Artists at the Front Lines of Sri Lanka’s “People’s Struggle”
August 31, 2022
The establishment will irritate you—pull your beard, flick your face—to make you fight, and then they know how to handle you. The only thing they don’t know is nonviolence and humor. — John Lennon, 1969
Spoken in 1969 during mass protests in the United States over the Vietnam war and the ongoing civil rights movement, Lennon’s words ring true in Sri Lanka today. Amid the worst economic crisis since independence, which arrived on the heels of a civil war, continued government corruption, and decade-long grievances over exclusionary policies, Sri Lankans are staging perhaps the greatest peaceful mass protest in their history. The Aragalaya—the “people’s struggle”—is led by millennials and backed by a cross-section of the population, who are demanding the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Sri Lankans are experiencing a moment of unprecedented unity, and artists have joined the protests to amplify their demands.
Historically, artists are no strangers to resistance movements, from the French Revolution, with its war-song-turned-national-anthem “La Marseillaise” encouraging the masses to topple the monarch, to Woodstock’s iconic “three days of peace and music”. The Aragalaya is another of these moments. From an improvised art gallery to music, theater, and dance performances, murals, sculptures, and a buzzing digital art scene on social media, the Aragalaya is a kaleidoscope of Sri Lankan art and culture. It has also provided space for much-needed political education.
We spoke to a few artists from the Aragalaya in Colombo, opposite the Presidential Secretariat, a few meters away from the well-known Galle Face Green, in the government-designated demonstration site, now baptized the “Gota Go Gama” (GGG) or Gota Go Village to echo the chief demand of the people that President “Gota” must go. Some of these artists were renowned professionals, who recounted previous citizen movements, while others were young artists swept up in this historic moment.
Dinupa Kodagoda is an award-winning actress and singer, and Asanka Senadheera is a musician from the Bakeriya Kattiya, an art space in the suburbs of Colombo. They have been supporting the Aragalaya with public performances at GGG. Asanka sees GGG as an opportunity for artists to elevate people’s voices, adding song and music to the slogans and demands. Art is more than just entertainment, Dinupa says, observing that the music, paintings, and street theater inspired by the Aragalaya were raising awareness of the ongoing crisis. She also emphasized the Aragalaya’s commitment to nonviolence, unlike previous youth movements in Sri Lanka.
GGG is the new home of the People’s University, a spontaneous creation of the Aragalaya where artists and scholars lead discussions of the constitution, the justice system, protest strategies, and protest art. Jerome and Tracy Holsinger, both founders of leading theater companies, have been conducting theater workshops at the university, and they’ve watched as workshop participants have used concepts from Brecht and Stanislavsky to grapple with the social and personal dimensions of the current crisis. Tracy calls the Aragalaya an eye-opening “leveler,” which she hopes will engender a more politically literate—and politically proactive—generation. Tracy is staging trilingual plays that speak to all the communities of Sri Lanka, and she is also working on a trilingual version of the constitution with other leading thespian activists who plan to present it in the form of a theatrical roadshow.
The GGG workshops have demonstrated the power of storytelling to bring alternative perspectives to life, a healthy antidote to the “victor’s history” that has dominated the schools and public discourse in the seven decades since independence. The Aragalaya has also opened space for the acknowledgement of long-excluded voices through Sri Lanka’s first Pride march. We spoke to “Shaju,” a transgender activist from Colombo, who called the Aragalaya a victorious moment for the growing LGBT community. Known for her murals and henna art, Shaju is part of the South Asian Fearless Collective, which commissioned a mural at GGG on the theme of leadership in the current crisis.
The Aragalaya has become a moment of inclusiveness, an opportunity to voice the demands of the whole population regardless of ethno-religious denominations. Yet, there is still some distance between the Tamil communities of the North, who have been calling for change for a decade, and their Sinhalese fellow citizens in the South, who have largely failed to hear them. A singing of the national anthem at the Aragalaya, only in Sinhala, was a divisive misstep. A theater director who had organized an English-language performance at the Aragalaya told us that these moments reflect the persistent issue of language in Sri Lanka, something he believed the arts could help to address.
The Aragalaya’s vibrant online presence has thoroughly penetrated social media and enabled millions of people to coordinate their activities over the last three months. Among the thriving digital artists of the Aragalaya, we met with Marco Manamperi, who uses digital media to create powerful Pop and Dada montages of cropped images, abstract symbols, and familiar icons that reflect a society in turmoil, fault lines in the system, and contemporary attitudes. Marco displayed his graphics for the first time at the GGG art gallery, a pop-up gallery of art from the Aragalaya, made of old crates and scaffolding, that added a powerful visual element to the slogans displayed by the protestors.
The online world met the offline world as one group of visual technologists engineered a giant projection on the walls of the Presidential Secretariat itself, directly opposite GGG. To the cheers and applause of the surprised public, and their feverish updates on social media, the program displayed a 15-minute loop of graphics and photographs of slogans expressing the demands of the struggle. It was another milestone in the art of protesting in Sri Lanka, expanding the scope of urban art while also sending a digitally savvy message.
As we write this, the Aragalaya has passed its first 100 days. It has precipitated the resignations of one president, the prime minister, and several other ministers. Our conversations on the artistic front lines left us in unanimous agreement that art has played a significant role. Holding up a mirror to society, art is a tool for people to understand and reshape themselves, their societies, and in this case their system of government.
Anuradhi Perera is a program officer in The Asia Foundation’s South Asia Grants Program and Celina Cramer is a consultant in the Foundation’s MEL Unit and the Peace-Building and Community Dialog Program in Sri Lanka. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected], respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation.
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