Murals by Jean Arasanayagam seen and read through an Australian Eye

Murals by Jean Arasanayagam seen and read through an Australian Eye

3 August 2019 11:36 am

In the early morning on the beach in Tasmania the water is puckered by wind.  The sun has created a drawbridge across the sea and onto the silver sand.  Occasional bunches of crinkled seaweed rest in their shadows and the serenity is palpable.

A small yellow dog erupts from the dunes.  A man in a woollen cap and sunglasses follows.
‘Good morning,’  
Beautiful day, 
‘So peaceful’.

We fall into step as strangers sometimes do and exchange pleasantries and talk.  I learn the history of the dog and we discuss life, our grandchildren and other things of greater and lesser importance until I am at the house of this new friend. He shows me a poetry book he was given on his recent return trip to Sri Lanka, with instructions to take it to Australia and get someone to write about it so that it can be seen out in the world.  He tells me the author is his old English teacher, now in her eighties. It is important for her to have this book recognised, and the poems shared.  He uses an analogy with a ten-dollar note not being worth anything in the pocket.  ‘It must go into the world to be of value’, he says and this poetry will do no good sitting on his bookshelf.  So now, walking back along the beach I am clasping a small book from Sri Lanka.

The writer, Jean Arasanayagam, is a Sri Lankan poet and author of several short stories.  The book she has sent to Australia is a bilingual (French and English) book of poetry and photographs, called Murals (Fresques).  It is printed in conjunction with Alliance Francais de Jaffna. The poetry and pictures are produced in a landscape format that holds the integrity of the photographs and allows room on the adjoining page to include the poetry in both the original English and the French translation without visually overcrowding the page.

The photographs have been taken by four students from the Department of Fine Arts at Jaffna University and include powerful portraits and richly detailed street scenes.  They manage to celebrate the worn out yet still rich colour that epitomises Sri Lanka, at the same time as showing the ghastly after-effects of war.  Sometimes there is a great loneliness in the photos.  A washing line made from twine spread with a few children’s clothes in front of a disintegrating plastered wall tells us that there are children around but within the photo there are dark and hidden areas that the viewer cannot access. 

Yet there is nothing pitiful about the photos. They speak strongly against the futility of poverty and violence but hold within them a form of resilience and humour that I, from my position of knowing only personal peace, freedom and enough food, find almost unimaginable. The publication of this book means we have been invited to look at these photos of strangers and travel beyond our world to question other lives and their choices. Of the thirty-four photographs, half are portraits, of young and old, in colour and black and white. Their intimacy commands our attention. Photos of people at work, collecting and carrying wood, striding along the road on bandaged legs while distributing road surface coal or tar are simple statements of everyday life, as are the photos of disused and rusted objects, all seen through the lenses of the student photographers.

In the prologue Manuka Wijesinghe makes the poignant reminder that the artists who put this book together, ‘are not only its objects, but also its subjects.’ The book is the result of a collaboration between young and old; new photographers and an experienced poet. Jean Arasanagayam is well-known in Sri Lanka and has written extensively about her country, traditions and the turmoil of war.

With her opening words Arasanagayam asks the question, ‘Does this country have a name...?’ immediately inviting us to see people as more than their race, caste, or nationality but as simply human, and the act of war as the perpetrator of horror.

The writing, like the photographs, focuses on what is there, on the place of living, ‘the scarred and peeling walls’ ‘gaping windows’, .... ‘doorless habitations’ and ‘unsutured earth wounds’, are all descriptions of the familiar, with elements of horror.

She gives detail to the people in the photographs, emphasises their stories,  questions their circumstances.

... is the road safe for her to step out, take her tentative steps in search of a playground free of mines Despite the political complexities of context, this is a straight forward book with an underlying message about the resilience of people and the agency and responsibility we all must carry to refuse to continue to support war. Arasanayagam’s voice calls out on behalf of her people.

Here, a week later, I walk on the beach to return the book. The sun sparkles on water that connects us to the world and I think how it is easy to ignore the lives of others. I read the book within the current Australian political context, where I am both informed and misinformed about the peoples of Sri Lanka and the need for some to seek asylum. The authors of this book have asked us to notice the impact of war, and the resilience of these people and when we read their stories, we do. (Helen Swain)


Note: I was on a pilgrimage to ‘my vanishing trails (foot prints)’ of 1950s and 60s. My mission was to visit the people and places sacred to me.  So I met my year 9 English teacher Jean Solomons Arasanayagm.  I promised her, to take message beyond the horizon out of  our reach. I met Helen Swain on Roches, Beach Lauderdale Tasmania. This is MURALS, she saw. (Sisira Weragoda)