October 9, 2008 / 5:16 AM / 10 years ago

Thai artists find new ways to get political

BANGKOK (Reuters Life!) - Crocodile-headed politicians spewing promises of wealth. Jackals wearing business suits and military uniforms. Lizards sharing a romantic moment in front of assembled members of parliament.

The figures who populate the strikingly colorful paintings by Vasan Sittikhet leave no doubt as to where the irascible artist’s sympathies lie.

A tireless critic of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the 50-year-old has drawn on years of fighting what he sees as injustice to become one of Thailand’s best-known political artists.

“As a citizen we have a responsibility to society. I am a citizen,” the raspy-voiced painter said at a rally for the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), which has vowed to continue its protests until all vestiges of Thaksin’s influence on Thai politics are erased.

Although he has an exhibition in October, Vasan has spent the past 108 days rallying against what he refers to as “the bastard government” led until recently by Samak Sundaravej, who was sacked by the courts for a television cooking show.

Unlike many Thais who see art as a form of expression above social or political commentary, Vasan is among a handful of painters who use their work to protest against what they see as contemporary wrongs.

Their problem is that few curators are keen to show confrontational art in the self-styled “Land of Smiles.”

“There are no galleries devoted to political art,” said Pakorn Klomkliang, exhibition manager at the Queen’s Gallery, which he acknowledges shies away from “sensitive” subjects.

“At the same time, there are not that many political artists. It’s largely a matter of temperament. Art is largely personal. Many artists do not want to exit their personal world, from which they draw inspiration, into the external one.”


Vasan has met his share of obstacles, having once been sued for defamation by Thaksin, who was ousted in a 2006 coup.

In 2005, officials abruptly canceled an exhibition of his paintings, showing leading politicians in provocative poses, at Bangkok’s elite Chulalongkorn University.

“My poems, my art is very rough, very direct,” he said. “It touches people.”

Another artist who has gone against the grain is photographer Manit Sriwanichpoom. Known best for his “Pink Man” series, a critique of the consumerism and globalization changing Thai society, Manit has also used his work to comment on the debilitating effects of apathy in the face of corruption.

“If we have to fight an army, we know how to deal with them,” he said during a break at his gallery. “But fighting against Thaksin requires something incredible.”

After the Samak-led People Power Party won elections last December, he shot a series of photos of dead birds bleeding on the Thai flag. Another series featured students in school uniform hog-tied atop the Thai flag.

The student series was shown in Australia, underscoring a problem Manit has found when looking for space in Thailand.

“When you show political art, it’s very difficult to get a venue. Many venue owners or managers worry about problems being caused,” he said. “I’m still struggling to get a space.”

Manit’s favorite series, titled “Horror in Pink,” superimposes images of his celebrated “Pink Man,” sometimes with pink shopping cart in tow, onto gritty newspaper photographs of hanged, shot or beaten protesters.

“I want my work to be very, very confrontational. If you don’t do that, then you repeat the violence,” he said.

Editing by Miral Fahmy

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