, Conflict and Counter-Narratives).

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