Which objects constitute the collection of a national museum in exile? How can diasporic stories express more than history books will ever be able to? These questions are beautifully expressed by Jeyavishni Francis Jeyaratnam and Simon-Pierre Coftier’s project National Museum of Eelam in homage to the Tamil diaspora.
A plastic statuette made in India, a handful of earth in a packet, a used toy. These are the sorts of objects that make up the collection of the National Museum of Eelam — banal and without any market value. Combined with a brief narrative, each object tells the story of a people torn from their land and scattered in the metropolises of the five continents. A people whose aspirations, memory and identity have been trampled. These people are the Tamils of Sri Lanka. This lost land is Eelam.
I first heard the word Eelam in the 1990s. I had just arrived in France. The country at war that my mother, my brother and I had left, was called Sri Lanka, or Ceylon. I was born in Jaffna in the early 1980s when the youth from the Tamil minority took up arms against the discriminatory policies and the violence perpetrated by the central government. Since the withdrawal of the British in 1948, the Sri Lankan State established itself as a Sinhalese and Buddhist nation, excluding minorities from power. While the Tamil Tigers guerrillas (LTTE) laid the foundations of an independent state in the North and the East, I left my hometown for India and then France. Four years passed between my departure from Jaffna and my arrival at Charles-de-Gaulle airport. Hundreds of thousands of us fled combat zones and the climate of terror. By the end of the conflict, about a third of the Tamil population lived abroad. The National Museum of Eelam explores this vast diaspora’s memory.
After the defeat of the guerrillas in 2009, the three-decade-war ruins are being gradually erased. The Sinhalese power continues its policy of predation and endeavors to eradicate every trace of Eelam, to make the memory of the struggle disappear. Far from the shores of the Indian Ocean, Eelam persists within the diaspora, as if each refugee had taken away a tiny fragment of it in exile. From Paris to Oslo, from Zurich to Toronto, an extremely dense network of associations has been forged in a vast transnational structure. Shops, temples, cinemas, sports clubs and Tamil cultural centers are open in cities where the diaspora lives. Children can learn the language and culture of their elders in schools with unified curricula and examinations. Everywhere, attention is being made in rebuilding a Tamil social and cultural framework.
Though I am part of this diaspora, I grew up on the fringes of this community. As a child, I did not identify myself with the red flag with a tiger. The songs to the glory of our “Uncles the Tigers” did not make me vibrate. And while a climate of suspicion prevailed among refugees in the early 1990s — mistrust fuelled by fratricidal fights between armed groups on the island — my parents limited interactions with other refugees. My attachment to Tamil culture was expressed almost exclusively in the family sphere. It was in 2009, when I took part in the demonstrations against the massacres of civilians perpetrated at the time by the Sri Lankan army, that I became aware that I belonged to a people. We were many to share the same destiny, the same indignation. Placards, slogans and megaphones. Tamil identity confined to my private sphere burst into the public space and asserted itself on a political ground.
This awareness which is at the origin of the National Museum of Eelam, was definitively obvious to me when I returned to my homeland 30 years later. I found my childhood house along with many sensations: the smell of fruits fallen to the ground, the taste of the water from the well, the sound of the temple bells.
But the joy of discovering a world in accordance with my memories was followed by a feeling of uneasiness: what connects me today to that territory? To what extent is that distant land part of my identity? Faced with the desolate landscape of the Jaffna lagoon, I realized that the answers are to be found elsewhere, within the diaspora, in this huge archipelago connected across seas and borders. What we are trying to capture with the project of the National Museum of Eelam is this multiple and evanescent territory.
With its inventory of objects photographed on a black background, in the manner of archaeological or ethnographic treasures, the National Museum of Eelam embraces the form of the museum institution, appropriates its codes, but abandons the exceptional in favor of the ordinary. Thus, it takes the opposing view of the original function of a national museum, an institution at the service of a power seeking to entrench its authority in the distant past, exalting the purity and authenticity of an exclusive cultural heritage. Exploring Tamil diaspora identity, the National Museum of Eelam does not expose a 1,000 year-old tradition or the traces of a glorious past but, rather, the banality of the most trivial everyday gestures. In this way, it stands out from the war-centered representations of Tamil identity that dominate the diaspora public space. Putting to one side military uniforms, martyrs’ cults and flags, it proposes another imagination, nourished by memories, sensations, perfumes, flavors, music; sensitive experiences in which a culture is embodied and lives.
The objects from the National Museum of Eelam bear the imprint of a unique story: traces of wear, patina of time, imperfections. Fragments of life seem to have clustered there. Straddled between two worlds, the object bears witness to a torn fate between here and there, a back-and-forth between past and present. Along with a brief account, it tells a personal story. Therefore, the National Museum presents the collective identity through the prism of the individual, of the subject in its singularity. The mosaic of objects renders a reality that transcends the encompassing categories of community or migrants, general terms that reduce the multiplicity of experiences to a homogeneous entity, which assign men and women to an identity that is external to them. Behind exotic representations, beyond otherness, the pictures and the short narratives bear witness to subjective experiences that everyone can easily identify with. ■