- In recent decades, Thailand’s art scene has seen a decline in male dominance and the emergence of a small yet influential clutch of female curators. Who are they? What drives them? And what are their views on the state of exhibition-making in the Kingdom today? Their backgrounds, approaches and opinions vary, yet all are too absorbed in the moment to worry much about gender politics or how level the playing field is or isn’t. As Wonderfruit festival’s Bow Nikan Wasinondh puts it: “There are more worrying issues, such as challenges in getting proper support for the arts, art education and the collection of contemporary Thai art.”
“It’s not a gender thing – it’s more of a generation clash thing.” If anyone is qualified to parse the shifting dynamics of Thailand’s contemporary art scene it’s Gridthiya Gaweewong, the long-serving artistic director of the Jim Thompson Art Centre. Looking back on the 1990s, she identifies the emergence of alternative art spaces, including her own Project 304, as the moment when strong-willed female Thai curators first emerged. “All were female-run,” she says. “It was interesting to see things slowly tilt towards women who had entered the scene.”
Today, Gridthiya is one of the region’s top curators and respected for her accomplishments, such as the acclaimed Apichatpong Weerasethakul retrospective Serenity of Madness and a section at the last Gwangju Biennale, as her uncompromising, issue-based focus. “I know where I stand: on the borders, in the margins,” she says of her love of work that pairs subversive political content with aesthetics. She first found herself drawn to socio-politics in the late 80s and early 90s, whilst working in Thai refugee camps, and began highlighting marginal stories and voices – engaging in what arts writer Maura Reilly calls “curatorial activism” – in the late 90s, on returning from her studies in Chicago.
In retrospect, she wishes there had been a local route for learning her craft. “I wish I hadn’t studied in Chicago. It didn’t work,” she says. “Every country is totally different, context-wise. You really need to understand things like the infrastructure, the politics, the policy and the mentality of the philanthropy.” Outside of her role at Jim Thompson Art Centre, which will reopen next year in a new building, she is in the early stages of trying to create an international curatorial practice programme at Chulalongkorn University. “I think it’s important for the region, not only Thailand,” she says. “As we’ve seen recently, there is an emergence of art institutions, museums and biennales, but the problem is we don’t have enough human resources. This is a crisis.”
If you’ve been to the Bangkok Art & Culture Centre (BACC) in the last 10 years, chances are you’ve experienced the considered curation of Pichaya Aime Suphavanij. Shows bearing her hallmarks – an interest in challenging the conventions of exhibition-making and expanding art beyond the old gallery-based parameters – have ranged from experimental sound projects to large-scale shows by international names such as Erwin Wurm and Huang Yong Ping.
Her role there was, essentially, two jobs in one. In her dual capacities as both a BACC curator and head of exhibitions, she could be making tough policy decisions or dealing with stakeholders one day, proposing concepts for new shows or liaising with artists the next. During these years, funding was a constant concern, she recalls, much as it still is today. “We had to find ways to make things happen,” she says of the highly politicised situation there.
Now, however, that hornet’s nest is behind her. Having resigned in late 2018, Aime is currently looking for new challenges. “I did about 100 exhibitions in the past 10 years at BACC and it got to the point where I could visualise them straight away,” she says. “Now I’m looking to do projects I cannot visualise the end of.” However, while she plans to escape the confines of the four-walled gallery environment, she still wants to stay close to the general public. “I can’t see myself in a gallery working with avant garde concepts and a small audience,” she says. “When you work with the public you see them as an art in itself. It’s amazing.”
Aime, whose background is in museum planning and design, thinks curators still have some way to go before their vocation is taken seriously in Thailand. Yet these are, in her eyes, still exciting times to be one. “Thai society has changed so much that even artists who created work for me are experiencing a cultural lag,” she says. “They’re behind the audience. This is the first time in 10 years that I found art couldn’t keep up with reality.”
For insight into what drives independent curator Loredana Pazzini-Paracciani, look no further than Diaspora: Exit, Exile, Exodus of Southeast Asia, an exhibition now on at Chiang Mai’s MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum. Touching on personal tales of migration and exploitation, and themes as wide ranging as the politicisation of Muslim identities and generations-old border disputes, this deeply researched group show puts her interests front and centre.
At its crux is a desire to spark conversations that might be brushed under the carpet otherwise. “Diaspora is such a huge topic and it really touches on the life of everybody no matter where you’re from or where you’re going,” she says, “and it’s also a very difficult topic to speak about because there are so many political undertones. Art is one way to deal with these topics – it’s important that it’s used in this way I think.”
Loredana grew up in Northern Italy, surrounded by social realist oil paintings by her great grandfather. His work “was about life in the countryside and workers, the rural economy,” she says. Looking back, she believes these paintings may have subliminally helped shape her career path. However, it was her time in Southeast Asia, where she has lived for 15 years and continues to conduct her research, that sealed her interest in this part of the world.
Currently pursuing her second Master’s degree, this one at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, Loredana has, through her steely determination and outgoing personality, steadily built on her humble beginnings as a volunteer guide at the Singapore Art Museum. A natural networker, she’s as comfortable forging relationships with anthropologists, historians or ethnographers as she is chewing the fat with artists. Understanding the nuances of each exhibition space, how they do things, is another aspect of the job she relishes, as is continuously expanding her knowledge. “The more research and more conversations I’m exposed to the more it is reflected in – and improves – my work.”
A modular wood music stage made for climbing as well as dancing. A fantastical bamboo palace layered with rice stalks. Imagined figures dancing in the trees. Welcome to the mind-expanding world of Wonderfruit, as conceived by Bow Nikan Wasinondh.
“It is like imagining a world where the arts take the lead,” she says of her year-round art curator role at Pattaya’s avowedly ethical celebration of arts, food, music and unchecked hedonism. “I work on approaches and a program of projects that varies wildly between art, architecture and design, and often blend them into each other.” With the tenets of sustainability driving the festival’s radical yet organic philosophy, much of her work entails fostering relationships with like-minded people and working closely with them as they go about creating on-site installations out of natural, reclaimed or innovative materials.
Trained in the visual arts, design and Asian art history, Bow began her curatorial career in Thailand in 2010 with a co-director role at BKK Arthouse, a not-for-profit art space in a glass-walled room on the third floor of the BACC. Here she curated art, design and performance art exhibitions, many of which explored her interest in tactile and text-based works. Then came independent projects with various artists and cultural institutions, followed by, in 2014, the Wonderfruit role.
How does curating for an outdoor festival differ from a white cube? “It’s a different ball game altogether,” she says. “When you’re creating in the open-air there are literally no boundaries, yet it is the most humbling experience.” Once erected in the grounds of The Fields at Siam Country Club, amid unstable spatial conditions, each of Wonderfruit’s architectural and installation marvels becomes “intrinsically equal with nature – land, weather, living creatures,” she says. “You will never have ultimate control of the work, and only once that is recognised and embraced can the art really excel.”