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  World   Asia  28 May 2024  Lekha Shankar | Thailand biennale’s multi-ethnic vibes

Lekha Shankar | Thailand biennale’s multi-ethnic vibes

Published : May 29, 2024, 12:05 am IST
Updated : May 29, 2024, 10:38 am IST

Indian photographer Pablo Bartholomew’s arresting installation is all about the Chakmas

A poster of the Thai biennale at Chiangrai airport. (Image: Lekha Shankar)
 A poster of the Thai biennale at Chiangrai airport. (Image: Lekha Shankar)

The third Thailand biennale concluded in the northern Thai town of Chiangrai after winning rave reviews from international artists, gallery heads and art lovers.

“We’ll be talking about this exceptional event for years to come,” said Kathleen Ditzig, curator of Singapore’s National Gallery.

It was exceptional, because the exhibits centered on the social, cultural and geological heritage of the 700-year-old town. Once a kingdom, Chiangrai’s location today remains unique; it has the great river Mekong connecting it to the neighboring countries of Laos, Myanmar and China. This is the region known as the Golden Triangle, once famed for its opium trade. It is also the home of many unique tribes.

All these form the subjects of the artworks at Thailand Biennale.

Taiwanese artist Michael Lin painted the outside facade of the old City Hall with the textile colours and patterns of the hill tribes of the Golden Triangle. Singaporean artist Ho Tzu  Nyen made a brilliant film on the opium trade. Tcheu Siong of Laos, who hails from the Hmong community, recreated the colourful patterns and images of her tribal background.

Indian artist Pablo Bartholomew created waves with his two-piece installation entitled Weaving Chakma, which consisted of photographs and the weaves of the Chakma community in India, Bangladesh and Myanmar. But his methodology was unique.

According to him, “These communities wear their cultural DNA through their clothing, ornaments and markings on their bodies — codes that they keep as a form of self-identity.” His work replicated these patterns through a scientific laboratory method called gel electrophoresis.

To quote him, “It’s a collaborative project. I sat with the weavers and showed them what gel electrophoresis looks like, and got them to adapt, break away from their traditional weaving methods and weave their imaged DNA for me.”  He was also excited that one of his master weavers had won the Padma Shri this year!

Pablo focused specifically on the indigenous tribes located between Tripura in northeast India, the Chittagong hill tracts in Bangladesh and Rakhine in Myanmar.

Artistic director of the Chiangrai Biennale, Gridthiya Gaweewong, said that she saw Weaving Chakma first in Bangladesh in 2018 and then in Dubai in 2020. She felt that they matched wonderfully with the multi-ethnic vision of the biennale.

Pablo stated that he enjoyed the Thailand biennale because he has “always been very interested in the issues of ethnic tribes, minorities and migration”.  After all, his father who originally came from Myanmar was from the Mon community, and his mother, who is part-Bengali, is connected to the Chakmas by marriage.  Prior to the Chakma project between 1989 and 2000, Pablo had worked with the Naga tribe.

Totally different in subject and style was the work of Navin Rawanchaikul, of Indo-Pakistani origin, which is influenced by the colours and style of Bollywood film posters. Navin’s parents migrated to Thailand during the Partition. All his works are billboard-style images of people, and he describes himself as a story- teller recounting the history of communities.

For the Chiangrai biennale, Navin spent six months travelling down the Mekong, meeting various tribal communities, including the reclusive Shan people of Myanmar. He made a documentary of all these meetings and also created a huge painting of their myriad faces, tastefully placed on the banks of the Mekong. In an earlier exhibition at Bangkok, which was on the Thai-Indian community, the artist painted a huge billboard-style painting of the faces of the 500 families he met there.

Navin who has held exhibitions around the world informed us that one of his most interesting shows was at Mumbai’s Saakshi Gallery. Entitled Navin of Bollywood, he painted the faces of the many individuals who had the same name as himself. They included a tailor, a taxi driver, an extra on a film set and others.

Pablo Bartholomew's 'Weaving Chakmas'. (Image: Pablo Bartholomew)

The artist, who is married to a Japanese woman, said like him his daughter is influenced by her Indian heritage. She studied Indian art for her bachelor’s degree and, since visiting the Kochi biennale, has developed an interest in studying South Indian art for her master’s. With the multi-religious ethos in Chiangrai, one was excited to see the image of Ganesha (known as Phra Ganith in Thai) at various venues.

The largest Ganesh image was at the international meditation centre where Chiangrai’s well-known artist Songdej Thipthong created a marvelous paper-installation called Sanctuary around the giant images of Ganesh and Buddha.

At the Legend Resort Hotel, where I stayed, general manager Eric Halin (who was general manager for several years of the Indian-owned Rembrandt Hotel in Bangkok), informed us this installation became a curiosity amongst the Indian tourists who stayed here. One was happy to see a variety of Ganesh images at other venues, too, including at an open-air pavilion of Thai artists in the new Chiangrai International Art Museum.

The 200 million-baht biennale had as many as 61 artists from 21 countries, 31 pavilions and boasted of as many as 151 collateral events. There were lectures, panel discussions, workshops and participatory events almost every day. A popular participatory event was the kite flying session of the cut-out images of the participants, created by famed Japanese artist Shimabuku and his team. I thoroughly enjoyed this myself.

There were music, dance and even film screenings at the film auditorium in the new museum. In fact, a Cannes award-winning Thai director, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and Hollywood actress Tilda Swinton held an event there during the opening ceremony.

The opening and closing ceremonies were presided over by the Thai Prime Minister and Thai culture minister. All eyes will now be on the next Thailand Biennale at Phuket in 2025.

Will the tourist haven of Thailand be then converted to an art haven like Chiangrai?

Tags: bangkok art biennale, thailand, mekong river