Pakkiyarajah Pushpakanthan

The idea of art as a therapeutic medium is recorded to have emerged in 1942 when British soldier Adrian Hill was recovering from his service in World War I. Adrian Hill was an author and artist whose process of recovery led him to discover the nuanced healing and cathartic experiences or art’s preoccupation and its capacity to allow an individual’s traumatic experiences be replaced or reconvened as it morphs into an alternate memory, recollection of confession; art then becomes medicinal in its attempt to heal physically, mentally and socially. Such are the efforts through which the Cancerfund-Galle exhibition was founded upon. Initiated by Pakistani artist and writer Mariah Lookman, the first segment of the initiative will host upto twenty-four artists from across the globe as they contribute to the cause that combats the hindrances and limitations that cancer allows. In documenting this initiative, we speak to artist Pakkiyarajah Pushpakanthan on his works and thoughts on the cathartic influences of art in dealing with trauma, the correlation between it and the illness that roots this suffering.

Pushpakanthan Pakkiyarajah was born in Batticola, Sri Lanka. He completed his Bachelor's in Fine Art & Design from the University of Jaffna. His drawings, paintings, digital prints, videos, and installations reflect the painful and often silenced legacies of Sri Lanka’s lengthy civil war while also tackling globalisation's dark sides: racism, populism, inequality, and ecocide. Pushpakanthan is past recipient of the South Asia Studies Fellowship at Cornell University (NY). He has been awarded a Visiting Fellowship at the University of Essex (UK) where he is going to engaging further with the ESCALA collection. (e.g. Guillermo’s Sangre en el paraíso; Rueda’s ...y después se erigen monumentos). He has exhibited widely, including in the US, the UK, Canada, Iran, India, Nepal, Maldives, and Sri Lanka. His recent exhibitions include 'Wounded Landscapes', Saskia Fernando Gallery, Colombo 2019, The Disappearance of Disappearances, History of Art Gallery, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 2018, SAF (Virtual)- Future Landing, Serendipity Arts Festival, India 2021 and more. For Tonight No Poetry Will Serve Pushpakanthan continues with his work addressing the ravages of war in the triptych titled 'Wounded Landscape', 2020. Here again in these works the artist attests to a condition of life that is ruptured, broken and torn apart by indiscriminate acts of violence during war. Pushpakanthan is currently a Fulbright Student pursuing his MFA Studio Art at the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC). He lives and works between Chicago, USA and Batticaloa, Sri Lanka.

 Q l In your opinion, how does art play a role in the process of healing/catharsis? 

A | Artists enjoy the process of creation. This process is a space of deep focus, where trauma and stress can be healed. An artist can be immersed in the productive task of drawing, sculpting, creating some kind of form. This space of immersion, deep focus, and metamorphosis from the artist’s emotions to the art object can be a place of healing. When an audience encounters a work of art, she/he/they can connect with the emotions that are expressed within the artwork. Perhaps the artwork is representing a specific traumatic experience of an artist, and the audience member, who has his own private pain or that may be quite different from the artist’s pain or trauma, can still find release in the artist’s representation. However, when a particular trauma is represented, it can become abstracted from its specific context so that other people from other contexts, with their own experiences, can find useful connections and emotional release – catharsis – through that. This can provide a way of healing. 

Q | Hailing from Batticaloa, to what extent do you believe art has recorded and archived the grievances of individuals from the consequences of the civil war? And do you find a resonance between those works of art to ones that deal with healing/catharsis differently?

A | The main obstacle to this healing is that only a minority of people will connect with the artist’s work – most probably people who are already involved in art circles. This is not just an issue in Sri Lanka, but also, we can see it around the world. Despite this, the artists continuously work and never stop or give up their profession even if nobody encounters it nor becomes an audience. Especially in Sri Lanka, traditional performances, rituals, and other art forms shrank in these war and post-war situations because those traditional healing processes were affected by the disappearances, displacements, land issues with expropriation, identity issues, climate change, economic crises; therefore, take the catharsis in the broader range became a question mark. But still there are plenty of local artists, activists, and thinkers who are trying to rebuild, though it will take time. 

Art, festivals, and other community-based events can make incredible networks and mutual understanding. However, in this post-war period, there are some challenges. That’s why I have been forced to believe the claim of scholars who argue that the post-war period is a no war and also no peace period. We should think about our current situation as within a state of racism, populism, postcolonization, geopolitics, and competition of economic superpowers. As I mentioned earlier, the gap between ordinary people and works of art was an obstacle to making an agency through art for a wider audience. But I believe that artists and writers archived about the war effectively. They didn't expect any appreciation or popularity, and most of the artists worked for their own healing process while also being confident that archiving the war through art is needed for a better future. Bringing audiences to art shows and taking the artwork to broader audiences in Sri Lanka would be a way forward in a situation where people lack knowledge of art or war.   

I see myself in this broader background, and I work as a silent witness of the war, using my work as a tool for expressing the ugly truth and healing the haunting memories of this bloody war. Sometimes I find myself frightened by the emotions in a few of my works, I keep them hidden.  I am always curious about how an audience would approach them if these artworks were shown. 

Q | What inspired you to engage with art, and chose art as a means of expressing yourself?

A | I was born in Batticaloa to an artistically-minded family who first understood art as a form of entertainment. As I grew older, my approach to art shifted to reflect the violent society in which I grew up as a means to psychologically analyse the pain that I, and those in my community, have faced. Now, I aim to bear witness to the ever-present trauma from a distance and embed my artistic approach in a globalized context. Beyond the process of dealing with the past, I engage with the postwar space and ask: “What comes next?”

I always drew trauma and violence in some form, but I didn’t know why until I started my studies in Jaffna University and began experimenting with the content of my artwork--that helped me understand why I was drawing these images. I studied Art & Design at the University of Jaffna and was lucky to have been taught by artist and historian Dr. T. Sanathanan. He introduced a few other leading artists from Sri Lanka, and I was inspired by their work. In particular, I had wondered what the agency of an artwork could be, and how it can strongly archive memories.  For instance, I would say there are two works that connected well with my own memories. One is “Nightscapes” (1999) by Muhanned Cader, and “Day Under Siege” (1997) by T. Sanathanan. Through thinking with these artists, I got confident that a work has an agency which will connect with people even though they might have different memories. 

A key turning point in my work was inspired by a collaborative experience in 2014 with a group of Sinhalese and Tamil artists. Together, we walked across the sands of Mulliwaikkal beach, over the graves of those taken in the final phase of my country’s civil war. I came upon a charred-black album, the photos burned, and the faces obscured. With what hope was this album brought to this place? The album and its memories haunted me, and it was an important moment in my artistic practice where I shifted focus from the tragic events of my own childhood to something shared within my community. My work strives to be a violent disruption of the normalization of life that happens in the wake of trauma, and foreground histories of violence to remember the past and engage the present in processes of healing not just in Sri Lanka, but also across national borders.

I use my body as a studio or a lab to practice and test physically and mentally to express and heal myself. Also, I believe that art is a powerful medium that occurs in a magical space where our body and mind connect with our material and the material becomes empowered to express our stories.   

Q | What are you working on/worked on for ‘Tonight No Poetry Will Serve’ and how do you perceive it playing a role in contributing to the framework set? 

A | My ongoing art project is the “Wounded Landscape” series, which portrays the reality of disappearances and trauma. The landscape holds evidence of their stories, of the dead and the alive: For the families of the disappeared, there is no closure and no opportunity to begin healing. They are condemned to hope, and that could be cruel. 

I am honoured to be a part of this show and offering an artwork from above series, which seeks to use art to contribute meaningfully to the implementation of justice in Sri Lanka by creating spaces for marginalized voices to remember and heal a silenced past and discuss what ‘reconciliation’ truly means.  I strongly hope that this work will engage efficiently with ‘Tonight No Poetry Will Serve.’ I hope the mood from the artwork will create a space for remembering and healing a silenced past both within the context of my country and war-torn societies elsewhere. 

As I pointed out at the very beginning even though the root causes are different, when trauma is shared through an artwork, the audience can find similarities to connect with and find a way of catharsis. Could there be radical spaces of common ground across different traumas, such as from war or cancer?  

Q | What do you hope this exhibition ‘Tonight No Poetry Will Serve’ will achieve?

A | This collaborative project is an incredible step that seeks to make cancer awareness and build CancerFund-Galle. Significantly, many artists from various countries are participating. I express my sincere thanks to Dr. Mariah Lookman, who organized and curated this fantastic event, a pioneer project helping the people who are in need of medical assistance yet struggling due to lack of access to the facilities. As the number of cancer cases increases each day, I see it as a social responsibility of every human being on earth to contribute with what they can offer to build capacity to deal with the trauma of cancer. As an artist, I believe that this project will build a strong network with artists who come from various experiences and connect with each other’s work to raise a voice and support the worthy cause of building the Cancerfund-Galle. Hopefully this inspires other professionals from various disciplines to raise their voice to contribute their unique abilities to heal from the trauma caused by cancer. 


29th June, 2021 Visual Art | Paintings