“Spaghetti,” barked a planter friend, describing Sri Lankan politics. “Noodles. A ball of coir, all entangled. A roll of barbed wire. “ He was on roll himself here.
“Pepper vine, “ he finally ventured: “all entangled but makes you sneeze too.”
Politics was front of mind today. The country was having a major sneezing fit. Yesterday, London’s Channel 4 Dispatches broadcast a programme that alleged links between Muslim extremists and public figures close to two previous presidents. It also outlined an alleged plot to make a past presidential electoral victory a little more of a certain bet for one of them.
The consequent debate, and many calls to action begs the question: how do you understand island politics? Was there, I wondered, a simple exemplar, a symbol that, once grasped, unlocked the complexity of power to reval its real nature. For although I can see the obvious allergic associations in the noodles or spaghetti, neither quite captured the technicolour intricacy of Sri Lanka politics.
The inevitable post Perehera rains have descended with loving vengeance and the entire estate is vibrating softly with the sound of persistent warm dewy raindrops falling from like manna from heaven. It is comfort food season; spaghetti all the more inviting.
But dodging the downpour as I ran into my office, a much more satisfying symbol suddenly filled my eyes - albeit so obscure as to defy every reasonable guess.
An embroidered tapestry from Vietnam. That is what I saw. It hangs at the very back of my office, ten feet long and four feet wide.
It is one of three I bought back in 2006 in Saigon, and dates back just 60 or 70 years before this.
It is made piecemeal style – (and with an unintended ironic nod to the once great enemy) like those famous patchwork quilts beloved of America’s early colonial settlers. Famously, the women of whole villages would sit together to sew the sort of bedcovers now beloved of Sotheby’s, Christies, and the American Museum of Folk Art. But is it art?
The more I looked at the tapestry, the more I wondered. Art or Craft? Politics in Sri Lanka, or merely a nice tapestry?
Oxford, that doyen of definitions, describes art as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” Whilst there is no debating which side of the divide a Goya painting might fall, a dinner plate is moot, though Picasso made such items. And a Qing Dynasty Porcelain plate recently sold for $84 million.
So was this tapestry art or craft?
At least 8 types of pre-made fabrics have been incorporated in this Vietnamese tapestry. Mostly rectangular, some squared. Some premade, all or mostly probably not made by the maker of this particular tapestry. So where is the art in it?
The shapes are coloured red, yellow, golden, orange, and shot through with abstracted designs in black, blue, green, pink, and white. Glimpses of extravagant flowers share space with intricate geometric patterns. It sounds as if it cannot do anything other than offend the eye – yet it does quite the opposite. It glows like a golden fresco in a dark cave, a coherent whole made out of utterly dissimilar elements.
And although it comes from Vietnam, it hails from a part of country that defies all borders: the Central Highlands. These mountain plateaus run from Vietnam into Loas and Cambodia. Their inhabitants – some 3 million – are ethnically different to the rest of Vietnam. Composed of 30 separate tribes - collectively called Montagnards – the language they speak have little in common with Vietnamese, still less with one another. And since records began in the 1st century BCE, they have largely resisted all attempts by any central government to dominate them.
The tapestry they made all those decades ago, and that I bought more recently was created to keep you warm, not to decorate a room. Yet the scraps of cloth that make it up have been assembled with apparent logical order. It is functional – and still displays both beauty and emotional power, as might any original abstract painting do. It is art concealed as craft.
And there is the node with island politics: the splice point, cross point, connection socket, point of engagement. For politics here is an art concealed – in history, and family.
The Oxford Dictionary is less helpful in defining politics than art. It describes politics as “the activities associated with the governance of a country or area, especially the debate between parties having power.” But in Sri Lanka politics is but family concealed by the loosest of all sarongs. Parties run a poor second.
Since Independence the country’s main parties have been more than family-friendly: the Senanayake–Kotelawalas; the Bandaranaikes; the Wijewardene-Jayewardenes; and more recently, the Premadasas and Rajapaksas. Amongst the high positions of government, the president, prime minister and cabinet of ministers, daughters have succeeded mothers, brothers handed on to bothers; cousins to cousins. There is nothing spaghetti like about it: it is all as clearly laid out as any piece of tapestry from the Central Highlands of Vietnam, the art of ancestry, honed by generations that frames both power and government .
The oldest party, the UNP was the home of the Senanayake–Kotelawala and the Jayewardenes, and is still led by a relative of both, the current president, Ranil Wickremesinghe. It splintered in 2020 to form the SJB around Sajith Premadasa, himself son of a previous president.
Its great rival, the SLFP was dominated by the Bandaranaikes until the Rajapaksas were elected to run it. When they themselves were defeated, the Rajapaksas left to remodel a smaller party, the SLPP into a born again SLFP. The 2022 Aragalaya protests that toppled the SLPP government and drove some 40 Rajapaksas family members out of office left many of the SLPP supporting the current UNP president, Ranil Wickremesinghe, along with sizable numbers of SJB and SLFP parliamentarians.
It is a fecund petrie-dish into which Channel 4 Dispatches have dropped their latest documentary, pursuing, to paraphrase the SLPP’s Namal Rajapaksa, a vendetta against his family – or igniting, according to leaders in other parties, the need for an international commission of investigation.
The 2022 Aragalaya protests that toppled the Rajapaksa government also broke normal party politics. Political definitions have blurred. In family walauwas party leaders are cautiously positioning themselves for the 2024 presidential election, parties without leaders who can credibly win the election or leaders without parties who might.
I gaze at my glowing Montagnard tapestry art, its blocks of colour and design artfully united into a single holistic cloth painting, seeing these families - grand as any ancient aristocratic dynasty from the west - through party political sunglasses.
Like the Montagnards, they sit outside the everyday and break down into quite separate tribes too, each painting with a broad brush and considerable artistic licence. Whatever the lens, the real landscape looks very much the same as ever it did despite the filter. But the question each family behind every political party now faces is that posed by a much more questioning electorate: can they still see the big picture or not?
My tapestry may be art disguised as craft; and in its carefully placed blocks of apparently random fabric offer a helpful metaphor to understand island politics in terms of family units.