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

Changing attitudes at home and a number of successful national and international exhibitions have produced important changes for women artists in Thailand.

Gridthiya Gaweewong , R. J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art | 8 August 2010
This article was previously published in Asian Art News in November/December 1997, pp. 64-7. Please see the following link which clarifies the authorship of this article.

"It’s not like I have to kill the male!" laughs Pinaree Sanpitak when explaining her work. And neither do other women artists in Thailand, so it would seem looking at women and art in the 1990s. Over the past 25 years, the state of women and art in Thailand has changed drastically, says Somporn Rodboon, professor of Art Theory at Silpakorn University, who has curated shows internationally on Thai modern and contemporary art. "In the 1970s, we hardly saw even one solo exhibition by a [Thai] woman artist. There weren’t many women artists and women themselves didn’t have time to produce the work—family affairs were much more important than anything else. They also didn’t have confidence and weren’t encouraged enough. Some women thought they should have more "credibility" through winning some sort of competition—which they didn’t—and therefore, they weren’t quite sure that people would be interested in their work. Of course financial support was also a concern."

"Since the 1970s there has been a big change—absolutely," says Rodboon, who attributes several reasons for the positive changes for women and art in Thailand in the 1990s: university art programming that encouraged overseas artists to come to Thailand, including overseas women artists who supported and encouraged local artists; an increase in female students enrolling on art courses as art became a more "acceptable" choice; changes within the overall structure of the economy; and the stimulus provided by more Thai women artists being selected to participate in international shows.

Yet, even though there were more artists working professionally during this period, a real women’s art movement never arose to the extent that it had in other parts of the world. A less restrictive tradition and a flexibility within the culture created neither strong tensions nor a strong sense of inequality between women and male artists. Gallery and other exhibition spaces seemed accessible. "We don’t have the really big Mafia—galleries, agents, curators—yet," says Pinaree Sanpitak. "While it’s lacking in some ways, it provides a lot of freedom for artists. This is a male-dominated society, but it’s a balance, not ’equality’."

In fact, women artists have tended to have more support, received good exposure, and have been well-received by the local press. According to Somporn Rodboon; "Wherever women artists show, people like to support them. If problems arise, they often come from the artists themselves." However, younger and emerging artists have encountered difficulty jumping through the first hoop (showing for the first time as a solo artist), whether they are female or male. In this context, Thai women over the past 25 years have carved out a strong position within the art community, which is most evident today.

In the 1970s, two women were awarded government scholarships to study in the United States; Somporn Rodboon for Art Education and artist Kanya Charoensupakul. Both have since attained influential positions at Silpakorn University, which has the most established art school in the country. In addition to acting as Silpakorn’s "international art representative," Rodboon has been active on the curatorial front over the years when Thai art has been included in various shows, most recently in The Birth of Modern Art in Southeast Asia: Artists and Movements at the Fukuoka Art Museum in Japan.

Meanwhile, Kanya Charoensupakul’s position and technique have been influential. Essentially a printmaker whose work also includes painting and installation, she was the first person who set up a lithograph studio at Silpakorn which allowed the knowledge of this process to be spread in Thailand.