Maya used the aesthetic template of hip-hop to pull together her range of influences and interests—at first in the field of visual art. She graduated from Central St. Martins College of Art and Design, and a book of her graffiti-influenced artwork was published by independent label Pocko. It caught the eye of Nick Hackworth, who in 2002 established the Alternative Turner Prize to critique the narrow criteria of Britain’s leading art prize. Maya was among the six artists shortlisted. Hackworth—Arts Editor of Dazed and Confused—was immediately impressed by “the combination of the political content from her Sri Lankan background through the Tamil Tigers, with the kind of street aesthetic.” He remembers a boldness of vision that fused well with the improvisational nature of her technique: “She was just spray painting on bits of board, so it was pretty DIY kind of stuff with the actual media, tying in with the spraycan-type aesthetic. So it’s kind of rough, ready, and graphically quite powerful, because she doesn’t use too many elements; she repeats some of the elements; she keeps it visually quite clean, she doesn’t overload the images ... It’s about graphic boldness. That was the best thing about it.” The work attracted the attention of Justine Frischmann of Elastica, who commissioned an album cover and a tour documentary. It was on tour that she met electro-revivalist Peaches, who first showed her around a Roland 505.
Her visual style is on display on the video for “Galang”, her first single. The video was directed by Ruben Fleischer, who notes that “using her artwork as a way to define her and inform people is very important. I mean how many other beautiful singers are performing in front of tanks, burning palm trees, bombs, Molotov cocktails, and helicopters? All of the stencils we made were completely based on her aesthetic, and were meant to be an extension of her. Many of them she either helped us make or made herself.”
The video’s imagery—alongside the lyrical content of “Sunshowers”—has attracted some criticism of her political stance. There are the brightly-colored burning trees, bombs, tanks, Molotov cocktails, London housing estates, and cell phones—and the video is punctuated by images of a racing tiger, a motif that recurs in her concert visuals and designs. A portrait of a Tamil militant leader appears at one moment.
For some critics, this is simply revolutionary chic: an attempt to commercialize the color and exoticism of distant struggles while safely draining it of any real-world political context. Nick Hackworth is aware of that tendency. “I think it was that unusual combination which I hadn’t really seen before in too much stuff. And also—I suppose it sounds potentially pejorative—it was slightly exotic, seeing something that dealt with non-English or non-European political problems in that kind of way, visually.” There are long-standing European traditions of seeing the “orient” as repository of color, creativity, and vibrancy—as a nest of cultures alien enough not to have to be inspected for political markers. Other critics are more troubled, arguing from her father’s biography and a handful of details (for instance, for a brief period after the December 26 tsunami, her website carried links to an aid organization closely associated with Tamil militants) that she is a closet supporter of terrorism—in particular, of the Tamil Tigers.
From the early-1980s, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) quickly became the dominant body in Tamil militancy, and Tamil nationalism in general, not least because of the viciousness with which they dispatched rival groups. In April 1986, for example, hundreds of members of rivals TELO (the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation) were killed in a sequence of attacks, despite their being armed, trained, and supported by the Indian government. From 1987 the “Black Tigers” developed suicide bombing as a tactic, their victims including former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandi. UNICEF and Amnsety International have censured them for the forced conscription of child soldiers, including 40 since the December 26 tsunami. They have been accused of murdering civilians in border areas to induce population displacement. The Sri Lankan government, meanwhile, has continued a series of depredations, including extensive—and sometimes apparently indiscriminate—aerial bombing campaigns. Over 65,000 people have died; at one point up to 30 percent of the Tamil population was estimated to have fled the island, with over a million people—from all ethnic groups—temporarily or permanently displaced. A 1991 report estimated that perhaps ten percent of the population had been displaced. Sri Lanka is one of the most heavily landmined countries in the world.
This is a far cry from the revolutionary panache suggested by M.I.A.‘s work. Some of the associative imagery of “Galang” and “Sunshowers” implies a connection to the Palestinian Intifada, the Zapatistas, the Black Panthers, and the anti-Apartheid movement. Some see these as a valid comparisons; Dr. Dagmar Hellmann-Rajanayagam notes, “The LTTE also fights against linguistic, ethnic and class/caste discrimination and oppression. The methods might be open to question, the aim is certainly not.” M.R. Narayan Swamy, author of Inside an Elusive Mind, the first biography of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, disagrees, citing the LTTE’s murderous reputation. “This does not mean that LTTE has no support; on the contrary it does. It controls vast areas in Sri Lanka’s north and rules a de facto Tamil Eelam. But it will be very difficult to say how much of the support it enjoys comes out of genuine respect or genuine fear. The support is real, and so is the fear.”