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Performance Art and Political Protest

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Photo courtesy of Amila Udagedara

Performance art is an offshoot of visual arts where the artist uses his or her body as a medium of communication. Performance art has always been interconnected with society and politics. Artists often fuse comments on everyday life with political engagement, creating actions and performances that respond to and are fuelled by the socio-political environment. Thus, performance art could be regarded as a form of political activism of the artist.

Politically motivated art and performance is not new. Before and after the first world war art movements in Europe, such as the Futurist in Italy, spread their political or anti-establishment ideals through various artforms, including performance art.

During the civil rights movement in the US in the late 1950s and early 1960s artforms, including performance art, were used extensively to highlight and protest the racial segregation of public areas. These actions such as sit-ins on segregated transport set the model for protest and mass actions in public spaces.

One remarkable performance protest during that period was by Yoko Ono and John Lennon in 1969. Bed Peace was a protest and artistic statement against war where the pair sat in bed for world peace as part of their honeymoon. The importance of this event was that it articulated youth attitudes and concerns of the time.

Performance art has been used by many female artist to redefine feminism in terms of day to day activities because it is an effective tool to question conventions. Some scholars regard feminist performance art as a unique entity especially in the era of  feminist postmodernism, which focused on the exploitation of women’s bodies as a means for profit.

From the mid 20th century onwards performance art has been identified as a form of political activism that addresses issues in socio-political context. In Sri Lanka too the development of performance art has been closely linked with socio-political issues.

The first performance art piece by a Sri Lankan artist in the context of visual arts was done by Godwin Constantine in 1999 under the title Broken Palmyra as a tribute to Dr. Rajini Thiranagama who was assassinated by the LTTE. Subsequently Bandu Manamperi started doing performances. In 2001 the Theertha Artists Collective invited foreign performance artists, including Lee Wen from Singapore, for a performance art camp. These initial developments were comparable to similar initiatives taken in other Asian countries to promote performance art. Since then, performance art has gained momentum and is now regarded as a standalone art form in Sri Lanka.

Performance art remained within the confines of galleries at the initial stages. It gained importance as an entertainment piece on the opening day of exhibitions or it was used as an interlude at art events.

In the first performance by Godwin Constantine at his solo exhibition, the audience also participated in lighting the oil lamp where an urinal was used as a lamp. In few of Bandu Manamperi’s and Janani Cooray’s early performances audience involvement was part of the performance. In the last two decades performance art has gradually moved out of gallery space and into public space.

During the past two decades there have been several international performance art festivals in Asia, transforming performance art into a community art form and as activism. Social issues and local people’s problems have become focal points in Asian performance art.

Performance art is a non-sellable art form. For its expansion, performance art needs to link up with the community and become a part of cultural experience and a form of socio-political criticism. In many Asian countries, this has resulted in the involvement of local communities in art making exploring social issues, thus making performance art a cultural experience.

The Theertha Performance Platform was established in 2015 with Godwin Constantine and Bandu Manamperi as its co-directors. It is an art initiative focusing on the history, learning and practice of performance art with a space for sharing the practice with students, young artists, peer groups and the art viewing public.

The engagement of the public and the use of public space has made performance an art form that is most suitable for protest. Performance can be fuelled by rage in a way that painting and sculpture cannot. We saw a transition in performance art with the emergence of Sampath Bandara’s Ogha performance group, which brought performance art to the forefront of political protest. Initially the group participated in protest marches organised by the teacher’s union and other trade unions.

Ultimately the Aragalaya turned out to be the crucible for performance art, which became a phenomenon in political protest. There were several performances by groups and individuals throughout the protests. Many protest marches also had performances as part of the protest.

On the first day of the Galle Face protests on April 9, a memorable performance was done by the Ogha Collective headed by Sampath Bandara where artists wore sack cloths, holding the national flag below the chest to cover the pelvic area, meaning that the government has robbed even our cloths and given us nationalism to cover the shame. After that the LGBTIQ group, drama groups, musicians and actors participated in the Aragalaya with their own innovative performance works.

Easter Sunday of 2022 brought back the memories of the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks and Galle Face became a site of commemoration. Actor Jehan Appuhamy did a powerful performance where he carried a large wooden cross during a 37 kilometre walk that commenced at the Katuwapitiya church in Negombo and headed to the Kochchikade church in Colombo, concluding at Galle Face.

Another memorable performance associated with the Aragalaya was on July 24 to commemorate Black July of 1983 by Prabuddha Dhanushka Dikwaththa at Galle Face, which took place with the participation of public.

The public uprising was energised by the youth with their idea of revolution that aimed to bring about an union of everyday life and political engagement through play and freedom, rather than what they saw as the passive acceptance of mainstream consumer culture.

In the US and Europe, following assassination of  Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy and shocking events that took place during the Vietnam War, there were similar protests where young people, academics, artists and writers organised marches, occupied government buildings and often engaged in violent clashes with the police. These protests were against censorship, authority and consumerist culture.

This frustration, which is far beyond what can be articulated through writing or conventional arts, can only be expressed through art forms based on performance. This is what we see in Shalika Senadheera’s performance. He dressed in half a police uniform and half a military uniform, which did not mean to insult the forces in the way that has been interpreted by the authorities, but was questioning public servants on how their authority was being executed.

The arrest of Shalika for presenting performance art during a protest rally is a disturbing trend, which can be read as an indirect warning against the practice of visual art, and seeks to curtail art as a powerful medium of expression.

Throughout history in times of crisis artists, writers, intellectuals and academics have risen to voice the concerns of the public. The call for a radical change in a country that needs change has been invariably led by the youth. This revolution found expression as performance art and is precisely why performance art came to the forefront of political protest in Sri Lanka.

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