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 (with mention of Kanya Charoensupakul, Gridthiya Gaweewong, Sriwan Janehuttakarnkit, Helen Michaelson, Varsha Nair, Khaisaeng Phanyawatchira, Jittima Pholsawek, Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, Somporn Rodboon, Pinaree Sanpitak, Surojana Sethabutra, Phaptawan Suwannakudt, Atsuko Suzuki-Davies, Sermsuk Tiensoonthorn, Nitaya Ueareeworakul, and Meo Yipintsoi.)

Gridthiya Gaweewong , R. J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art | 8 August 2010 | Updated 4 April 2019
This article was previously published in Asian Art News in November/December 1997, pp. 64-7.

"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.

Specializing in monoprints, Kanya Charoensupakul has had a great influence on a number of printmakers in Thailand. For subjects in her earlier work, she started making personal, soul-searching statements combining calligraphy and Abstract Expressionism. Inspired by her experience in Japan in the early 1980s while on a Japan Foundation grant, she developed an appreciation for Zen gardens, and approached nature as a subject more directly, which has continued as an important theme in her work throughout the decade. Yet in the 1990s she became drawn to social issues. In response to the May 1992 crisis, when the military shot protesters calling for an end to the military government, she was inspired to make Flag: 17-20 May 1992 (1992). She explains; "At that time, the government censored everything and the public didn’t know what was happening. Word only traveled by word of mouth."

With this work, she painted four flags— a symbol of nationalism used by protesters before democracy in Thailand. Made on paper, she pressed them together creating eight as a critique of the military’s role and symbolic gesture to demonstrate public means of communication in response to censorship.

Second wave of Thai women artists

Another artist to make a strong influence on the Thai art scene, as part of a "second wave", is Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook. She has been influential to other artists in her participation in major international shows, most recently Traditions/Tensions. A resident of Chiang Mai, Rasdjarmrearnsook has concentrated on gender and social issues. In the 1980s she focused on etchings, while in the 1990s, after reflecting on her visual experience during her study in Germany, she began to focus on installation and sculpture. Family loss has been a recurring theme, often expressed in her work by isolated and dark figures. Over the past few years Rasdjarmrearnsook has embraced the topic of female prostitution, a surprisingly taboo subject in Thailand. However, in her most recent work, she addresses themes about loneliness, insecurity, and identity through a combination of found household objects and life-size, full-bodied clay sculpture.

Two of Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’s contemporaries to emerge at roughly the same time are Sriwan Janehuttakarnkit and Sermsuk Tiensoonthorn, who have chosen painting as their principal means of expression. Janehuttakarnkit, originally a printmaker, addresses subjects from natural sources, such as landscapes and seascapes and architectural forms. According to the artist, her abstract watercolors combine the influence of Chinese landscapes and Western artists such as Paul Klee, and Joan Miro, yet put in her unique "Thai-Chinese accent." Her work reflects a certain complexity, as shown with the relationship from background to foreground, as demonstrated in Summer of Color (1997). Meanwhile, Sermsuk Tiensoonthorn has had a diverse career. In her early work, she airbrushed canvases with nighttime scenes depicting high technology and modern society in strong color contrasts. In her more recent work, she has demonstrated her fascination with nature and seasonal change, which she experienced as a student in Japan, and also daytime scenes and personal journeys.

Third wave

Pinaree Sanpitak’s time studying in Japan had a significant impact on her young career; [she’s part of] a "third wave" of women’s art in Thailand since the 1980s. Her subjects include eggs, breasts, her pregnancy, squashes, and cows (she was born in the Year of the Cow). Presented in a play between abstraction, representation, and non-representation, she works in a variety of media: photography, collages, mixed-media paintings, and recently sculpture, as illustrated in her most recent show, Eggs, Breasts, Bodies, I etcetera. In an earlier work, Sweet Breast (1994), Sanpitak isolates and monumentalizes the breast into a stupa form: "I am always looking for forms to express personal symbols and symbols of women." Earlier in the 1990s, Pinaree Sanpitak also ran a gallery, Silom Art Space, with her husband, artist Chatchai Puipia.

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.

Other cultural influences

While Thai women artists have made great strides over the past three decades, development has not occurred in a Thai national vacuum. As Bangkok and Chiang Mai can be places where foreign arts professionals spend significant periods of time, input from outside has been important. Varsha Nair, an Indian painter and printmaker, has been actively involved with supporting various exhibitions and artistic activities, such as the Maga City Project in 1996 and Womanifesto the following year. In her art work, she approaches figurative female forms reflecting dualities of women in Hindu culture. Helen Michaelson, a German woman raised in Thailand, and professor of Art History at Chiang Mai University, has been active in curating a variety of alternative shows including One day of my life in a box in 1996 in Bangkok and Deserted and Embraced in August 1997 in Chiang Mai. Art gallery owner, Atsuko Suzuki-Davies has opened her gallery to a small number of Thai female artists, most recently Nitaya Ueareeworakul, as well as an unexpected show of landscape paintings by the usually social-political artist Vasan Sitthiket.

Art administration

Sparking fire on the art scene,a younger generation of women have created and gained art administration roles. Over the past year, two spaces have opened reflecting a new phase and added diversity to the art scene in Bangkok. Project 304, headed by [co-author Gridthiya] "Jeab" Gaweewong, is an alternative space devoted to presenting multi-disciplinary work including performance, film, video, and more traditional media. This space has provided strong discussions in the Bangkok art community in its attempts to challenge the local audience. Meanwhile, with partner, Noppadon Kaosamang, Meo Yipintsoi has generated excitement with the opening of the two spaces, About Photography Gallery, and About Cafe. Each space has a different vision: the Gallery focuses on photography, which is a relatively new art form in Bangkok, and the Cafe offers artist talks, performances, films, art and design-oriented shows, in addition to food and drinks. Her intention is to bring more people to art. "Within one show we try to deal with all sorts of audiences with all sorts of backgrounds," she says. "If you generate enough of a general audience, art is more meaningful, not only to the artists and those who already appreciate it, but to society as a whole and they will see it as something really important." Also, earlier this year, Luckana Kunavichayanont was hired as manager of the high-profile Tadu Contemporary Art and recently presented a significant show of current works by Kamin Lertchaiprasert in Normal and Nature.

Yet with success and opportunity, there have been setbacks amidst the well-documented economic difficulties affecting Thailand this year. Over the summer, the Western art-oriented Galerie Kyoko Chirathivat, which had put on important shows for Bangkok featuring the work of Ross Bleckner, Julian Schnabel, and Francesco Clemente, abruptly closed and left a void in the scene difficult to fill.

While Thailand may be experiencing the growing pains of an aspiring Asian tiger economy, it is encouraging for Thailand’s women artists and art professionals to know that their male-dominated society can provide opportunities for professional advancement at the end of the century. Is the chapter closed? Almost certainly not, but women artists and art professionals are not complaining.

Researchers please note that within editorial processes during the previous publication of this article, Gridthiya Gaweewong was mistakenly deleted as a co-author— and this error has traveled into indexing of this article in referencing resources. Gridthiya was an instrumental part of developing this article and should receive credit for her co-authorship in future referencing. If there are any questions, feel free to contact either Gridthiya directly or In fact, this experience is just one example showing how incorporating a critical media analysis approach can provide a richer understanding of texts that we read on art and design.