Returning the Gayze
A Recreation and Reflection of Lionel Wendt’s Queer Sri Lankan Photographs
Gunindu Sithunada Abeysekera | 8 April 2023
Loosely draped organza sarongs, muscles silhouetted against tropical palms, dewy skin glistening against the island humidity,
an averted gaze – G-A-Z-E – those familiar with the works of photographer Lionel Wendt may recognize his depictions of Sri Lankan bodies through this Queer poetic. Lionel Wendt was born in 1900 in Sri Lanka, or British Ceylon at the time, into a prominent Burgher family of Dutch and Sinhala origin. He was orphaned at age 17 and moved to London in 1919 to train as a lawyer. In England, Wendt also trained as a concert pianist, exposing him to the contemporary art scene where he reveled in surrealism and cubism. He returned to Sri Lanka in 1924 and surrendered his judicial career in 1928 to pursue his avant-garde artistic endeavors. He soon became a leading figure of this artistic movement with his childhood friend, lover, and celebrated Sri Lankan artist, George Keyt. In the early 1930s, Wendt came across photography, and it soon became his life’s passion for the final decade of his life. Together with his contemporaries, Wendt founded and led the ‘43 Group Art Collective to radically revive and transform the traditional art and dance practices of Sri Lanka into the contemporary art sphere. Today, Lionel Wendt is regarded as one of the pioneering patrons and artistic practitioners of avant-garde modernist photography. Pablo Neruda, a Chilean poet and diplomat in Sri Lanka in the late 1920s, stated in his memoir, “Lionel Wendt was the central figure of a cultural life torn between the death rattles of the Empire and a human appraisal of the untapped values of Ceylon" (Aldrich 87). In 1934, the British Empire Marketing Board commissioned British filmmakers Basil Wright and John Grierson, who coined the word “documentary,” to create what became the foundational documentary film, The Song of Ceylon. Wright, a gay man himself, recruited Wendt to assist in the production, cinematography, narration, and sound and video editing of the film, and it influenced Wendt’s desire to reframe Sri Lankan bodies through a readapted European gaze.
In 1935, Wendt established the Photographic Society of Ceylon, and until his death in 1944, he photographed an extensive series
of homoerotic male Sri Lankan bodies, femme nudes, as well as island landscapes and architecture, which were exhibited across Sri Lanka and Europe.
These photographs demonstrate his undeniable aesthetic and technical skills, yet little has been written about the Queer legacies
and implications of his work. Through Robert Aldrich’s text, Cultural Encounters and Homoeroticism in Sri Lanka, and his historical overview of Sri Lanka as an international “gay paradise,” I regard Lionel Wendt’s photographs as a transformative medium that complicates and affirms the subjectivity of Queer Sri Lankans across the world today. To embody and visualize this intervention, I have reinterpreted and recreated a collection of Wendt’s seminal photographs with my own community of Queer Sri Lankans, who I have also known since childhood. Together, in this on-going project, we return the gayze – G-A-Y-Z-E – of Wendt’s original photographs by subverting the authority of the photographer, giving autonomy to those photographed, and literally returning the gayze back into the camera. By doing so, we explore the processes of representing our Sri Lankan bodies in ways that prioritize the agency and comfort of those photographed.
Through this project, I am not denying how Wendt’s photographs may have offered similar subversions of colonial
representations of Sri Lankans during their time, but the lack of insight into his photographic processes leaves certain social and political implications somewhat ambiguous. Since all but two people Lionel Wendt photographed remain anonymous, and were mostly minors, Robert Aldrich evokes the following questions in his text: “Were they somewhat embarrassed or rather proud to show off their shapely bodies,” “did the youths set conditions to their participation,” “did they feel themselves objects of a prurient gaze, or collaborators in a creative endeavour,” “did they share an erotic impulse,” “what was the equation of voyeurism and exhibitionalism that any photograph of a nude implies,” and “did his subjects see his photographs and what were their reactions'' (Aldrich 114-115)? Since these questions remain unanswered, along with Lionel Wendt’s own intentions, we must allow his photographs to speak for themselves and examine the impact they had on an island still colonized with homosexuality still criminalized to this day.
Likewise, by understanding how Wendt’s photos became more prominent in Europe after his death, we must reclaim the
voyeuristic colonial co-opting of his legacy. To further this conversation, I invoke Senel Wanniarachchi’s critical discussion on the looted Sri Lankan statue of the Goddess Tara displayed at the center of the British Museum's South Asia gallery.
In his article, "Finders Keepers: On Sex, Tara the Buddhist Deity at the British Museum and Brownness in the Colonies,"
Wanniarachchi explains, “Tara was considered to be too obscene and perverse to be exhibited to the public. Her exposed bronze breasts too big, her waist too narrow and her hips too curvaceous for the respectability of the white gaze. Because of which, Tāra was locked up in a discreet storeroom, named the “secretum” for thirty years. The British Museum was required to create the secretum, which was colloquially known as “the porn room,” because the 1857 Obscene Publications Act gave the state power to destroy artifacts they deemed obscene or offensive. Though I hesitate comparing Tāra’s artificial body with the bodies of very real Sri Lankans featured in Lionel Wendt’s photos, both bodies represent and evoke larger issues regarding the commodification and hyper-sexualiztion of nude Sri Lankan bodies in the colonial public imagination. Wanniarachchi explains how only white male British “specialists” were permitted to enter this secretum to study Tāra’s body and use her to justify their scientific racism, which has always been a driving force for European colonial projects. This misappropriation of Tāra’s body and her precarious position between colonial artifact and high art parallel how the Sri Lankan bodies in Wendt’s photos remain in possession of European art houses, individual collectors, and other galleries. Today, the Colombo National Museum in Sri Lanka displays a recreation of the original statue.
In regards to Wendt’s own position in European consciousness, a friend of his once stated, “If [Wendt] had lived somewhere else,
he would have been a world figure – like Oscar Wilde,” revealing a tragic relationship between his artistic reception and colonized subjectivity. At the time of Lionel Wendt’s death, a fellow photographer destroyed his film negatives, which was a common moral practice at the time, so only a few original prints of his work remain. The majority of photographs I reference in my paper and photo project derive from his posthumously published book Ceylon (1950). Today, Wendt is most remembered for these photographs and is honored with the Lionel Wendt Art Center in Colombo, which is a major hub for fine and performing arts.
While our photo project does not seek to simply replicate Wendt’s original photos, the recreation process allows us diasporic Sri
Lankans to affirm our own Queerness through the authority of cultural productions of the past. Further, this homosocial creative process intervenes in discourse on South Asian American Queer consciousness because the referencing posits the camera as a medium through which diasporic subjects can transcend space, time, and sociopolitical visibility. Nearly eighty years since Lionel Wendt’s death, our photo project intervenes in the following ways. While the majority of Wendt’s subjects have averted and lowered gazes, our recreations have our eyes directed towards the camera. While this choice returns the gayze back onto the photographer and thus, the viewer, I also argue that they confront the reality that Queer people of color remain objects of voyeurism who are actively stripped from their bodily autonomy in the present day. Additionally, in our recreations, we chose to include and exclude nudity at varying levels to emphasize that nudity alone – or eroticism for that matter – are not intrinsic indicators nor products of a colonial gaze, but rather, it is how nudity is presented with the consent of those photographed that renders it more or less voyeuristic. Furthermore, whereas Wendt’s models were always slender with no body hair – the modern day “twink” – our current photos include Queer Sri Lankans with different body types that contest the body politics of Queerness and photographability. Those photographed in Wendt’s works also typically only have neutral expressions; in our recreations we play around with that and are able to communicate varying emotions through direct eye contact. This is not implying that Wendt’s photos are devoid of emotion, but rather, it allows the viewer to see the Queer Sri Lankan body as dynamic and sentient. At the beginning of our photoshoot, I also requested those I photographed to periodically take behind-the-scenes photos of me taking photos of the other.
In this way, I became more so the object of a gaze, but also, it exposes the figure of the photographer as one that is suspect of
projecting this gaze. The aesthetic movement to demystify the photographic process and complicate the relationality between nude bodies and the gaze is growing more prominent. Photographer Paul Mpagi Sepuya explores this relationship between the artist and subject in his photographs and is an inspiration behind the candid self-reflective shots I requested my collaborators take. Moreover, while we only know the identity of two people in all of Lionel Wendt’s photos, the identities of those in our recreations take precedence. Our first photoshoot was a collaboration between me, a gay Sri Lankan man and the photographer; Anuk Peliyagoda, another gay Sri Lankan man, and my childhood best friend whose coming out inspired me to come out; and Ravindu Ranawaka, a Sri Lankan Non-Binary Transgender Femme academic peer who was also forced to participate in Sri Lankan nationalistic performing arts events with me during our childhood, and my partner. I share these details to provide insight into the atmosphere of Queer Sri Lankan diasporic camaraderie and intimacy during our photoshoot and also give the viewer an understanding that those photographed are not objects of gaze, but autonomous agents with complex lives. This paper will analyze recreations from one of the subjects and interlocutors, Ravindu Ranwaka, in the following section.
Recreations & Analysis
In this photo recreation of “King Coconuts,” I placed Ravindu seated in the studio as opposed to an outdoor setting because I did not want to directly recreate a photograph of working-class Sri Lankans. Whereas Wendt took this photo directly in the streets of Sri Lanka, I did not want to mimic the shot exactly in order to avoid aestheticizing manual agrarian labor. This decision came both from a reckoning of our own positionalities as doctoral students in Los Angeles, California and a general attempt to decrease the harm of the colonial gaze.
In these photo recreations of “Untitled” and “Sunshade Bearer,” we directly recreate Wendt’s photos but have Ravindu directly looking into the camera lens. By donning visibly Queer clothing, the jockstrap, in exchange for the South Asian loincloth, we also explicitly present a sexual theme and juxtapose it behind the veil of the typical Sri Lankan sarong. In the “Sunshade Bearer,” we can see how Ravindu’s eye contact and expression alter the mood of the photograph from submissive to dominant.
In the photo recreation of “Untitled (Male Torso with Statue),” we incorporate the subject’s full body, include direct eye contact, and replace the Greek god Apollo with the Hindu deity Ardhanarishvaram – the gender-fluid synthesis of the god Shiva and goddess Parvati. While Wendt’s photo compares an anonymous Sri Lankan body with a European standard of beauty, our use of Ardhanarishvaram with a non-binary subject is informed by theie subversive implications and capabilities.
In these “Untitled” recreations, we play with the kinetic aesthetic of throwing the subject’s sarong into the air, but in our recreation, we have Ravindu throwing it directly towards the camera in attempt to shut off the viewer’s gaze.
While this project is on-going, it will include more Sri Lankans from varying ethnic backgrounds, across the Queer spectrum,
including more femme Queer Sri Lankans, and will take place outside of the studio space as well. While many of Wendt’s photos take place outdoors as snippets of quotidian agrarian life, Robert Aldrich explains that the most eroticised photos were those taken in Wendt’s studio (Aldrich 107). Aldrich adds that because Wendt and his camera were “more safe from the gaze of unwelcome on-lookers, he could ask models to disrobe entirely, and he had the chance to arrange bodies, direct poses, add in props, and perhaps converse with the young men revealing themselves to him and the camera’s lens” (107). However, I argue that regardless of who was present during Wendt’s photographic process, his photos still rendered the nude Sri Lankan body hypervisible.
I end this analysis with the most recent photo I recreated in my own apartment. On the left is Wendt’s photo titled “Untidy
Work Table.” Aldrich explains in his text how this photo is one of Wendt’s most explicit representations of his erotic desires. He says, “What is called ‘untidy’ is in fact a carefully arranged composition reflecting on the constancy and permutations of beauty, the expression of desire, the photographer’s métier, and the exchange between West and East” (112). The white mask, according to Aldrich, represents “someone guardedly revealing deep feelings or desires” (116). In my recreation, I include a photo of myself during photographic field work in Sri Lanka, the Ardhanarishvaram statue instead of Apollo, unscanned film negatives from our photoshoot, and a colored “monara raksha” or “peacock demon,” which is a traditional dance exorcism mask that helps ward off the gaze of the “evil eye.” Whereas the intimacies of Wendt’s studio provided him with more range and independence during his photoshoots, I hope that sharing the ins and outs of our recreation process contributes to growing discourse on the subversive capabilities of the gays –
Aldrich, R. Cultural Encounters and Homoeroticism in Sri Lanka: Sex and Serendipity.
Dissanayake, E. Renaissance Man: Lionel Wendt – Creator of a Truly Sri Lankan Idiom.
Serendib, 13(4), 16-22. 1994.
Wanniarachchi, Senel. “Finders Keepers: On Sex, Tara the Buddhist Deity at the British
Museum and Brownness in the Colonies.” The London School of Economics and Political Science: Department of Gender Studies. 8 January 2020.
Wendt, L. Ceylon. London: Lincolns-Prager. First Edition. 1950.