Saturday, December 13, 2014

Graffiti on the wall

Christian Guemy is a graffiti artist. Quite a popular one. He came to Sri Lanka a few months ago. Did his thing. Entranced everyone. Young and old. I didn't interview him long enough. He wasn't very willing to come forward with me. So I could only afford this much. I hope it does justice. To him.

Graffiti is not new. To us in Sri Lanka, the word would bring to mind the verses of Sigiriya, called “කුරුටු ගී” in Sinhala. As an aesthetic tool, it has been here for quite some time. As a social tool, teetering between realism and the political, between the need to record life and the need to propagandise a message, it’s new. Those who consider themselves connoisseurs (of sorts) would rate it as a plebeian art. They may not be wrong, for graffiti is well and truly the “common man's art”, as it seeks to communicate with the street-goer (it’s “street art”, after all).

Christian Guemy is an urban artist. He has his message, unadulterated and free of frill. Guemy is here. Correction: “was”. He was here two weeks back. He painted, all around and across Colombo, bringing to the metropolis in Sri Lanka what he had tried out in his hometown of Vitry, in France. The paintings (or “කුරුටු”, shall we say?) are pretty much everywhere, on trishaws, on the walls of shanty settlements, on other walls, even inside houses.

That’s as subversive as it’s going to get.

I met Guemy on his last day in Sri Lanka. He was leaving that night. He had things to say and things he put across. Graffiti is his passion, but it never really shows in him; his solemnity and noticeable lack of pretension about his art is what struck me most forcefully. Perhaps this is partly owing to how he first encountered graffiti: “30 years ago, in 1984. That was a time when hip-hop culture was beginning to take root in my country.” Rap, break-dance, and the like hadn’t become nativised in France at the time; graffiti too figured among these art-forms, so it wouldn’t be crass to say that it too is a recent fad where France is concerned.

Still, he has taken his views on his art firmly to heart, as any budding artist will do. He holds graffiti in the highest regard, yet categorically denies any smattering of professional knowledge on the subject (“I am no expert”), a sign of his modesty perhaps. At another level, though, one can argue that his whole worldview of graffiti can be summed up as follows: it is subversive, yes, but we have moved away from the political subtext which it has become placed in during the past. “My art is more about reaching to the public; it is ‘subversive’ in that sense.” Instead of being a “rebel outside the system”, it’s more about being in it and changing society.

That’s the way Guemy sees things.

How has Sri Lanka fared for him? “Quite good actually,” he says, “People here are so friendly. I have been to other countries, to India especially. Those were heavily intense trips, quite painful. Not so Sri Lanka.” No doubt his paintings have attracted attention from those around whose settlements and houses he has taken his art and talents to. People from all walks of life – predominantly children – would have doubtless been awed by the novelty of it all.

Christian Guemy can be aloof. Rightly so. His noticeable lack of pretension marks him out well. I think we all can describe his talent and art out as follows: colourful, but not ornate. His views on the “subversive factor” in art, predominantly in painting, are not novel. There are admittedly artists across the level, in repressive regimes or otherwise, who engage in colourful, exaggerated, and of course politically dissident statements in their graffiti. Not so Guemy. Change, after all, must come from within. Dissent may be in order at times, but to make it a dominant motif in one’s works would be, after a certain limit is passed, quite ineffective.

Written for: Ceylon Today LATITUDE