“Jagath Weerasinghe’s work exists in the space between the visually appealing and the conceptually uncanny.”
Jagath Weerasinghe can’t remember a time when he wasn’t drawing. At school, he would get into trouble for using his hands and arms as a canvas. At home, he knew better than to mark up his body or the walls, so he would take a stick of charcoal out to the neighboring well and tag the inside with graffiti. Even now, as Director of the Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology at Kelaniya University, Weerasinghe admits to making drawings in the margins of meeting agendas and other printouts. A subconscious compulsion, the pen-and-ink notations frequently serve as inspiration for his larger-scale works. As casual marginal notes, the drawings strike Weerasinghe as honest, unburdened by his own expectations or those of his various audiences in Sri Lanka and around the world.
With over four decades of experience as an artist working primarily in painting and drawing, Weerasinghe’s oeuvre spans a time of great tumult in Sri Lankan history: the civil war and its aftermath. His canvases are cacophonous in their saturated color and layered imagery. Replete with disquieting figures, motifs repeated over a period of years, and frequently exuding an ambivalent mood (disturbing but exuberant, eerie but rendered in technicolor; faceless yet still conveying agitation), they demand a sustained engagement. The longer you look, the more you see.
Take, for instance, The Doge (2017). A bust floats in the foreground as two knives fall through a delicately clouded golden sky behind. The figure lacks a face, but still connotes authority through sumptuous regalia, a brocade robe giving shape to the absent body while a corno ducale, a cross between a crown and cap worn by lords overseeing renaissance Italian city-states, suggests the head on which it is placed. The garments are magisterial and indicate dominance, and the falling knives – handheld kitchen instruments lightly stained with blood upon closer inspection – remind the viewer of the intimate violence associated with such political power. An edict to kill can be rendered from on high.
Weerasinghe was inspired by Giovanni Bellini’s 1501 painting of the Doge of Venice Leonardo Loredan, but while Bellini renders a specific portrait of a specific ruler, Weerasinghe’s work suggests something different. The absence of the face allows one to imagine any given body coming to occupy these vestments of authority. It foregrounds the problems of institutional power and the legitimation of violence frequently associated with the state.
An analogue to The Doge is Untitled I (2013), a smaller-scale mixed-media work with similar formal qualities. Here, the floating bust is wearing a military helmet and appears to be a soldier. The brushstrokes are more agitated, more hasty, lending the work a disturbed mood. There is a doubling eff
ect here that we see in other figurative paintings of Weerasinghe’s. Behind the helmet is another helmet somewhat obscured by white paint but still present as if to signal a longer history, the soldier’s personal biography, perhaps, or that of the institutions enabling him. A ripped band of fabric forms a border at the top of the piece. Its pattern suggests a torn sari. Here, Weerasinghe subtly hints at another kind of wartime violence visited specifically upon the bodies of women and girls.
Weerasinghe’s work exists in the space between the visually appealing and the conceptually uncanny. It compels and unsettles in equal measure. A consistent theme that has animated his art from the beginning involves “the position of the individual against organized violence at every level,” he explains. This concern is not a purely academic one. For Weerasinghe, it is as personal as it is unresolvable. It’s an exploration that was catalyzed by the events of July 1983, which had the artist question his own entanglement in a larger structure that could produce such communal violence. “Even though I did not physically take part, when I think of who did this, it’s always that we did this. It is a system that I am a part of, a system that protects me,” he acknowledges, referencing his identity as a Sinhala Buddhist man, adding, “This has been my concern all the time.” Black July set Weerasinghe on a path of examining complicity with such forms of organized violence as well as marginalized subjectivities in his work.
The uncanny mood, which emerges from the experience of many of Weerasinghe’s paintings and drawings, is one that destabilizes what initially seems familiar. As the cultural theorist Homi Bhabha reminds us, unheimlicht translates as both “uncanny” and “unhomely.” One of the things Weerasinghe’s oeuvre does is to explore the idea of home – as a space, as Sri Lanka, as a body, as a moment in time – and the ways violence makes home unhomely. It is done deftly, in a nonobvious way, with the art working on the viewer emotionally as well as intellectually.
Indeed, the artist is preoccupied by stories of displacement and aghast at the daily depictions of forced migrations happening around the world. For Weerasinghe, home in all its connotations is not necessarily a comfortable place. But home at the intimate personal scale is “a place where you have a sense of purposeful belonging for your existence,” he says. Here, home is not bounded by national lines but instead organized by proximity to the people you care about, and spaces to which you have deep attachments and commitments. Home is “a landscape that is neither solely in your head nor completely outside.”
Untitled II (2013) involves black paper cut-outs on a white background. They’re arranged in theunmistakable map outline of Sri Lanka. It is a geographical depiction sketched out by mostly prickly shapes interspersed with a few softer biomorphic ones. Some of the spiked forms look like explosions, and some like the serrated edge of a knife. Cartographic Lanka appears again in another study by the same name, this time a drawing rendered in ballpoint pen. A single bloodshot eye is crying tears that are tumbling down, their paths traced out by dotted lines. Each tear resembles the island in a rounder form, and each tear is bisected by dashes. The viewer wonders: Do they separate out north from south? East from west? Is that why this disembodied eye is crying?
Over the course of his career as an artist and archaeologist, Weerasinghe has found that the boundaries separating art from archaeology from heritage management have fallen away for him conceptually, theoretically, and even with respect to materials. “Artists are funny people; we create things that future archaeologists will try to understand,” he laughs. For him, there is something analogous between the body of the archaeologist working at the field site to the body of the artist laboring before the canvas to the body of the viewer engaging with an artwork. It comes down to materials. “The processes and power of the materiality you don’t get without seeing the work in front of you,” he says, whether it is scaling Sigiriya or viewing a painting up close. For him, the line between scientific practice, archaeological and sociological analysis, and art-making is blurry at best. “I don’t know where archaeology ends and art begins.”
An ongoing project called Grounded Memories combines these performative, visual, and ethnographic sensibilities as Weerasinghe and collaborators solicit life histories of residents of Kantale. They then visit the places that are meaningful to their interlocutors, taking down the GPS locations associated with each person’s particular stories. The personal narratives are translated into longitudes and latitudes, which are then further translated into visual form by later linking these sites together on a map. Memories are made solid. Archeological tools thus connect particular individuals, their experiences of a particular place with its specific histories, and their own varied biographies inflected by triumphs and tragedies.
This expansiveness is characteristic of Weerasinghe’s body of work. Inspiration is derived from many sources. Themes recur. Set boundaries between genres dissolve. Certain questions are unresolved and indeed prove unresolvable. For a work of art to be a success, Weerasinghe says that it “must reveal something other than what it is.” A simultaneous puzzle and truth, this idea animates his practice. Each work leads closer to home.
 For Weerasinghe’s explanation of his inspiration for an earlier study for The Doge from 2014, and the resonances between Leonardo Loredan and the then-ruling regime in Sri Lanka, his interview with Saskia Fernando can be found here: https://www.saskiafernandogallery.com/decorated-jagath-weerasinghe/
 In his essay, “The World and the Home” (Social Text, No. 31/32, 1992), postcolonial cultural theorist Homi Bhabha writes “In the stirrings of the unhomely, another world becomes visible. It has less to do with forcible eviction and more to do with the uncanny literary and social effects of enforced social accommodation, or historical migrations and cultural relocations. The unhomely is the shock of recognition of the world-in-the-home, the home-in-the-world.” (p. 141).
– Article by Dilshanie Perera