Authenticity in Restoration and Archeology

Jagath Weerasinghe is one of three artists who are currently and publically creating working in the Van/Every Smith Galleries in the Visual Arts Center on Main Street. Supported by the Baik Art Residency, these artists will be working throughout the month of October after which they will leave their work behind to be exhibited in the VAC until December 11th, 2019. S

Stop by the VAC before the end of the month to see Jagath Weerasinghe, Yong Soon Min, and Tintin Wulia as they create these pieces and return in November to see these works in exhibition.

– Alyssa Tirrell ‘22, Arts and Culture Editor

Pearce Hyatt ‘22

Art Correspondent

Jagath Weerasinghe creating an installation in the Van/Every Smith Galleries at Davidson College. Photo by Chris Record. 

In his presentation titled, “Conserving Buddhist stupas and religious nationalism in Sri Lanka,” Jagath Weerasinghe spoke about the manifestations of religious nationalism in Sri Lankan archeology. Himself immersed in the discipline of archeology, Weerasinghe explained the divide between restorative practice and archaeological practice with regards to Buddhist archeological sites. Within this debate over the maintenance of our histories are hidden implications about the present as well. 

Archeology in Sri Lanka began with the English Department of Archeology during the colonial period. The English were concerned with “scientific archeology” which documented one truth about the past. As the British left, archeology shifted to local scholars, but retained many of the traits of the colonial period. These scholars would unearth ancient Buddhist Stupa and preserve them in the state of decay they were found in. 

However, tensions arose from the fact that some Buddhists wanted to restore these temples to their original states so that they could continue to worship in these unearthed sites. This rival discipline of restoration was labeled “pious vandals” by the colonial archeologists. These artists and scientists would cover the stupas with white clay and decorate the interiors for worship in order to replicate the original design of the spaces. 

Though the restorationists saw themselves as promoting a kind of authenticity, the archeological school believed that this practice destroyed the authenticity of the sites and ruined any scientific discoveries that could be made from the ruins.

These battles continue today and Weerasinghe has been privy to both sides of the debate. Often agreeing with the monk’s and their goals for restoration, but having a western education and position, he feels obligated to respect the wishes of the archeologists.

These questions are not only with respect to ancient sites. Archeology searches for a singular truth to the past. In this sense, the choices regarding history as a physical space transcend these spaces themselves and have baring the imaginations and realities of our lives.  

Pearce Hyatt ‘22 is a Biology and Studio Art Major from Portland Oregon. He can be reached for comment at pehyatt@davidson.edu. 

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