The Aragalaya showcased the most creative form of protest
By Angeline Ondaatjie
One of the many things that drew us all to the Aragalaya at Galle Face was the vibrant art, the creative music, the laser light shows, the exhilarating dances, and the colourful parades. It was the best of Sri Lankan spirit in the worst of times. People from varying social backgrounds, from all around the country and overseas, flocked to GotaGoGama (GGG) and demanded justice, accountability, and social reform in the most creative and peaceful form.
“These people are so welcoming and so determined to protest peacefully. This is an example to the world of how protests should be. There is such a sense of community here; I watched a Buddhist woman hold an umbrella for a Muslim man as he went into prayer. It is a sense of unity amongst people that I have never seen before and is something so special,” said one of the international bloggers who frequented GGG. In a strange twist of justice, she was issued deportation orders recently.
When GotaGoGama was set up on 9 April 2022, for the first time since independence, we saw young people looking at post-colonial history through a different lens. Division through language, religion, race, and ethnicity has been sowed by political forces to control, lie to, and bully the masses for decades. The 30-year conflict was seen as a culmination of these misguided policies, with the youth now re-telling and rewriting history with real-life interactive experiences.
This rekindling of unity was much celebrated and came most alive in the wonderful art (both digital and traditional), protest songs, rewritten ‘raban pada,’ celebrations of the festivals, the musicals, and dance recitals at GGG.
When the Avurudu festival was celebrated on the Galle Face Green, they insisted on calling it the unified Sri Lankan New Year, not simply a ‘Sinhalese’ or ‘Tamil’ celebration. Inclusivity was key: one country, one people. Nuns and Buddhist monks sat together with Muslims during Ramadan for Iftar. Easter and Vesak were celebrated with the same spirit of the ‘adaraniya, deshapremiya Aragala’ (beloved, patriotic struggle).
Hiran Abeysekera, who won the Laurence Olivier Best Actor Award for his role in ‘Life of Pi,’ came to GGG and extended his solidarity with the movement. The hill near the Bandaranaike statue became a performance arena; the Soul Sounds choir performed ‘Do You Hear the People Sing’ from ‘Les Misérables’ in an exhilarating moment, with Sri Lankan flags waving in the twilight. The performance art community organised parades that culminated at S.W.R.D.’s statue. The LGBTQ+ community had its first public march with full gay pride regalia and edgy creative costumes and dances. This surely was the most inclusive place in Sri Lanka’s history.
The creativity of the youth – a key feature of the Aragalaya, culminated in the wonderful art camp that was set up across the main GGG camp on the Galle Face Green. The art team created a space and provided materials for anyone with an inclination to express their emotions on canvas. Children, along with art students from various university faculties, created the most ingenious illustrations.
Sculptures came up on the esplanade, some using post-consumer waste. Notable artworks were the gigantic metal slipper; the Fearless Human on the Barrel representing all who cried against political corruption, police brutality, and oppression; and The Tribute to the Aragalaite made of lost slippers, a stark reminder of the footwear that goes missing each time they are tear-gassed.
On 9 May the whole dynamic changed. State-sponsored thugs attacked that morning, setting the art camp on fire. Artists (who had been camping behind the studio area) carried canvases across Galle Road to the main site in a desperate attempt to save them. They were shown no respite, as they were pursued by the arsonists, who created a second bonfire with the precious art. The art team were in a state of despair when I spoke to them later that afternoon while the fires were still burning. We managed to salvage the borders of two frames of photos which they gave me.
In the weeks after, the art camp was rebuilt with renewed vigour, interest, and initiatives. Groups such as the Fearless Collective created murals, and the works of sculpture artists lined the Galle Face promenade. These works of public protest art played a critical role in a peaceful movement, creating social awareness of the economic crisis and educating citizens about their rights and the Constitution. They championed that sovereignty was with the people and shone a light on lessons from our history hidden away from our textbooks.
The biggest crowd in the history of Galle Face, the public space that was dedicated to the people since the 19th century, was seen on 9 July. Hundreds of thousands flocked to Galle Face endorsing real change, accountability, and the systemic reboot that was envisioned by the Aragalaya. If ‘Gota Go Home’ was the only agenda of the movement, it surely was achieved, but the siren call was for real change. In reality, it heralded a renewed State crackdown and betrayal of the movement.
The new Government was quick to start ‘negotiating’ with the pseudo groups and making settlements with them for obvious gains. The true activist groups that had been there from the inception resolved to stay on the ground until the reforms they had been fighting for (through storms, monsoon rains, and heatwaves) were achieved.
The night of 22 July 2022 was the darkest, when armed forces brutally attacked the camp, destroying their soul and spirit. In the days that followed, the GGG camp was systematically dismantled and those that fought fearlessly for over 100 days were mercilessly beaten, hounded, and detained. There is hope that some of the artworks from the camp were taken to safety by the final ‘clearance’ day, but the sculptures were decapitated, demonised, and maligned, thrown in the garbage or left to scavengers for scrap metal.
If GotaGoGama truly showcased the spirit of the Sri Lankan ethos, one that celebrates our diversity and the unified call of ‘one country, one people,’ then disregard for the art that showcased our spirit is surely proof that the current leaders have betrayed and mocked our very heart and soul.