Monday, May 16, 2011

Manit Sriwanichpoom, “Two Women – Different Angles, Points of View.”

Manit Sriwanichpoom, “Two Women – Different Angles, Points of View,” in the Silpa Wattanatham column of Siamrath Weekly News magazine, Yr.58, Vol. 34, 13 – 19 May, 2011.

There are two women artists of the new generation who have some interesting work. Both of them present works with content about women. But the points of view of these two are entirely different. One person goes by way of the West and the other of the East: one wants to break rules; the other jealously embraces them.

One is Priyachanok Katesuwan, who graduated from Silpakorn University with a master’s degree. She is 26 years old and poses a question about the situation of women (‘เพศสถาพ’ ) in Thai culture. Her focus is on women of Lanna, Chieng Mai, where her matrilineal heritage lies.

Priyachanok studies the characteristic image of women which emerges in local fairy tales, in ritual tales such as the ‘saisayong’ ritual in which a woman shows her intense faith in Buddhist religion by pulling out her own hair to make a silken cover for the Tripidaka Scriptures.

And there are works of Lanna literature such as Chaochan Phom Hom by Mala Kamchan. This story presents the long, scented hair of Chaochan, the heroine, as the tool with which to gamble for her final fate, i.e. doing her duty as a good daughter of her parents and marrying a rich man to who was owed a great debt, and the choice to return to seek out the man her heart truly desired. However, the strand of her fragrant hair was not able to find its way under an enormous sacred boulder, which meant that Chaochan had to accept her fate. She calmly married the rich man, whom she did not love.

Priyachanok chooses ‘hair’ as an important symbol in her solo exhibition,
(ครอบงำ / ล่วงล้ำ) Possessed / Poached at Tang Gallery, 24 Mar.-30 Apr.,2011. Most of the works are large photos and works of video art.

Five large black and white photo portraits show the face of the artist, her mother, her two aunts, and her aunt’s daughter. All five of them have wrapped and covered their heads and had put large silver bowls on their heads. The bowls contain fruit and flowers and things to sacrifice to the spirits. The women are still and inactive, and comprise only a third of the whole picture space. Most of the space is filled by the silver bowls. In addition, the artist uses a ballpoint pen to draw in the lines of reddish-brown hair, almost covering the silver bowls entirely. This creates a mysterious and scary, hair-raising feeling, intensified by the use of picture frames with a special Louis design, cast in clear resin and encasing strands of human hair.

There are three more pictures of these five women doing activities together. They work in the kitchen together. They plant rice in paddies. They sit relaxing on the steps in front of their house. These three pictures also hold long strands of hair. Great giant crowds of rain clouds loom frighteningly overhead. The pictures are framed and enclosed in the transparent Louis pattern which encases strands of hair.

As for the video art, one piece is a picture of women of different ages (probably the artist herself and her mother). They look at each other. Their hair has become twisted in a strand that is joined and floats, suspended, above their heads. The strand looks like the root of a climbing vine. It reminds one of the nareepol, a species of plant you see in old Thai art.

The artist has specifically chosen to play with video images in order to be able to rewind or reverse and to move forward in slow motion. This distorts to unintelligibility the sounds of voices in conversation. We can’t tell what the two are conversing about, or what they are reciting.

Another work in a room separated by a lacy white curtain is a piece of video art projected vertically. It is a picture of a woman dressed in Lanna fashion who walks with a silver bowl containing ritual items on her head. She passes back and forth on the many dikes which separate individual paddies. (She never seems to actually get anywhere – she never arrives at a temple.)

In any case, Priyachanok has not presented anything new about gender issues concerning women in Thailand. She simply rubs it in, making us see that the situation of Thai women still hasn’t changed much, as far as she can see. Women still bear the burden of values and tradition. The hopes of society like heavily upon women, like the gigantic silver bowl which balances on their heads. The dark shadow of the strands of hair, the shadow of tradition, continues to haunt them with every breath, so that it becomes difficult to flee anywhere.

In order to shake off and flee the gloomy shadows, and to go beyond as far as she is able to go, Priyachanok shaves her head. (Not having a woman’s long hair dissolves and blurs the distinction between male and female. Male and female monks must shave their head.)

Since she has shaved her head, she should take the chance to criticize the traditional beliefs about ordination, which excludes women, not allowing them to ordain in order to reciprocate the blessings they have received from their parents. Why are women unable to take hold of the yellow cloth and help their parents go up to heaven? Priyachanok mocks the ritual shaving of the male postulant’s head by having her mother shave her (the artist’s) head at the opening of her exhibition.

This is Priyachanok Ketsuwan’s courageous striking back, her refusal to accept the fate decreed for her by tradition.

Ampanee Satau is another woman artist who moves in precisely the opposite direction from Priyachanok. Ampanee is 28 years old. She comes from the area of the three most distant border provinces of southern Thailand. She won the Young Thai Artist Award in photography in 2007 for her series of black and white photos entitled Muslim Women (Hijab). These photos assert the feminine identity of Muslim women, which she wants people generally to respect. She wants them to accept these different beliefs and not to see them as weird and threatening, simply because the women cover themselves in a way that differs from the beliefs of most people.

Her new series is entitled ‘ Stolen freedom / Burqa, 2010,’ and was created while she was studying in Paris in 2009. It is a gesture of protest, a reaction against the new law by the French government which forbids Muslim women from all kinds of clothing which covers their faces in public. The law applies to all, whether French citizens or aliens.

Regarding this matter, the French Minister of Justice, Michel Aliet-Marie, has said, “This law is a success for the values of freedom, equality, fraternity, and the secular French Republic.”

Ampanee expresses her dissatisfaction by having her model put on some very shiny Burqa of red, white or blue – the colors of the French national flag. The models stand in the wind before the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs Elysees, and on the sea’s rocky shore. In other scenes, she also wears a purple Burqa, and a yellow and black one, and stands before several other symbolic places.

In terms of photography, Ampanee is able to create strong images which strike the eye with no little force. The Burqas look beautiful, fluttering luxuriantly in the breeze. At the same time, they look mysterious, frightening and threatening.

In terms of content, Ampanee creates several points of protest, arguing with the French government’s law forbidding the wearing of the veil. Is it a violation of human rights, the freedom of religion, or not? Even in Muslim communities, there are differences. Some Muslim supporters are progressives who note that there is no law in the Qur’an which requires women to be veiled. These women wear the Burqa or the Niqab because they have taken on the culture of dress of the ancient Persians and Byzantines: their costume predates Islam. Hence, citing the veil and the covering up of the body as a religious identity doesn’t appear to be strictly correct.

But opponents cite some sacred passages of the Qur’an which state:
Qur'an 24:30-31
Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty:
That will make for greater purity for them:
And Allah is well acquainted with all that they do.

And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty;
That they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof;
That they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty….

Others say that Muslim women cover things that give rise to sexual
feeling (hair and some parts of the body, for example). This makes them feel safer from eyes which do not wish them well or which hide sexual desires. [Such precautions] make men behave much more respectfully.

But if we look at Muslim countries which forbid their own people to cover their faces in public – in Tunisia, in schools in Syria, in Parliament in Turkey – what the French government has done [by comparison] is nothing new. It depends on what point of view you take here, and whose interests you are considering.

In any case, my understanding of Islam is very limited, even though I studied in a primary school where the owner and almost all the students were Muslim. Thai society 40 years ago was very comfortable with Muslims, Chinese, Indians, Thai - all mingled together without asking what religion one practiced.

I never thought that covering ones head but showing ones face – which they call hijab – would be an issue over which people would draw blood. Among teachers and professors who graduated and were influenced by strict religion from the Middle East, Islamic revivalism in the decade of the 1980’s has spread influence in more strongly expressing ‘being Muslim.’ Tensions have increased accordingly.

Images of Thai Muslim women who cover the head with the hijab now are very common. Women are putting on the Burqa which they wear in the Middle East (some wholeheartedly, some under duress), and we see it more frequently around Bangkok and Greater Bangkok. There is no need to go to the deep South to find such things.

It’s interesting that Ampanee, who is an artist of the young generation, should choose to wear traditional dress from the Middle East while many women in those countries and in many places round the world are trying to escape wearing the Burqa, which is seen as a symbol of oppression by men. They don’t want to be ‘walking tents’ in the modern world.

In Buddhism, this is referred to as ‘everyone having their own ideas.’

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