Between 1983 and 2009, civil war raged for more than a quarter of a century in Sri Lanka, killing at least 100,000 people and leading to the enforced disappearance of tens of thousands of ethnic Tamils (one UN estimate placing the number of Tamils who died during the final arm offensive alone at 40,000). A decade on, relatives of the missing are still waiting to find out what happened, and only after years of building international pressure has an ‘Office of Missing Persons’ been set up to investigate. Charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity, the Sri Lankan government continues to stall on efforts to address accountability and reconciliation.
British-Sri Lankan documentary filmmaker and human rights lawyer, Kannan Arunasalam’s work focuses on stories from Asia and has appeared in The Guardian, Al Jazeera Witness and The New Yorker, having returned to live and work in his place of birth. ‘The Tent’ (2017), however, marks his first commission specifically for a contemporary art context, while the film’s accompanying exhibition at The Tetley in Leeds represents his first solo-show in the UK.
‘The Tent’ focuses on the experiences of some of the mothers and wives of the missing, who protested against the lack of investigation by setting up camp outside government offices in the north of the country. The dual-screen installation not only highlights the mixture of loss, grief and hope that characterises their stories, but also juxtaposes the day-to-day reality of life inside the camp with footage from the large crowds and media attention it drew on the 500-day-anniversary of consecutive protest.
A lack of consistent news coverage seems unsurprising in Sri Lanka, where the mainstream local media is either state-owned or disinclined to report on anything that presents the country in a negative light. Yet it is also reflective of the wider way in which important stories and issues are allowed to slowly drift from public consciousness as reporting outlets constantly race to whatever’s ‘just breaking’ in a bid to keep our attention.
The Tent will also feature a selection of Arunasalam’s earlier short films and portraits, including interviews with elders from across Sri Lanka which capture a range of perspectives on identity and the meaning of loss. The exhibition will be presented alongside For Oluwale by Rasheed Araeen, which marks the 50th anniversary of the death of David Oluwale – a British-Nigerian who drowned in the River Aire in 18th April 1969 after being systematically harassed by members of the Leeds City Police force.