When Thai curator Gridthiya Gaweewong leads you on this latest Ilham Gallery exhibition tour about contemporary art in Patani, one of the southern provinces of Thailand, she starts from the far right of the gallery. In this corner of the room, bright colours and people going about their day leap out at you from the elaborate paintings by Thai artists Jehabdulloh Jehsorhoh and Sirichai Pummak.
It is a multicultural narrative in these two works; the fusing of Thai and Malay culture in one, and the peaceful co-existence of Thai Buddhists, Malay Muslims and Chinese descendants in the other.
Best enjoy the vibrancy while it lasts.
After these vivid sketches of everyday life, you are free to wander ... right into Suhaidee Sata’s stark Symbols Of Violence 11, where weapons fashioned out of coconut shells point straight at you from both left and right. It is his response to the on-going violence in Patani, where the 25-year-old now lives and works.
Within range of these weapons, one might perhaps find it a bit disquieting to find four pairs of eyes following your every move. Anis Nagasevi’s rugged woodcut portraits of a family haunted by the murder of a loved one gaze solemnly at visitors navigating the firing squad.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg – of the exhibition, as well as the issues it frames.
Patani Semasa: An Exhibition On Contemporary Art From The Golden Peninsula, first presented last year in Chiang Mai, Thailand, is now on at Ilham Gallery in Kuala Lumpur.
This show, presented in collaboration with Thailand’s MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum, features 28 artists.
Many hail from the Patani region itself, with the rest from other parts of Thailand, as well as Kelantan-based artist Roslisham Ismail, who is better known as Ise, rounding up the group.
Through the eyes of both insiders and outsiders, Patani Semasa aims to present different perspectives of the situation in Patani, and in doing so, go beyond the familiar stories of conflict and violence emerging from the region.
“There is a lot going on in this region in the south that is a mystery and a curiosity to many people, even in Thailand. There have been many art shows in Bangkok that revolve around Patani, but the focus is often on aesthetics. In Patani Semasa, we approach it from a more comprehensive historical and socio-political angle, with input from multiple voices,” says Gaweewong, who is head of the four-strong curatorial team for this show.
“As a curator working in Bangkok, I am very interested in working with people from all corners of the country in an effort to decentralise the artistic efforts in Thailand,” she adds.
Gaweewong is currently artistic director of the Jim Thompson Art Center in Bangkok.
The Patani region’s dominant cultural identity is influenced by Malay ethnicity and Islam, and there has been much resentment revolving around the cultural assimilation efforts undertaken by the government.
New government policies placed restrictions on the local administrative and religious and cultural practices, among other things. A growing nationalist movement culminated in the declaration of martial law in 2004, and an endless cycle of violence that rages on till today.
It is under such circumstances where art found itself, first in the form of an art school established in 2003, then more recently, the opening of galleries and cafes by cultural activists, architects and poets.
“Against all odds, contemporary art is starting to emerge in Patani. It is very new, but there is a lot of interest from within the region and well as from outside, in the art and culture scene there. It is art that has been drawing more than just non-governmental organisations to Patani. The last two years or so have seen a surge in curators and collectors,” says Gaweewong.
Rahel Joseph, Ilham Gallery director, states that this exhibition is a real eye-opener - in a South-East Asian context - since it focuses the spotlight on a rarely talked about art scene in Thailand.
"The Patani Semasa exhibition allows Malaysians the opportunity to have a better and more multilayered understanding of contemporary Patani - the challenges and complexities that exist - through the work of these incredible artists, who live and work in the Patani region," says Rahel.
In this exhibition, Patani is referred to with one "t". This describes the region in southern Thailand. Meanwhile, "Pattani" (with a double "t") refers to the province. The provinces of Yala, Narathiwat, Pattani and parts of Songkhla make up the Patani region.
Though the promise of hope hangs in the air, there is no escape from the turbulent reality of life hardwired into those who grew up there.
“As a visitor in Patani, chances are that everyday life will not seem as dramatically dangerous as you hear about in the news. But even though it seems peaceful on the surface, there is this sense of unease at the back of your mind. The Patani people there have lived through its dark history, they know how suffocating and intense it can be,” she says.
For instance, Kameelah I-lala’s graphite on paper works features faceless brides dressed up in wedding finery, a series inspired by the cold-blooded assassination of grooms, due to irreconcilable cultural and religious differences, just before the wedding ceremony.
This exhibition is also unique with 11 women artists on board, giving it a balanced line-up.
However, the “cooking” is done by acclaimed Malaysian artist Ise, who will present his Langkasuka Cookbook works that take a step back into the geographical past through the culinary arts.
In exploring the connection between Patani and the northern states in Malaysia, Ise compares his grandmother’s traditional recipes with the dishes in Patani, presented in videos, photographs, sound installations and drawings.
The Patani region used to be part of the kingdom of Langkasuka along with Kelantan, Terengganu and Syburi (Kedah in Thai).
Still, Gaweewong points out that Patani Semasa is not really an upbeat show. Most of the participating artists are under 40 and their works mainly revolve around raw themes of violence, memory and loss.
“You would be hard pressed to find comical elements in these works. Many of them come from a place of raw emotions. After all, how does one expect boys and girls who grew up under such circumstances to paint beautiful flowers?” she says.
There are also plans to have Patani Semasa tour South-East Asia, an important move, Gaweewong says, in sharing the views and observations coming out of, or in response to, this region.