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Phaptawan Suwannakudt received her training, not in the academy, but over a difficult twelve-year apprenticeship to her father , the renowned mural artist Paiboon Suwanannakudt or Tan Kudt. Since his death she has achieved something like celebrity status in her own right in Thailand for her leadership of the Tan Kudt Group which, under her direction, has carried out a number of prestigious temple and hotel mural projects, and has enjoyed the patronage of, amongst others, the Thai Crown Princess.
The works on canvas, silk and tracing paper exhibited at Sherman Galleries Hargrave leave us in no doubt that Suwannakudt is a masterful inheritor of the tradition of Thai sacred art. All of the works take Buddhist allegories as their subject matter, and strongly reference the artist's practice as a temple painter. This is true particularly of the monumental Buddha's Lives and His Enlightenment Screen, which is a scaled-down version of a temple mural scheme. A viewing of Suwannakudt's work is not limited however to the esoteric pleasures of an iconographic reading. In her hands the form and content of traditional Thai devotional art do not ossify, but are subject to an innovation and critical reinterpretation which make her work anything but static.
Relegated as a novice to washing brushes and palettes, Suwannakudt found her first creative outlet in clandestine experiments with colour. Here she was perhaps inspired by her father, who had refused to be bound by the conventional wisdom regarding the juxtaposition of colours. Tan Kudt found his paints in unusual places, at one stage using car paint pigments bought in Bangkok's Chinatown. We should not be surprised then that Phaptawan Suwannakudt's palette references not a staid traditionalism, but in its intensity and polyphony evokes Thai popular art genres, such as movie posters, conjuring up the cacophonous, fluorescent modernity of the Bangkok streetscape.
Suwannakudt takes a similarly heterodox approach to subject matter. Her illustrations of Buddhist tales are not merely neutral retellings, but are informed by a critical feminist reading of these largely patriarchal narratives. The 'Nariphon' series references the Thai Buddhist myth of the 'girl-fruit' that are said to grow in the mythical Himaphan forests and must be picked while ripe lest they rot. The artist was inspired to paint this series while working on a mural project in Phayao, Northern Thailand. There she was told the story of how the twelve year-old daughter of a
local family was sold into prostitution for a mere 3,000 Baht ($120 US). In the bargaining between the girl's parents and the brothel agent, the price was determined by reference to the value of other goods sold on the market. I Here Suwannakudt finds in the sacred myths of a premodern Thai patriarchy an analogy for the dehumanising, objectifying power of the modern capitalist market in Thailand. For me this is an exemplary moment in her work in that it sets up a tension and dialogue between Thai tradition and modernity, text and practice, and religious and secular life.
The subtleties of Suwannakudt's work have not always been appreciated. In Thailand, she has had to resist being categorised as 'traditional', and has consistently refused to be incorporated in the tourism-driven art market for 'authentic' cultural artefacts. Neither has she fitted comfortably into the Thai contemporary art scene, with its privileging of the visual grammars of Western modernity. Her strategy has been to evade this binary logic by exhibiting in women's exhibitions such as Womanifesto and Tradisexion in alternative spaces such as Bangkok's Concrete House. From these margins she has forced an entry on her own terms into the Thai art establishment.
Suwannakudt's entry into the field of contemporary Australian art seems destined to be an equally difficult one. Despite her seniority and status in Thailand, she has been presented (and priced) as a 'young artist' in Australia. One wonders if an artist of similar stature coming from Europe or North America would get this same treatment. Further, as evidenced in Edmund Capon's address at the opening of the show, Suwannakudt has not been able to escape being immediately absorbed into an Australian discourse on 'Asian art', thus being constituted as supplementary to or exotic within a mainstream field of contemporary Australian art. One has to fear that this recoding will close off interpretive possibilities, forcing Suwannakudt's work either into a reading whereby it will be idealised as the authentic expression of a traditional cultural identity untainted by modernisation, or dismissed as 'not radical enough' as a dissident critique of a statist, normative and gendered modern Thai national identity. Neither of these readings however is sufficient to appreciate the complexity of Suwannakudt's pursuit of a contemporary Thai art from within the resources of a non-Western sacred tradition. This is not to say that the possibility of an ongoing engagement with art from the region is so hopelessly fraught that Suwannakudt cannot be 'understood' in Australia, but rather that in the process of pursuing that all-important engagement we are obliged to question reflexively the assumptions and institutional practices around 'Asian art'.
I. Lindy Lee (1999) 'Picturing the Sun: the paintings of Phaptawan Suwannakudt'. Phaptawan Suwannakudt and John Clark (1999) Explanatory notes for works by Phaptawan Suwannakudt for exhibition at Shenman Galleries, Hargrave
Street, Sydney, 21 July-21 August 1999. Unpublished.