Amid Repression, Art Scene in Thailand’s Capital Blooms

A woman uses a torch light to see an exhibition by artist Jirawut Ueasungkomsate at a gallery in Bangkok, Thailand, March 4, 2016. State repression has unleashed a wave of artistic expression, say artists and art lovers, and the Thai capital's art scene is blooming in response to life under junta rule. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

By Amy Sawitta Lefevre

BANGKOK, March 8 – On a wall in a northern suburb of Bangkok “Asin Acid” puts the finishing touches to a spray-painted picture of a colourful giant chicken holding a broken loudspeaker.

“The loudspeaker represents the media. The media is trying to say something but is being interrupted,” said Asin, who uses a pseudonym for his street art to protect his identity and said he is inspired by Cranio, a graffiti artist from Brazil.

“The rainbow colours represent freedom,” he said.

Thailand’s military seized power nearly two years ago and has censored media, hauled in hundreds of critics for sessions of “attitude adjustment” and snuffed out protests.

Junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha has threatened to shut down news outlets critical of his government and regularly scolds journalists who he considers straying from the official line.

But state repression has unleashed a wave of artistic expression, say artists and art lovers, and the Thai capital’s art scene is blooming in response to life under junta rule.

“It’s because they can’t talk about it that they’re creating,” said Gili Back, a cafe and gallery owner, referring to Bangkok’s artists.

“You’ll see a lot more graffiti and street art where people are having their say on walls.”

Bangkok’s art scene has traditionally been overlooked in favour of places like Hong Kong but in recent years venues have mushroomed with Thai and expatriate artists turning shop houses and disused spaces into galleries.

On a recent Friday night a crowd packed into a room at the WTF Bar and Gallery to see ‘This is Not a Political Act’ by Jirawut Ueasungkomsate, an exhibition on cases of enforced disappearance that have taken place under successive governments.

In the pitch-black room audience members shine flashlights on black and white photographs of people, including prominent rights activists, whose whereabouts are not known.

Though not a direct commentary on the junta, it speaks about the impunity enjoyed by state officials, said Jirawut, adding that he was initially scared about holding the exhibition.

The junta, formally known as the National Council for Peace and Order, has shut down some political lectures and talks.

“It is because I am afraid that I have to do it,” said Jirawut.

At ‘The Respectables’, an exhibition by British artist Richard Mead, paintings – of fashion models, the media and political protests – depict different forms of power.

“The theme of power and ‘The Respectables’ really goes with the context of Thailand right now. Especially with the type of government we are under,” said Teerapa Pirohakul, an art lover and history lecturer at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.

Across town, as his exhibition fills with the after-work crowd, Jirawut reflects on the city’s art scene.

“No matter whether we are under a military or a civilian government we need this space,” he said.

“Society cannot exist if everyone thinks the same.”

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