Tahira Rifath Humanizes Trauma Through Digital Portraiture

hyacinth rupasinghe5
Tahira Rifath. Hyacinth Rupasinghe. Courtesy of the artist. 2019.

By Devana Senanayake

Watching the Easter Sunday attacks unfold on the screens of her TV and smartphone, deeply impacted Tahira Rifath. 

“It was scary and traumatizing. I kept thinking what people at the attacks might have felt,” Tahira says of the violence she perceived as a spectator. 

The Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka that claimed at least 257 lives (including churchgoers and tourists alike), targeted three churches and four hotels, rippled through the country and left it reeling. This is the deadliest attack on the country since the conclusion of the Civil War a decade ago. 

Sri Lanka is a country ripped apart by trauma. Black July and the 1983 Singhalese-Tamil riots are cited as incidents that initiated the twenty-five year long Civil War. 

“I was not alive when the Black July happened but once people start to talk about all those riots, it’s so hard for them and there’s so much anxiety about it,” Tahira says about the country’s inability to reconcile its past history. 

Unlike the victims of Christchurch, Tahira noticed a shift in focus in the Sri Lankan attack. The victim’s lives, achievements, and stories shrank in significance as the government and the media started hunting the back stories of the perpetrators of the attack. 

Stories about the group suspected of organizing the suicide bombings, National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ) and the strategist of the entire operation, Zahran Hashim popped up all over social media. Social media, particularly Facebook and Whatsapp groups, have become hubs for misinformation, fake stories and hate speech. Even the death toll initially reported as 359 casualties had been revised to 257 after further consultation. A feeling of uncertainty and doubt plague the country. 

“The people who lost their lives became a distant number. No one spoke about them.” the freelance graphic designer and illustrator says. “These people were more than just a number. They lived full, extraordinary lives. We were not giving them the attention that they needed.”

She began her portrait series by sketching out Ramesh Raju, a 40-year-old, building constructor that had saved the lives of many attending mass at the Evangelical Zion Church in Northeastern, Batticaloa. 

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Tahira Rifath. Shantha Mayadunne. Courtesy of the artist. 2019.

Tahira has also sketched Sri Lankan celebrity chef and cookbook author Shantha Mayadunne. Shantha is remembered for her immaculate presence on Sri Lankan TV channels ITN and Rupavahini, dressed in a Kandyan style sari, presenting quick and simple recipes. 

Her daughter Nisanga Mayadunne, a service quality manager and TV presenter had also perished during a family breakfast at the hotel. 

Tahira gained more information about the casualties from organizations attacked on Easter such as Cinnamon Grand Hotel and the Shangri-La Hotel. Miyuru Yasakalum had been employed as a commis chef at the Shangri-La Hotel since October 2017. The ex-scout had also been a tour guide in Sri Lanka.

Miyura Yasakalum
Tahira Rifath. Miyuru Yasakalum. Courtesy of the artist. 2019.

To continue her project amid a storm of inaccuracy,  Tahira consults either a family member or a close friend of a subject before she sketches them. After she finished her first four portraits, she felt the secondary trauma of undertaking such an intense project focused on tragedy. Secondary trauma, sometimes called “vicarious trauma” happens through constant exposure and re-exposure to traumatic stories. Her physical health had been impacted – she contracted a fever and had to press “pause” on the project. 

Despite the impact on her mental and physical health, Tahira is eager to continue. She hopes to celebrate the lives of the victims and simultaneously convey a message to a racially divided country.  “Even though Sri Lanka was voted the “No. 1 Tourist Destination” by Lonely Planet for 2019, people are not really open to different perspectives. I want people to understand and empathize with different beliefs and cultural perspectives,” she concluded. 


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