On one of the smaller spaces on the 3rd floor of the MCA is Phaptawan Suwannakudt’s installation work Not For Sure. It is a curious title, based as it is on tentativeness and uncertainty. There are four wall pieces made from collage on open cardboard boxes and eight hanging scrolls suspended from the ceiling made from paper, architect-drafting film, silk and materials made from the natural fibres of Thai plants and herbs. Most of the surfaces have been inscribed with Thai texts and occasionally, for those who have come across her works before, the outlines of a familiar motif, an elephant or chang – which is Suwannakudt’s totem animal and nickname in Thai. The elephant of course is also the national animal of Thailand and is often represented in religious mural paintings. This is perhaps not a coincidence as she comes from the mural painting tradition, having been trained along with her sister by her father, the renowned traditional mural painter Paiboon Suwannakudt (also known as Tan Kudt). Significantly, although there have been some female artists who worked in the conservation of temples historically and there were a handful of female artists who worked in her father’s workshop including her sister Kapkaew Suwannakudt; Phaptawan Suwannakudt was the first one to lead a mural team for large scale mural projects. She did this for 15 years until her migration to Australia in 1996 at which point she shifted more towards individual canvases painted in the studio, and more recently 3 dimensional pieces and installation works. In this sense the motif represented here is simultaneously personal, familial and national; as well as pioneering and traditional.
She spoke about the collages on open cardboard boxes that have been mounted on the wall during her artist talk on July 29, saying that cardboard box resonated with her as a material because it was how she often shipped various personal belongings in between Thailand and Australia. There are four of these boxes on the wall and maybe representative of her family here– which is composed of herself, her husband John Clark and their two children Cantrachaaysaeng Clark (the moon sends its light) and Yenlemtarn Clark (the cool of the stream).
The palimpsest of text, layered on top of each other, sometimes peeled-off, sometimes on a translucent surface is undecipherable in our western context. She describes these as “metaphorical counter-conversations and act symbolically where stereotype is not permissible. The illegible text may challenge the human need to discover and to relate”. Which is perhaps an attempt to reverse the role many migrants finds themselves in, that is the onus is often on migrants to translate their experiences by any means necessary for it to be understood in the current context they find themselves in – even if at times these translations lapse into self-inflicted clichés, simplistic reductions, stereotypes and tropes. The hope of course is that there is enough curiosity in the mind of the viewer looking, to move towards a field that is foreign, minus the compensatory translations.
I have based a lot of the information in this piece on the talk the artist gave on July 29 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia where her work was installed. I also referred to the artist for information on the tradition of Thai mural paintings, especially on the role of female artists in its history.
For other references on the artist please go to:
Rama Art 9: