The Incomplete Thombu
Book Published by Raking Leaves Exhibitions at Saskia Fernando Gallery, Colombo and Barefoot Gallery, Colombo 2nd — 12th December 2011
Review by Josephine Breese
There are few things as preciously guarded and commonly felt as a relationship with home. People and place define early memories of instinctive relationships. This is critical emotional territory, shockingly brutal if interrupted or severed. We are presented with such scenarios at arm’s length through media coverage of global atrocities, supplemented with disturbing footage and shocking statistics. However we react, the shaming truth is often one of attrition. Empathy can become tempered by anaesthesia and repetition in place of an experience of reality.
Artist T. Shanaathanan’s work stands to evade this blockage with projects dedicated to the persecution and displacement of the Tamil people of Northern Sri Lanka. Shanaathanan’s practise is broadly akin to that of a social anthropologist and activist, but channelled through heavily evocative draughtsmanship, installation art and as a senior lecturer of History of Art at the University of Jaffna. Shanaathanan returns to an imaginary notion of the elemental grounding of ‘home’, following its theft from this part of the country during the civil war.
The Incomplete Thombu is the most recent manifestation of Shanaathanan’s commentary. Published with Raking Leaves and launched with accompanying exhibitions at the Saskia Fernando Gallery and Barefoot last month in Colombo, this is an extraordinarily thoughtful and affecting book. Shanaathanan collated the stories of eighty citizens displaced from Jaffna between 1983 and 2009 over seven months starting in January of this year, presenting his research as a weighty file of A4 papers. The uniquely Tamil etymology of Thombu [Thoampu] as a public register of lands, insists that it charts a fraction of a greater task. Each case study consists of a sketched floorplan of a lost building in Jaffna – whether destroyed or seized, no longer existing in their original form – on the reverse of which is a brief account of the individual’s experience. Preceded by a leaf that offers an interpretative pastel drawing by Shanaathanan, the pages sandwich a scaled architectural groundplan on tracing paper, whose mapped buildings cohere exactly with those of the owner’s hand beneath.
The Incomplete hombu’s arrangement harnesses the reader into a tempered understanding. The physicality of Shanaathanan’s drawings is tautly strung with the intensity of the written memories. Remembered details baldly stand out from greater experiences, forming a patchwork of wider lives. Shanaathanan’s interpretations are appropriate visual transcriptions, honing in on highly personal images, which suggest the abstract soup of memory. Bleak scenes emerge from thickly smudged but definite brown and black lines. Connectivity and separation are explored through recurring motifs of the earth, roots, patterns and human organs.
However catharsis is operating here, the efficiency of the virtually rendered floorplans deflects excessive pathos. Official procedures based on empirical evidence are reversed, with oral history presented as the most reliable source, despite being the last resort. ‘Home’ is firmly resigned to the imagination. There is little bitterness for loss of personal possessions in comparison with the mourning of emotional connections. Stories range from life before the war to the horrors of endurance and the difficulties of rebuilding anew. The tone of Thombu is established by collective voices, which are given the space to remain unique and nuanced, without generalisations. Nevertheless, local traditions persist and are maintained with shared cultural patterns, ritual and religion.
The Incomplete Thombu is a living memorial to the continuing situation in Jaffna and a testament to an unquantifiable number of individuals affected. The ledger provokes consideration of the format of grander war memorials, whose conspicuous permanence are intended to bring comfort and closure. In its singularity and truncation, this Thombu calls attention to a destructive lack of documentation and therefore attention. Subsequently, in the absence of a library of Thombus, it is an important protest and springboard disseminating information. Shanaathan’s collaboration with Raking Leaves imaginatively serves the local community, the far-flung diaspora described in these pages, who have become part of an international audience.
– Review by Josephine Breese