Friday, December 2, 2011

‘Emerging Patterns,’ by Manit Sriwanichpoom

 ‘Emerging Patterns,’ by Manit Sriwanichpoom
In the Silpa Wattanatham column of Siamrath Weekly, Yr. 58, Vol. 50, 2 – 8 Sept. 2011

            If you have never taken a holiday to get yourself a taste of the three Southern border provinces, you should take a look at ‘Emerging Patterns,’ a show of contemporary art from Songkhla, Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat at the Bangkok Art and Culture Gallery from 4 Aug. to Oct. 16.  The show may impress visitors with bright fresh pictures of that part of Thailand – the way of life of local Muslim people, happy and peaceful, with simple lives reflecting a sufficiency economy. They are people of faith, deeply committed to their religious beliefs.

            This is quite opposite to what we find in our morning newspapers – images of vehicles blown to smithereens, the elderly, children, monks, and soldiers shot dead and lying wretchedly on the side of the road.  This kind of evil news almost looks like a lie [in comparison], a setup intended to mislead the world, something for readers to consume with breakfast before going off to work.

            A theory which long has been given credence, that ‘art is a mirror of the world,’ may not be applicable at all in this exhibition.  The theory that ought to be directly relevant and to the point should be, instead, ‘art is the refuge of the artist.’ Why and how can it not be like that?

            In Bangkok, the offices of culture, sport and tourism have the good intention of having a contemporary art exhibition about the area of the three Southern border provinces.  The aim is to better inform city people and to help them better get to know the local people by means of works of art.  Thus, the request came to the Bangkok Metropolitan Gallery Art and Culture.  Chatwichai Promtatweti was the curator and manager for the show.  He contacted Pichate Piaklin, who teaches at the Faculty of Art at Prince of Songkhla University (Pattani campus) to invite him to be co-curator in selecting works for the show.

            And 28 young men and women artists from this area were selected.  The works were brought to show the city folk to let them know the feelings and ideas, way of life, culture, and beliefs of these Southern people.

            It is quite strange why these young artists did not use this opportunity to present content about the things they face every day – problems of trouble and violence stirred up by the skill of cultivators of unrest and by state officials.  Why didn’t these artists need to touch at all upon the life and death situations they face?  For what reason did they not need to speak at all of those things?  Especially, to speak to friends abroad who sympathize with their sufferings.  Why didn’t they feel any need to present these things in their works?

            If we look at the organizing agencies and promoters, they are the Bangkok municipality and state agencies.  It’s possible that these artists chose to present safe artistic content, ‘generalized’ and neatly masked, addressing the ‘identity of the local people’.  They did not criticize anyone, but they may hold other opinions.  This is the first obstacle: a lack of trust.  So self-censorship arises.  Artists don’t dare to exercise their precious right to express opinions frankly in their works of art.

            Something else associated with state agencies. Though the BMA Art and Culture Gallery was born out of [lobbying and demonstrating] pressure by the local artworld, what can be done to prevent it from being regarded as an arm of the state? It is a private agency [and should have] the freedom, dignity and courage to show art presenting negative as well as positive views of the state, a gallery which authentically and democratically respects the rights of artists and artistic expression.

             I believe that among the community of artists who came together to fight for this municipal art gallery, no one needed this place to end as a mere agency for official art like the Office of Contemporary Art, whose function is to serve the agenda of certain politicians and government officials.

            Therefore, the point must be made about respecting the rights and freedoms of artistic expression as the central pillar of this institution.  There should be no compromise with anyone about upholding these principles for the future.  If that is not the case, the art exhibitions at this gallery will be no more than decorative shows, appeasements, insincere and useless.

            If we are to believe the curator about the artworks presented in this show, there have been no preconditions about doing decorative abstract patterns, pictures of the lives of fishermen, of the faces of Muslim elders, fields and paddies, rubber plantations or fleets of boats: the artists selected the topics and presented the pictures themselves.  It seems they must be bored with making and sending images of evil, the violence in that part of the South which they face endlessly.  Perhaps they thought images of beauty would be preferred, creating hope rather than sadness.

            I don’t know how true this is, or if this is what the participants were thinking. Burying their head in the sand or choosing not to speak of the violence, fleeing into worlds of artistic imagination rather than presenting the reality of people being killed daily, this will not help eliminate the problems from society.

            If you are a young artist, man or woman, who wants to avoid facing a problem head on, you could use your artistic skill and talent as a tool for communicating with people outside about what is happening to the place where you live. I don’t know who could help you.  There might not be many opportunities to take part in an art project like ‘Emerging Patterns’ providing a budget and a place to show in the city center.  It is unfortunate that you decided to take the visitors ‘in retreat,’ moving away from reality.  No one knows really how our fellow citizens on the country’s southern border can live their lives, or what they need besides ready-made peace plans parroted like talking mynas whose words have nothing to do with truth.

            Especially Pu’s [Yingluck Shinawatr] government, with their policy about ‘special administrative districts’ for the three border provinces of the South: how will the men and women artists of the young generation, the good thinkers, respond to this?  Will they accept it or not?  Will problems be solved directly or will they multiply?  Those of us outside that part of the country want to know what the local people there think about this.  Points of disagreement are important.  The forms of art are necessary. They are an extension of the place, lifting up the voices of the people to be more widely heard.  [Art prevents those voices from] being bottled up by the opinions of academics, theologians, politicians, government security officers, soldiers and police.  When the country is in crisis, the role of the artist in making expressive, revealing works of art is of no small importance.  Artists are not here just to produce pretty things, to decorate offices or create works of fantasy and imagination in order to escape from the evil world.

            In any case, in the midst of dazzling decorative patterns, among the scary images of dreams, there are works by two artists which attempt to interject content about contemporary events into their work in an interesting way.

            Imron Unu (there is no biographical data in the exhibition catalog about this artist, which is strange) presents a work of mixed media with a picture of a Muslim grandmother and grandfather on a traditional reed mat.  Speaking of identity and the ways of life of country people, they are presented in black and white images – seventeen little pictures of black tanks, guns, hand grenades and explosions.  The bottom-most picture plane is covered entirely in white Arabic script.  In the middle [of that white plane] is a portrait of a young Muslim man.  His face is dark grey.  He wears a black kabiya [Muslim head covering for men].  His head turns to regard the viewer with his blood-red eyes. The image is forceful and outstanding.  It makes the viewer feel uneasy, because the eyes of the young man in the picture (perhaps the reference is too the artist himself) look back at his audience with eyes full of fiery, vengeful anger.  There is no friendship here.  (The work is untitled and is accompanied by no explanatory details.)

            The work of Chusak Srikwan takes the form of a traditional Southern shadow-puppet play.  The work is titled ‘Happiness, Thrift and Moderation in Living.’  Chusak brings things happening in the three Southern border provinces to use in creating a traditional shadow play.  His characters tend to be funny, as is typical of these Southern shadow-puppet shows.  For example, one character is dressed as a soldier with a chest full of medals and decorations, but he wears an elaborate headdress commonly seen in traditional musical melodramas.

            Or, we see a very fat monk seated in a khaki-green tank, talking on his red cell-phone.  The man in the front driving the armored vehicle is a soldier with his hand on a machine gun.  On the vehicle are written the words ‘armored car for the personal use of the abbot.’  This mocks the troubled situation in the area. (It is strange, too, that Chusak Srikwan’s personal history is not given in the exhibition catalog.)

            The use of the name ‘Emerging Patterns’ by the organizers’ toys with Islam’s ban on the creation of images of people (because the Lord is the creator of man).  Only patterns are permitted.  So what can the younger generation do to make the old patterns look new, look fun and exciting?  Are youth going astray?  Or is this a way out and the hope of the younger generation?  

            This is the same as bringing a native Southern fishing boat up to display in front of the BMA Gallery – as if a new culture has been discovered.  The Thai state likes to do this when it promotes love for local culture and tourism.

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