Contemporary art from Thailand’s violence-ravaged Deep South can open conversations and challenge stereotypes about the impoverished region, practitioners say.
That’s what prompted a recent exhibition at a Bangkok gallery with seven artists from the southern border region: helping people in the nation’s capital see how different life is in the predominantly Muslim and Malay border region, which harbors an insurgency.
“The idea is to showcase the works of the marginalized and increase understanding of the issues affecting people in the restless Deep South,” said Thai art collector Voravuj Sujjaporamest, owner of VS Gallery.
“People in Bangkok have a negative bias against southern Thailand, even though most haven’t visited the place or met the people.”
Jehabdulloh Jehsorhoh, one of the artists showcasing his work, was an art student at Prince of Songkla University in January 2004 when the insurgency resumed when the separatist group Barisan Revolusi Nasional launched an attack on security installations and seized weapons.
Three months later, the army killed more than 30 militants locked up in a historic mosque in Pattani, while in October of the same year a demonstration in nearby Narathiwat turned violent and dozens of detained protesters died of asphyxiation while that they were being transported to a military camp.
Since then, more than 7,300 people have been killed and 13,500 injured, according to Deep South Watch, a local think tank.
In 2012, prompted by these events, Jehabdulloh created Patani Artspace, a 10-member gallery in the Deep South.
“I founded it because of the incidents in 2004. I saw the need to create a space for conversations between locals and visitors using contemporary art,” he said, adding that most people think of art in the Deep South as purely functional, like batik cloth or traditional Kolae boat painting.
Today, Jehabdulloh is an associate professor at his alma mater and regularly travels across the country to explain what it’s like to be from the Deep South to help people better understand the region.
In August, Patani Artspace is hosting the region’s first multi-city contemporary art exhibition where more than 50 Southeast Asian artists will showcase their work.
The Deep South encompasses the provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala as well as four districts of Songkhla province.
Pattani and Narathiwat are the poorest provinces in the country, with poverty rates of 34.2% and 34.17%, respectively, according to a 2019 World Bank report, compared to a national rate of 6%.
“Most Thai people never dare to visit these areas, not only because of the distance but because of rumors about incidents of violence, as well as the cultural and religious difference with the rest of the country,” Voravuj told BenarNews.
“These reasons marginalize them politically and culturally. During this time, people in the Deep South had to learn to care for themselves with a strong sense of cultural identity to combat alienation.
Jehabdulloh said artists in the Deep South face two main challenges. The first is economic, because “the power of the artistic industry is centralized in Bangkok”.
The second is content, because much of the art in the Deep South “doesn’t sit well with the government because we present the truth, especially human rights issues, the stories of injustice that have happened in the regions and violence”.
He said security forces have visited Artspace frequently and although they have never shut down an exhibit, the exchanges have been mostly negative.
“We weren’t threatened, but the authorities were applying psychological tactics with us… asking us why we’re working on certain issues – why aren’t we drawing beautiful flowers? said Jehabdulloh.
Below is a selection of artwork from the Deep South on display at VS Gallery in June:
Jehabdulloh’s seven life-size shooting targets made of rusty zinc sheet metal on wood with a silhouette of a standing man with boots, tanks and weapons next to his head show the injustice and oppression due to all-pervasive power in a safe state.
Galvanized sheets, commonly used to build houses and sheds, represent grassroots people and their values. The messages of the work are inspired by the Bahasa Melayu Patani language.
Artist Pichet Piaklin glued .45 and 9mm caliber brass shells onto wooden poles to show that peace “can only exist because there are wars”.
“Peace in the human imagination is but a dream, like a mere temporary truce. Conversely, wars exist endlessly in every corner of the world,” he said.
“Suffering in Patani”
Muhammadsuriyee Mosu created a series of patterned prints of Javan doves with red string attached to parts of their bodies “to reflect the sentiment of citizens in areas subject to emergency acts and martial law”.
“Special laws never make the situation better or more peaceful for the people but allow many people to be arrested and tortured for confessing,” Mosu said.
Korakot Sangnoy used Indian ink, acrylic and gold leaf on a giant canvas to create an image of hundreds of kneeling people bearing a giant foot. The artist said he depicts the oppression caused by people in power manipulating, monitoring and getting rid of anyone who stands up and asks questions.
“Many people have surrendered to the power that dominates their thoughts and beliefs,” he said. “This thing exists through strict rule enforcement and corrupt trickery to control their lives and minds.”
As a child, Wanmuhaimin E-taela attended Tadika, a religious primary school that receives no government support. His display included torn textbooks, a blackboard, a dilapidated desk and a bench to showcase the role of Thai nationalism in creating a unique national identity at the expense of other ethnic, religious and cultural identities, including the Malay-speaking Muslims of the Deep South.
Muhammadtoha Hajiyugot’s print shows Michelangelo’s David and Venus de Milo wearing sarong and batik fabrics to depict the impact of technology changing society, particularly the influence of social media and pop culture who rule the world.
With freehand sketches and the use of geometric lines that penetrate the statues, Muhammadtoha said he questions the Thai-Malay people about the impact of pop culture on daily life, faith and society.
Esuwan Chali carves reptile shapes, a symbol of bad luck in Thailand, onto the insoles of everyday clothing in a video installation behind rubber sandals that visitors are asked to wear. The artist said it shows the trauma of oppressed and exploited people being trampled on by the authorities.
Nontarat Phaicharoen and Pimuk Rakkanam in Bangkok contributed to this report. All photos by BenarNews.