Known internationally for artworks that speak about his origins, identity and cultural convergence, half-Thai-half Indian artist Navin Rawanchaikul is going beyond self-discovery in a new community-based project in Thailand’s deep south.
The OK Nakorn - Singora Diary project has taken him to the southern province of Songkhla where he is reviving the city’s old town with his signature old-fashioned movie billboard, monochrome mural, video installation and music video that connect art easily with the community members.
“When I started on the project last year, the community members kept asking what I was doing here – a place in which I have no history. But I see similarities between the mixed cultures of this old town area and Chiang Mai’s Warorot market where I grew up. The old historical buildings of these two communities are also being destroyed by new developers,” says Navin who represented Thailand at the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011.
His family runs a fabric shop named OK in Warorot market – a mixed community that boasts a Chinese shrine, Sikh and Buddhist temples, a mosque and a Catholic Church. His father is an Indian who was born in Lampang and his mother a Hindu Punjabi, yet Navin speaks to them in the northern Khammuang dialect. If that were not confusing enough, the 45-year-old artist divides his time between Chiang Mai and his home in Fukuoka where his Japanese wife and teenage daughter live permanently.
Songkhla old town, which stretches across Nakorn Nai, Nakorn Nok and Nang Ngam roads, was a busy trading port back in the 17th century, when Persian Muslim merchants founded the Sultanate of Singora in what is present-day Songkhla. Westerners and an influx of Chinese migrants came later and today the old town has a mix of Chinese and European-style shophouses, many of which have recently been replaced with modern buildings.
Even while he was preparing his 2015 exhibition A Tale Of Two Homes at his family fabric shop and his new StudiOK on the banks of Ping River, Navin and his Navin Production team were finding time to go down south. Here they knocked on neighbourhood doors, took pictures of their inhabitants and made a video record of people’s recollections about the old town.
“The charming old buildings are gradually fading and being replaced by modern properties. My long-time friends – Klaomard Yipintsoi and Noppadol Kaosamang – the founders of About Art Foundation, which aims to raise awareness of the importance of heritage preservation – have spent their own money over the past decade buying and renting several buildings in Songkhla’s old town. They’ve renovated many of them to bring back the charms of the historical architecture. When I visited them last year and realised how devoted they are to the community, I thought I should do something to recall the glory and bring back the energy of this old town,” he explains.
Navin loves pictures that are full of faces and often makes old-style movie billboards with a cast of hundreds. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Chiang Mai’s Warorot market in 2011, he and his team created a stunning, panoramic painting depicting more than 200 members of the market community – of all nationalities – some of them long dead, their likeness recreated from old photos.
Using the same style for the old town community of Songkhla, he’s installed a 15m-long painting in old-fashioned billboard style in place of the original hoarding of the old and now defunct cinema Saha Phapayon. Titled OK Nakorn (OK City), the mural depicts hundreds of community members as if they were movie stars. Some people are drawn from their own childhood photos, many from the present day and several in fantastic depiction in order to track the past, depict the present and illustrate the future.
Located in the centre of a Muslim community, this stand-alone cinema was built in 1930 and closed its doors 20 years ago. Though the outer structure has retained its original form, the interior bears no hint of a cinema but is instead a vacant space used to park cars. During the opening day last week, the abandoned cinema came to life again as folks gathered to see their portraits on the billboard.
“These are the portraits of me and my twin brother when we were kids,” said Kosol Ueaanukoonpong, the owner of a coffee shop in front of the cinema, pointing at his portrait on the billboard.
“It brings back memories when my brother and I could see movies almost every day. Our family coffee shop – which is now 80 years old – was where people came to sip coffee and tea before the show but the cinema came to an end after the arrival of videos and DVD.”
OK Nakorn, the title of the billboard, relates to Navin’s personal odyssey thanks to his family fabric shop named OK while the word “Nakorn” can refer to the two main roads Nakorn Nai and Nakorn Nok as well as to the city’s old town.
“I’m proud of my own origins and I hope my work will stimulate others to think about their own roots and communities,” says Navin.
“I’ve created many panoramic paintings in old-fashioned movie billboard style but this is the first time that the painting is installed at the real cinema, even though it’s now closed. In the beginning, people didn’t understand what I was doing. Art, for many of them, should be displayed at a gallery. I try to use media that are close to the average person and accessible to all.”
Based on the same concept, Navin recently built the OK Tower in Megijima island, north of the Japanese city of Takamatsu, as part of Setouchi Triennale 2016. Located in the small west coast fishing village of Nishiura, which has a population of less than 20, all of them elderly, the tower was set up with paintings featuring the locals’ likenesses drawn in the style of movie posters. The interior was decorated with their memorabilia along with recorded interviews and a related music video. The work aimed to raise questions about identity and the migration of residents from rural to urban societies.
Back in Songkhla at an old Chinese shophouse, which was once a mechanical workshop but is now rented by About Art Foundation as an exhibition space, Navin displays a panoramic painting comprising more than 70 panels. Titled Singora Diary, the painting depicts the community members, the charming architecture of old buildings and the portraits of Persian Muslim and European merchants recreated from old photos when the town was a busy trade port.
The shophouse, which overlooks Songkhla Lake, also screens the music video of the song OK Nakorn, which talks about the good old days of the old town community and is played by Navin and his production team together with the residents themselves.
A Songkhla native and patron of the arts has already brought the works and intends to build an old cinema-like building to permanently house Navin’s billboard and his related musical film for the community after the project closes on Oct 30.
OK Nakorn - Singora Diary is an initiative of About Art Foundation’s Here And Now – Songkhla Project run by Klaomard and Noppadol. The couple has also opened another five sites owned and rented by the foundation to the public. – The Nation/Asia News Network/Khetsirin Pholdhampalit