Illusions of Liberty
12 February 2017
Meaningfully mixing classical elements from Thai culture with inspirations and icons from the West, Jirapat Tatsanasomboon’s work obviously questions globalisation, but mainly focuses on the contradictions and biases of its own society.
Born in 1971 in Samut Prakarn and now settled in Chiang Mai, where he studied fine arts for 5 years before completing his Master’s Degree at Silapakorn University in 1999, Jirapat Tatsanasomboon is one of Thailand’s leading artists, the only one to be featured in the famous Thames & Hudson book: 100 Painters of Tomorrow. Jirapat’s works display interactions between Thai and Western culture and his quest for liberty has nowadays moved from a collective to a more individual perspective, thus being more universal, addressing more directly the problems of social inequalities and democracy, freedom of expression and morality in politics.
In his new solo show (extended until April) at YenakArt Villa, in Bangkok, he unveils 22 paintings never shown before,in his very recognizable iconographic style, made of bright colors and references to pop-art, transposing traditional Thai figures into Western culture, and vice versa.
The artist is well known for his graphic cocktails, bringing together superheroes and comic characters like Batman or Mickey Mouse with iconic figures of Thai classical culture such as Hanuman or Nonthok, blending old-fashioned Thai style with contemporary art, famous paintings from Western Masters with Eastern patterns, or confronting ancient visuals with modern icons, like Doraemon upon a Buddhist temple’s fresco.
In recent series, the artist has become more political than ever, reinterpreting the story of Nonthok from the Thai national epic Ramakien and bringing such issues as classes, integrity and abuse of power, to the forefront.
The artist’s re-reading of this politically loaded subplot of the Ramakien focuses on the mind and desires of the servant turned enraged demon Nonthok, who is later reincarnated as the 10-faced Thotsakan (Ravana), the arch-rival of Phra Ram (Rama). This makes the series not only relevant to the on-going political crisis in Thailand, but also universally.
Jirapat, how did your style grow up?
My idea was to start with something excessively Thai and as I am a great cinema fan and superheroes collector since my youngest age, I have found my own style in this blend of antic side, very ancient things from Thailand, with modern masterpieces from international artists. Non only comics, but for instance stuff from Andy Warhol, who for me is the Pope of Pop. The aim was to obtain something very modern and my various influences quite naturally came up.
What do you answer those who reproach you to copying?
I found these critics rather shallow. None of this is new and to me artists have always drawn their inspiration from their masters… In fact, I draw my inspiration from the artwork of artists I pay homage to, but I also take a deep interest in their private life before starting to paint. For example, Picasso was a womanizer, like Hanuman. That’s why I put Picasso’s women in the harms of Hanuman. Keith Haring was gay, then I created a painting showing a Thai male… I always insert some part of the international masters’ real life in my pictures. Van Gogh cut off his own ear for a courtesan. In one of my paintings, Hanuman sticks it back.
Is it just an aesthetic stance or is there a concern about cultural relationships, globalization? This idea of Western culture kind of replacing the classical Thai culture?
In fact, I started very early to speak about globalization. Now, I have this feeling it is happening, and it has to. Of course I ask questions, there are always hidden messages in my work, either about politics, sexuality, gender problem, or just the fundamentals of humanity…
But these days I am more concerned by Thailand’s inner context, I rather ask myself which Ramakien character I am going to use to represent this or that category of person in Thai society. My main source of inspiration remains the Ramakien, which in a way is very conservative, but also reveals itself completely universal. Every civilisation has a Nonthok, a figure so ugly it frightens and gives the impression he’s mean. At first he is a victim, then he changes with the power he is given and becomes the persecutor. Through this parable, I strive to denounce the injustice in our society.
Do you still get criticism because of your use of Ramakien?
I clearly explained the character of the icon that I used from Ramakien so most of Thai peoples understand it right away. Most foreigners don’t know the characters of Ramakien, we need to explain the identities of Eastern and Western traditions and the way I try to blend it to become harmony.
For some, it is a kind of sacrilege, isn’t it?
Absolutely, because it is linked to spirituality. These images are mural paintings you can see in temples. Some assert I sell off Thai culture, but the reality is that I deeply cherish the Ramakien. In the beginning, I thought that I needed to be extremely provocative to be noticed… In the past, I could not draw a Doraemon in a temple, it would have raised a scandal. That is, however, the kind of things that made me famous. Today, even the monks do like it, there has been a real change. And I have been using Ramakien since BA degree, so people now recognize my work, it’s like a trademark.
Do you think there has been a recent evolution in the field of arts in Thailand?
Yes, as we can see obviously that many galleries close down because of the economy and technology, etc. That allows
the collectors to reach and talk to artists directly. About art in Thailand, it moves forward into a good way. For instance, we are going to have such an event as the Bangkok Art Biennale.