Thai women artists: Doin’ it for themselves (1997)

artdesigncafé - art | Published 08 August 2010
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Meanwhile, studying in the United States for a BFA and MFA in Ceramics, Surojana Sethabutra started her professional career in the early 1990s. Unlike other ceramicists in Thailand, her works are unique in that she takes traditional media and transforms them into fine art. Her previous work was heavily influenced by Ban Chiang pottery, and recently in 1996, her work shifted to illustrate what she sees as the importance of the "four elements": earth, wind, fire, and water. At the National Gallery in Bangkok last year, she presented an installation entitled Four Elements, with four walls covered in flat ceramic pieces arranged in different configurations with gradual tone changes. She attempts to present a balance and to raise awareness of the environment in their abstraction, "We use these four elements everyday, but we do not realize their significance."

Nitaya Ueareeworakul describes natural conditions—the soul and emotional states of human beings often using body parts, such as faces, eyes, lips and other figurative forms. In her Body and Mind series, Ueareeworakul employs the female figure as a symbol of the human condition, drawing from her experience of working under pressure as an artist, gallery manager (of Studio Xang), and art educator. With brooding colors, her feelings are expressed; the cage of obligations has not been fully escaped. Also involved in exhibition organization, she played a major role in organizing a large women-only group show, Womanifesto, held earlier this year at Concrete House and the Ban Chao Praya exhibition space, which showed the work of many Thai women artists as well as those from outside with connections to Thailand.

Phaptawan Suwannakudt

Also, involved in the organization of Womanifesto, although much more so during its early stages, was Phaptawan Suwannakudt. Addressing more traditional techniques, she has been active as a mural painter, acts as an advisor to her family’s art gallery, Place of Art, as well as more recently pursuing personal work. Born in 1959, daughter of the famous mural painter Paibun Suwannakudt, she learned about painting murals while traveling around with her father, and she continued the family’s painting tradition after his death in 1982. At Womanifesto, Suwannakudt addressed contemporary subject matter with a historical connection in a traditional style in the Nariphan Series. In this work, she reflects on a true story told to her in 1990-1991, while she was working on a mural project in northern Thailand. "A 12 year-old girl, the daughter of a noodle-stall owner, was sold by her own parents to a brothel agent for 3000 baht (approx. US$120). The price was discussed by the parents in comparison to what they received for other goods which they sold in the market. My work tells that the girls are nariphan fruits which have been born from trees nurtured by these age-old beliefs."

With this work, Phaptawan Suwannakudt raises issues of gender, class, and property within Thai society, which continue to this day. Regarding changes in her work, Suwannakudt says, "To date my works deal more with direct experiences in my life rather than with something I have read or with something I have been told. My works have hitherto always told stories straightforwardly to the people. Now my works begin to raise questions." Now residing in Sydney, Australia, Suwannakudt is becoming more active in showing in Australia, but plans to return to Thailand regularly to assist her sister with temple projects.

Performance art

First introduced by male artists in the 1980s, performance art is a relatively new means of expression for Thai women artists who address women’s issues and critique social conditions. Active in Thailand and Japan, Khaisaeng Phanyawatchira, who is in her 40s, explores traditional domestic roles and social issues with her artist husband, Surapol Phanyawatchira. In a performance at Womanifesto, she carried out common household tasks, including cooking and serving food, raising issues of the traditional allocations of roles. Meanwhile, her younger colleague Jittima Pholsawek takes women’s issues out of the home and into society. In Tigering Woman, Pholsawek portrayed a common woman from northern Thailand embattled in a personal crusade—her protest against the construction of a controversial dam project with potentially destructive ecological effects. For this performance, she abstracted the persona of this "heroine" into a "tiger woman," protector of ecology and her local community.