Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Children in Artists' Eyes

‘Children in the Eyes of Artists,’ Manit Sriwanichpoom, in the Silpawattanatham column of Siamrath Weekly news, Yr.60, Vol.43, 12 – 18 July 2013.

The photo entitled ‘Buffalo Boy and His MacBook’ by the young male artist, Maitri Siribun, mocks Thai society, but a little too late.  (Actually, to be exact I should say, he mocks the Yingluck Shinawatr  government.)    The government finished handing out tablets to Primary 1 students all over the country, under the ‘One Tablet PC Per Child’ (OTPC) Project last year, but I don’t know if, by now, this country lad is using it for a pillow or playing games on it.
In any case, this picture has some points which need consideration.  Why isn’t it funny?  Why doesn’t it provoke a laugh?  The aim of the artist was to ridicule the absurdity of Thai politicians who use marketing methods to liven things up.  They create an image of being deeply concerned about education; that they want to bring their children along to keep up with the times and with technology, by handing out PC Tablets.   But, they don’t know what kind of content to put into the devices for the kids to study.

Pictures of the upcountry, rice fields, orchards, and vegetable gardens as they once were are presented in the form of water buffaloes and paddies.  Centralized education by the state is expressed as a child about ten years of age in a primary school uniform.  The high-tech world unsuccessfully seeking to connect with the countryside – this is represented in a MacBook.   You could say this is a readymade advertising image of a good product,  but Maitri should have had this little kid on the back of the buffalo look a bit happier.   He might have worn the insignia of the Puer Thai political party.  But the artist told the kid to frown.  Maybe the artist, when he made this photograph, did not agree with the method of stuffing computers into children’s hands.

You could, in fact, observe that water buffaloes have had practically no role in plowing Thai rice paddies for a long time already.  There are a few of these animals left in some places,  for example, among people who have returned to organic farming.   Otherwise, farmers mostly use mechanical plows.  Pictures of buffalos communicate only ‘backwardness’ ,  ‘the obsolete’ or ‘ignorance’.   Another meaning of ‘buffalo’ refers to the fact that the animal has a ring in its nose and so can be led anywhere. (Hence, it’s no surprise that people get mad when they are referred to as ‘that buffalo’!)
I chose the picture of the primary school child sitting on a water buffalo holding a MacBook to talk about after looking at the ‘Buffalo’s Heart’ exhibition at the Tawi-bu Gallery, Silom.  (Showing  13 July, 2013.)
In this work, the title emphasizes the importance of the Thai water buffalo, but there is a parallel image, i.e. the picture of a Thai child, which I think is at least equally as interesting.                                                                            

Maitri  presents  a picture of a rural child in primary school uniform who reflects feelings of poverty, isolation, weakness, lethargy and docility.  But the artist also suggests an ‘exotic native’ character in the figure of the little boy.  

The ‘buffalo boy’ pictures, both the first and the second, express a type in the same boy.  In one picture, the boy, about ten years old, wears a brand new, red-and-black-checked,  traditional loincloth.  His stands deep in the middle of a field of lotus, his hands full of the stems and buds.   In another picture, the boy also holds lotus as he sits upon a water buffalo.  In neither picture does the child smile.  Rather, he looks unemotional, unmoved.  What is Maitri trying to say to the viewer?
When one of my foreign friends saw these pictures, he expressed some real misgivings about the images of little boys holding lotus stems.  The pictures had an air of pedophilia about them.  My friend couldn’t understand why these small boys stared directly into the eyes of the viewer and were represented holding lotus blossoms while mounted on a buffalo.  Or why they stood with two hands holding a bundle of lotus stems and faced directly off the left side of the picture. The boys wear only a loincloth and are exposed, naked from the waist up.  It looks rather too much like an implicit invitation to those who savor looking at this kind of [questionable] picture.

In fact ‘child abuse’ is something that our art circles very seldom address.  It could be said that we don’t even notice it.  Rather, we simply let things follow their own course.  Things happen and then are forgotten, though there may be some unspoken questions.  But no one brings the issue forward for debate or to achieve a better understanding or to find an appropriate course of action.
In the case of Maitri’s ‘buffalo boy,’ I think it’s still not clear.  And it remains ambiguous in its sexual [possibly abusive] overtones, as my friend observed.  There is one case which I would say is similar and yet sharper.  I refer to a realistic watercolor painting titled [roughly translated] ‘of age’, by Sakranond Suparp , which was shown at the People’s Gallery of the Bangkok Metropolitan Art and Culture Gallery till May.  (As it turns out, the works in that show of this art student were almost all sold.  Nationally known collectors took almost all of them.)

There is a painting of a young Isarn girl of twelve or thirteen years.  She is depicted wearing a short sarong, bare-chested, her little breasts just beginning to swell.  Some other paintings represented single individuals, seated or standing, carrying baskets of flowers. One large picture -  155 x 350 cm – showed a group of sixteen girls helping each other dress in preparation for a dance.  The title was, in fact, ‘Preparing for a Dance.’ It was interesting in that it showed almost all the little girls naked to the waist in order to display their little breasts.  In real life, not in the imagination of the artist, would these young girls dare to remove their clothing so publically while standing on the front porch of a house?
When such a painting is in a realistic style, questions inevitably follow.  Did the artist draw directly from live models?  Did the artist ask the child models to undress in that fashion for his pictures or not?   Did the artist use only the faces of the young girls on bodies which he himself imagined?   Did he change the face of the real models?   And lastly, did the child models and their parents see the finished pictures?     

While looking at these various pictures, I heard someone praising the artist who had created these ‘of age’ images.  The artist, a voice said, is so very able to show the childlike youth of these young girls!  How striking! Lovely! Not offensive.  Mingled with just the right character of being Thai country people.  If I had the money, the voice continued, I would buy one of these pictures to display and enjoy in my home!
At that point, I turned to look at the speaker, someone I knew to be of a rather conservative turn.  When it came to these paintings, the speaker, by contrast, was rather open-minded.  I felt confused and didn’t know how to react.

There’s another case I saw which I thought should clearly be classified in a ‘child abuse’ category.  I am referring to the work, ‘Underage’, by Ohm Panpirote.  He photographed a homeless boy somewhere around Sanam Luang.  Certainly most of these kids sell their sexual services to gay customers.  The photographer chose to take the picture at night and asked the child model to remove his shirt to show the skin of his upper body.  The boy in this picture looks straight at the camera.  Some of the models smiled a bit. Some gave a rather fierce look.  Some gave a look of invitation.  The children pictured looked fragile and powerless to really resist or fight - - in any way.
Ohm stated that he wanted to show the problem of homeless children who sell sexual services.  But why did he give the names of the children pictured? He also gave information about when each child first undertook to sell himself sexually, and he even cited the price charged for the services as well.  Why did the photographer have these kids take their clothing off for the photograph?  And why were all the subjects little boys?  No girls were pictured.  Showing the children’s faces that way in the context of prostituting themselves basically constituted recording their misdeeds for life.  If one day any of them wanted to leave the business of selling sexual services, those pictures could follow and haunt them later in life.

The works I am citing were exhibited in a group show two or three years ago.  They were also printed in a photography magazine.  The curator of that show was very proud of these pictures. He praised Ohm for his courage in showing this dark side of Thai society.
The danger of an artist making a name for him or herself without any foresight or afterthought as to the damage done to others like this should be avoided.  Artists or photographers should agree among themselves to protect children, because kids are still very vulnerable ; they cannot defend themselves.  Even as they cite the good things they do for the children, photographs like these, which emphasize the plight of the children, actually make things worse for them.
 The things I have brought up to discuss here don’t mean I am appealing to ‘morality’ and ‘censoring’, because I myself have always fought for rights and freedoms in expression.  But I am posing questions about how far and how much is appropriate, how to manage things which are complex and delicate, and the responsibility of artists to society about how much and how to do it.

I believe that art or ideas, whether we like them or hate them, require space for themselves.   This will depend more on on where they should be and in what form they will exist.
If artists care only for their own fame and want to be scandalous – but famous above all – with no thought to the consequences in society that may follow, it’s shameful and tragic indeed

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