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Images, history and not existing. A failed attempt to see Jaffna

November 21, 2013
ceylon

There are the lonely figures tiny and staid, staring out of a frozen landscape. The Museum of Asian Art in Berlin, a cemented, rambling space deep in the still suburbs in the west of the city had a temporary exhibition on early photographs of Ceylon.  I was feeling a little lost one grey Sunday in November, nervous about the winter drawing down, and, cheered by the use of the word Ceylon, as opposed to Sri Lanka, I heaved my reluctant children out there with the promise of soup and cake in the café afterwards. I wanted, I don’ t know, a glimpse of something familiar. The red earth, the heavy warm promise of rain in gentle skies.

I don’t often get to see pictures of the Jaffna landscape. Cameras, when I was young, were for taking photographs of people. I am constantly looking round the edges of pictures of solemn women in saris and men in suits, for a glimpse of their homes and streets. The ‘normal’ landscapes of Sri Lanka, of rolling beaches and reclining buddhas are not the ones that belong to me, the ones I recognise from childhood.

I wanted a more cheerful version of the images I had spotted on TV last week, when, during the fiasco of the Commonwealth Summit, David Cameron travelled north to meet Tamils whose lives have been so disrupted by war. He was the first foreign leader to visit Jaffna since 1948, which is progress of sorts.

It’s searing, to always see the place you were born only in disaster films. Channel Four’s Killing Fields series, clips of Cameron surrounded by people who looked like me, with outstretched hands and pleading faces, always leave me furious, sad, empty and childish. It’s not fair. Why can’t I come from a normal place.  A boring place where people get sentimental about Sunday lunches.

And frustrated. Because none of these videos capture anything about how magical Jaffna is. How the deep wells and irrigation channels have helped draw a lively red and green townscape, filled with people who are resourceful, quick to laugh, adventurous and free.

I wanted to see if this Berlin exhibition captured any of this. Of course it didn’t. The map of Sri Lanka on the wall of the exhibition didn’t even mention Jaffna. The northern most town it marked was Anuradhapura. Beyond that, blank. The way old maps used to mark unknown territories with ‘there be monsters.’

The photographs too, were of Colombo, Kandy. Eerie photographs of the landscape taken by 19th century European photographers: William Louis Henry Skeen, Charles Thomas Scowen, and Alfred William Amandus Plate. All these men had taken portrait photographs of normal people, but they were not the images on display here. Here, the people were tiny, unknowable specks in an overbearing landscape. The pictures conformed to a romantic, distant view of Ceylon as a mythical isle that belongs not to the people who live their but to western fantasies.  And it was an exhibition that pretended the north didn’t exist.

The gallery was empty, except for a coldly hostile guard who followed two paces behind me and my children, sighing heavily if they even pointed at a photograph (they know not to touch exhibits and run around museums. I am biased, I know, but on this occasion, they were perfectly well behaved.) I turned round to ask if I could borrow a pen to take some notes as I had to leave my bag in the cloakroom. He told me, absurdly, that note taking is forbidden.

In the end I gave up. Whatever I was looking for, I was not going to find it in this gallery. We left in search of the café, where a smiling waited served us huge bowls of tomato soup. And I watched my two children giggling together, dipping their bread and smearing their mouths with the warm soup and I thought: my life is out here, messy and real and changing every minute.  Others may not tell us our story. We will tell it ourselves.

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