Collection insights from a guest refugee curator

From June 2022 to February 2023, our Curatorial & Research team hosted artist Jagath Dheerasekara as a guest curator.

Based in the town of Picton in south-west Sydney, Jagath has exhibited in solo and group exhibitions, and his work is held in both institutional and private collections across Australia.

In the early 1990s, Jagath was forced to leave his Sri Lankan homeland because of his political and human rights activism and was granted political asylum in France. He moved to Australia with his family in 2008 and began to explore his interest in and passion for photography and visual arts. As a guest curator at Museums of History NSW, Jagath introduced perspectives that question the institutional and official interpretations of our collections. Reflecting on his knowledge, lived experience and memories, Jagath researched and developed personal responses to a selection of 12 objects. These responses are shared below.

My curatorial residency

Over the course of my curatorial residency at Museums of History NSW, I came into contact with a series of objects from the collections. Infused with memories of colonial domination and extraction, these inanimate objects take on lives of their own, exerting a presence within the museum space which I found intriguing and, on occasion, discomforting.

My residency opened up a swathe of enriching learning opportunities. The knowledge that I gathered through the residency was transformative. It prompted a dynamic process of unlearning, which allowed me to further understand myself as a product of colonisation. The residency deepened my realisation that colonisation was not an abstract occurrence or an event far removed from me, but rather that it was a live phenomenon, and its apparatus, legacy and ramifications have continued to shape my tastes, opinions, morals and intellect even though I would always want to believe otherwise.

I love this photograph ...

... I wish I was able to see more details of the scene. Its frame is fascinating too. When a photograph is framed, I see the frame as one with the piece of work – it becomes a collaborative work.

It looks to me like a photograph from Sri Lanka but it could well be from a southern state in India. My school had a building with a similar tiled roof. It was a very old building, as was the school. That was the place where school assemblies and prizegiving ceremonies were held. Receiving prizes was always very fun. The graveyard reminds me of a sheep we had. Before she came to us, she grazed in a graveyard in a mosque precinct. We brothers pooled our money to buy her from the herd that grazed there as a companion for a ram that we already had.

This book was written in India originally ...

... What a lot of philosophies came from the east! Buddhism, Hinduism … The antiquity of this book is appealing. If, for instance, it was in a secondhand bookstore, I would pick it up and have a look, though I am not too sure if I would like the content.

This book reminds me of a Buddhist scripture book that we had at home when I was a little kid – that book was slightly bigger than this one. I remember Thaththa [Father] reading it in the evenings back in the 1970s and some of the events that happened around that time of my life. For me, the book evokes thoughts about the Buddha’s noble eightfold path – right view, resolve, speech, conduct, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and equanimous meditative awareness. Knowledge has been transferred from the old eastern world to the western world without much acknowledgement. I think it would be worthwhile to investigate ways in which we could, perhaps, quantify the value of this transfer, and its spiritual implications as well.

These two images remind me of Sri Lanka’s central hills ...

The sound of water comes to mind straightaway because we have a lot of creeks and rivulets in that region, and then the sound of birds

... its valleys and bridges. The sound of water comes to mind straightaway because we have a lot of creeks and rivulets in that region, and then the sound of birds. I love birdwatching. Birdlife is plentiful in Picton too, even in our backyard. My wife and I began working on our garden after we moved in. It’s a very nice memory for the both of us. We designed it using native plants. Picton is a calm place that still has a lot of grassland and bushland. These images conjure curiosity in me and also a sense of guilt. Every picture shows a fair number of signs of colonisation. It would be interesting to know more about how colonisation affected the land, water, air, and above all the people who were living here. This is unceded Gandangara Country and I am cognisant of the fact that I live on the land of these First Peoples. When we settled here, I didn’t know much about the colonial project, which continues today. What I knew of Australia was mostly through the milk powder advertisements I saw in Sri Lanka and the very aggressive form of cricket it plays.

This cutlery set comes from an unconventional place ...

... the house that architect Harry Seidler created for his mother and father. He bought this cutlery set for his mother as part of this project. I don’t know what sort of tensions it engendered between the mother, who loved 19th-century European designs, and the son, who was a devout modernist. But I am reminded of the tensions that cutlery created in Sri Lanka, where we eat with our fingers. This is a skill we learn from a very young age. This practice was looked down upon during colonial times. The effects of this have not completely faded away even today. I am also reminded of what a struggle it was when I first tried eating with a fork, knife and spoon. Once, at a cafe in Paris, having gone to the toilet during my meal, I came back to find that my plate was gone. I was very upset as that was a time when I had a lot of financial difficulties. Much later, I learnt that there was a particular way to position your fork and knife if you want to return to your meal.

To me, this looks like a flower vase ...

It makes me feel a bit nostalgic because it refreshes my memory of Amma’s [Mother’s] flower vases and flowering plants, and how she cared for them.

... In a way, it makes me feel a bit nostalgic because it refreshes my memory of Amma’s [Mother’s] flower vases and flowering plants, and how she cared for them. She had a series of vases – some were ceramic, including porcelain, while others were brass. I used to polish the brass ones with Brasso, which came in a metal container with a red label. She also had a beautiful garden full of flowering plants. Thaththa [Father] would bring plants for her. Being in the tropics, we had flowers year-round, such as anthuriums and roses. She would place vases more or less everywhere around the house. I helped Amma quite a lot with arranging those vases as a child and as a teenager. Of my siblings, I was the one who got involved in that task. I know that this is not a vase, however. I’d like to know how these European objects shaped the economy of this land, the First Peoples’ land. There was a functioning economy here before European settlement and I am interested in how the arrival of such objects impacted the economic life of the First Peoples.

This print interested me for multiple reasons ...

... It gives me mixed feelings. I remember going on a pilgrimage to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in the city of Kandy in central Sri Lanka as a child with my family, and queuing up to witness a rare public exhibition of the tooth relic of the Buddha. My university was only a few kilometres from here.

I have a lot of memories of that place and time, especially my involvement in university student politics during the uprising of 1987–89. Even though I’m not a religious person, I would go there whenever I got a chance to back then. It’s a nice place, filled with the sound of drums, and the smell of burning incense sticks and jasmine and frangipani flowers. The King’s Palace at Kandy drawing does not actually show the palace, which is situated more towards the left. What is shown here is chiefly the temple and Pattirippuwa, the octagonal pavilion. The artist, Lieutenant William Lyttleton, took part in the British military expedition to capture the Kandy kingdom in 1815. It was the last kingdom on the island to fall, with catastrophic consequences for the people. The drawing is an example of orientalism at work, disregarding a people’s aspirations and histories and extracting everything else.

This is an absorbing story ...

... I have visited number 60 Gloucester Street, Susannah Place – the modest 19th-century terrace house in Sydney’s Rocks area that Kay Kallas and George Adaley talk about in their oral history in relation to the life of their grandmother, Mrs Dorothea Sarantides.

The ‘refugee’ tag is like an uninked tattoo. It never leaves

While the grandchildren’s account is eloquent, it does not touch upon the economic circumstances, language barriers and racism Mrs Sarantides and her family may have experienced. This story reminds me of my life as an asylum seeker/refugee and the aftermath of this period. I had to wait until night fell to cross the border to France. It was in 1992. There were days when I had to choose between lunch and dinner. I faced a language barrier and the most blatant forms of racism. The ‘refugee’ tag is like a tattoo. It never leaves. Terms like asylum seeker, refugee, migrant and displaced person came into being in particular contexts, describing particular situations of vulnerability that people have found themselves in. However, these terms are now weaponised and politicised in ways that further alienate and burden the people that they describe.

The word ‘object’ connotes the inanimate ...

... While, taxonomically speaking, this may be the case, objects take on a life of their own within the human imagination. For instance, this wooden jewellery box reminds me of the one Amma [Mother] had. It was slightly smaller in size and a bit darker in colour. It was probably made of teak or mahogany and was beautifully carved. We used to play with it when she was away. This jewellery box is decorated with ivory, which is quite sad. Elephants hold an enormous cultural significance in both Buddhist and Hindu cultures. Today, Sri Lanka is ranked number one in the world in terms of elephant deaths. Its elephant population hovers at around 5,000, and the number of tuskers in the wild is less than 150. More than 6,000 elephants were killed by the British colonists between 1829 and 1835. For them, elephant hunting was a combination of sport and protection of their newly established plantations. Buddhist processions, which involve a large number of tamed elephants, have become big tourist attractions as global tourism grows at a phenomenal rate. The demand for tamed elephants, therefore, continues to put huge pressure on the dwindling population of wild elephants.

This is a beautiful object ...

... made after 1855. The embroidery of the waistcoat looks ornate. The buttons resemble those of military uniforms. The costume is stored in a box which conjures the image of William Charles Wentworth, the owner of Vaucluse House, lying in a casket after his death in 1872. He received extensive land grants and exerted his influence on the British colonial administration to become one of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the colony of NSW. A few names – from more recent history – began to pop up in my mind when I was looking at Wentworth’s court costume. Among them were Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike (1899–1959) and Junius Richard Jayewardene (1906–1996). Both Bandaranaike and Jayewardene were from families that amassed great wealth, advantage and social status during the British colonial rule of Sri Lanka.

Their ancestors had received land grants from the British colonial administrations for their services to the Crown. These two men held ministerial portfolios in Ceylon’s (Sri Lanka) first parliament in 1947: Jayewardene was Minister of Finance and Bandaranaike was Minister of Health and Local Government. Bandaranaike went on to become prime minister in 1956. Jayewardene also became prime minister, in 1977, and subsequently the first executive president of Sri Lanka, in 1978.

The crescent moon and star is a sight I enjoy a lot in Picton ...

Amma [Mother] used the same appliqué technique that is used in this flag on cotton fabrics to make pillow cases and chair covers. I would sit next to her, watching

... It’s serene. I know this flag carries the raw memory of a violent act, a mass shooting at Broken Hill on New Year’s Day 1915. It is disturbing and sad, which is the case for many flags. They are commonly associated with the violence, patriotism and value systems of nation states. Though they can also be used for ill effect by non-state players, such as following the emergence of Islamic State – a fact that I’ve often pondered. Islamic State did not have the value system of a nation state attached to it. But it had a flag and inflicted a lot of violence on people. In sports, too, the meaning of flags is changing, with major clubs having many international players playing together, who then play against each other under their national flags. Amma [Mother] used the same appliqué technique that is used in this flag on cotton fabrics to make pillowcases and chair covers. I would sit next to her, watching. I dislike national flags because of their association with wars and violence against vulnerable people and minorities. This flag carries an Islamic icon. I would like to research the roots of the blatant Islamophobia that we experience in our society today.

This temple interior engraving takes me back to many places ...

... in the tapestry of my memory. It reminds me of the frescoes at Buddhist temples I used to go to in Sri Lanka, particularly as a kid with Amma [Mother]: images of the Buddha, altars for the offering of flowers, incense sticks and food.

It resembles the Wat Buddhalavarn temple in Wedderburn. This was the temple my family and I first went to when we settled in Australia. We would go there to commemorate death anniversaries and birthdays of our loved ones and also for Vesak. Vesak signifies Siddhartha Gautama Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death. Whenever I go there for Thaththa’s [Father’s] death anniversary, 19 January, it takes me back to my arrest: a group of armed military men, clad in civilian clothes, burst into my house in the middle of the night and took me away blindfolded. This incident happened on the second night of Thaththa’s three-month death anniversary commemoration. In Sinhala-Buddhist culture, the third-month ceremony marks the end of the mourning period; afterwards, loved ones go back to their normal lives. But in my case, it marked a monumental change in my life and a shift away from normalcy.

This is an elegant little object ...

... that may have been used by someone (or many people) in a faraway land. It has been intricately decorated. Dr James Dick, who brought it here in 1905, was a military officer and a physician. Imperial Japan was becoming more and more militarily ambitious – as were the other imperial powers – during this era, which led up to World War II. This all ended with the killing of over 100,000 people when the Americans dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Amma [Mother] has told me about the Japanese bombing of Colombo Harbour on 5 April 1942 – she recalls seeing the bombs come falling down from the sky like bottles through the lattice panels at the front of her house. She and her family were living in the outer suburbs of Colombo at the time and they grabbed whatever they could carry and fled to the south on a train. She remembers that the train was packed to the brim, with people travelling on its roof and hanging on to its doors and windows. The journey to their destination, the town of Weligama, about 140 kilometres from Colombo, took more than ten hours.

Ruins of Temple of Vishnu, Dondra, Ceylon

City of Gods, my early experience and toy boat

Inspired by a watercolour of the ruins of the temple of Vishnu, refugee curator in residence Jagath Dheerasekara writes about Devinuvara as a site of pilgrimage, colonisation and uprising

Published on 
Jagath Dheerasekara

Jagath Dheerasekara

Curator in Residence 2022–2023

Sri Lankan born and Sydney-based artist Jagath Dheerasekara was Museums of History NSW's refugee curator-in-residence from June 2022 to February 2023. The residency was a partnership between Museums of History NSW and Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre

Collection stories

Watercolour of a group of people landing ashore

Rose redacted

How Rose de Freycinet was erased from the official narrative of the 'Uranie' voyage

Detail of the four poster bed and beaded watch pockets in the Principal bedroom, Vaucluse House

Watch pockets

Watch pockets hung on the head cloth of a four-post bedstead and originally served in place of bedside tables, which were uncommon in the 19th century

Acquisition of the John and Phyllis Murphy wallpaper collection

Wall to wall: a marvellous wallpaper collection

A remarkable donation of over 3,000 wallpaper samples by John and Phyllis Murphy adds to our existing collection to form Australia’s largest repository of historic wallpapers

Two women on the steps of a sandstone building. One is crouching and holding a wooden tool, an axe rests beside her. The other and one sits on the step at a easel, under an umbrella

Queering the Interior: London, New York, Sydney, 1882–1929

Design practices of five figures from queer history: Irish playwright and poet Oscar Wilde, American actress and interior designer Elsie de Wolfe, and Australian artists Eirene Mort, Roy de Maistre and Adrian Feint (1894–1971)