Questioning Knowledge, Rethinking Education: A Conversation with Pala Pothupitiye

(This article was first published on the blog maintained by TARQ on February 4, 2016. The blog is now defunct, so I am reproducing the piece here with images. Pala Pothupitiye’s exhibition was hosted at the art gallery from January 22 to February 20, 2016.)

Pala Pothupitiye is a Sri Lankan artist who wears his post-colonial identity on his sleeve. His art practice is strongly rooted in an awareness of the history of the land he comes from. His discussion of his works makes frequent references to those who came from elsewhere to claim territory, plunder natural resources, build institutions, and establish their rule.

Pala Pothupitiye (Source: Decibel)

Education, according to Pothupitiye, is one of the primary tools of colonization. ‘Sri Sri Lanka: Mapping Post-Colonial Ceylon’, his current show at TARQ, Mumbai, grapples with this concern. “The rich legacy of our ancestors was wiped away because it was seen as backward and uncivilized. The colonizers wanted to replace it with their own systems of knowledge to make us feel deficient and inferior,” says Pothupitiye, while pointing out that most of the maps that appear in this show were made by the Dutch.

“I wanted to reveal how map-making was used as an instrument of gaining control over Sri Lankans’ relationship with their own land. By renaming places, they were given new identities. It is a bit like how married women are required to take on the husband’s name to show that they have adopted a new identity,” he remarks.

His consciousness of language as a means to discriminate, even in contemporary Sri Lankan society, is quite acute. “The colonizers have gone but their place has been taken by the English-speaking elite of Colombo,” says Pothupitiye, with disappointment lingering in his voice. This phenomenon has been theorized by Geetha Durairajan in the context of India but her analysis is relevant to the Sri Lankan context as well.

In a paper titled ‘Towards a Principled Means of Expressing Qualitative Differences between Language Proficiency Levels within a Developmental Model’ (2004), Durairajan attacks the prescriptivism she encounters in all formal articulations of English language proficiency because they all use “the mythical native speaker’s ‘perfect’ competence” as a point of reference. ‘Native’ here refers to someone native to England. This means that even if Sri Lankans or Indians can fulfill their communicative needs using their highly sophisticated multilingual competence, they will eventually be considered as lacking in proficiency as compared to the British or to the elite in Sri Lanka and India who speak English without the so-called mother tongue interference.

‘Degree Holder’ (Source: TARQ)

In Pothupitiye’s work titled ‘Degree Holder’, one sees a map being transformed into an image of a man wearing a graduation robe, hat and necktie. All these symbols work in unison to mock the European system of education that was set up in Sri Lanka, and continues to this date. This imposition, in the artist’s view, created a dissonance for the locals, alienating them from their own cultural practices and indigenous wisdom.

Pothupitiye enjoys painting on official maps to seize control over the colonizer’s narrative. However, the map used in ‘Degree Holder’ is not one of Dutch or British origin. It is created by Himal Southasian, a much respected Southasian magazine that critiques the hegemony of India in the region, and seeks to nurture a discourse that is reflective of the realities of all countries that make up Southasia. This is an inverted map — south becomes north, and north becomes south. Sri Lanka appears at the top, and India at the bottom. Indians too are seen as colonizers, and Buddhism as a religion that was imposed in order to replace indigenous faiths practiced by the Sri Lankans.

‘Legends’ (Source: TARQ)

On closer examination of the symbols used in ‘Degree Holder’, one is struck by the parrots that appear on the tie worn by the graduate. They emphasize the colonial education system’s mandate to churn out graduates like parrots — capable only of mechanical repetition without any comprehension of context or history, and unfit to question the colonizer or create something anew. Pothupitiye’s critique of this system is reminiscent of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968), which not only puts forth a detailed Marxist analysis of the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized but also makes a distinction between the ‘banking model of education’ that treats students as empty containers to be filled with knowledge and the ‘libertarian model of education’ that involves students as co-creators of knowledge.

‘Cloak Maps — 3’ (Source: TARQ)

“The European system privileges rote learning over curiosity. People lose their connection with their soul,” says Lalith Manage, an art teacher and curator who is a close associate of Pothupitiye. His observation gathers an additional layer of meaning when one notices that the graduate depicted in the work is faceless. Though he has a degree to his name, he has been stripped of personal dignity in the course of acquiring this education.

The paper clips in the work make a jibe at elaborate systems of record-keeping that are part of this education system. An individual’s competence is measured in quantitative terms that fail to account for what African American feminist bell hooks, in her book Teaching to Transgress, (1994) calls “whole human beings with complex lives and experiences rather than simply as seekers after compartmentalized bits of knowledge.”

Pothupitiye’s critique is also directed at himself since he has benefited from the colonial system. He too is a degree holder, and an English speaker. However, he makes it a point to engage deeply with traditions inherited from his family. His father owns a large collection of masks, which Pothupitiye has begun incorporating in his work to assert the unfairness of the distinction between art and craft that accords greater importance to those who study at art schools over those who learn in the apprentice mode from their family or community. He also helps run Theertha, an artist collective in Colombo, which accords as much respect to traditional art forms as it does to contemporary ones.

Writer, educator and researcher

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