Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

The Artist-Curator’s Eye: Manit Sriwanichpoom’s “Rediscovering Forgotten Thai Masters of Photography”

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By Elaine Chiew

(1,600 words, eight-minute read)

Art historian Patrick Flores first addressed the phenomenon of the artist-curator in his seminal essay Turns in Tropics [1] as someone who holds a certain power and who has become a key figure in shaping the art history of contemporary Southeast Asian art. Manit Sriwanichpoom’s exhibition Rediscovering Forgotten Thai Masters of Photography at the NUS Museum, co-curated with Siddharta Perez, is well-placed to continue this trend for art photography and induct Manit into the hallowed fellowship of artist-curators of the 1970s and 1980s, such as Apinan Poshyananda, Redza Piyadasa, Jim Supangkat and Raymundo Albano, who all contributed significantly through their curation practices to the construction of Southeast Asian art history. Manit is well known for his own conceptual photography, as exemplified by This Bloodless War (1997) and his Pink Man series (begun in 1997) that boldly took on sociopolitical issues in Thailand, including the 1976 Thammasat massacre. In this exhibition, he rediscovers seven ‘masters’ of photography and seeks to broaden the Thai photographic canon to embrace portrait and studio practices, everyday realism, experiments with nude portrayals and surrealistic dharma photography.

The seven “forgotten masters” are Buddhadasa Bhiku, Liang Ewe, S.H. Lim, Saengjun Limlohakul, Pornsak Sakdaenprai, ’Rong Wong-Savun, and M.L. Toy Xoomsai. To understand why each is deemed a ‘master’ by Manit, the criteria he used were: a sufficient body of work, the use of medium in self-expression, anthropological and sociological significance, and “outstanding content, the perspective, the camera angle, the photographic technique, the courageousness of the creativity in the social context of their lifetime.” [2] Notably, each of these masters came at photography from an occupational standpoint or as a hobbyist; none billed themselves ‘artists’ as such. Buddhadasa was a Buddhist monk, Liang Ewe and Pornsak owned commercial studios, Wong-Savun was a literary writer honoured as the National Artist in Literature in 1995, S.H. Lim was a photojournalist.

The photographs shown in the exhibition are rendered in black and white; all were taken in the period of the 1950s to the 1970s, although Manit temporally benchmarked for as early as 1932; and amongst the seven, only S.H. Lim signed his photographs (much as an artist would). The photographs are grouped and displayed by artist within the exhibition, making it easy to discern the thematic preoccupation and styles of each. With no intention of simplifying each artist’s oeuvre, the snapshot below hopefully provides a gist as to theme and subject matter focus.

 

Image 1. Buddhadasa Bhiku appears to be confronting his doppelgänger. (Image courtesy of NUS Museum)

 

The 423 photographs of Buddhadasa Bhiku (1906-1993) were produced as part of a dharma book, only a small selection of which is shown in the exhibition. They feature Buddhadasa himself as subject against the setting of Suan Mohk monastery, contemplating a number of symbolic props such as a lotus flower, a boat over water, or a flat rock. The ones I couldn’t help gravitating towards are the superimposed double or triple prints where Buddhadasa appears to be confronting his doppelgänger (see image 1), with the layered attendant philosophic and Buddhist inquiry towards the construction of selfhood, ego and the cycle of birth and rebirth within the framework of a dharma riddle (and translations here for the future would certainly be desirable).

 

Image 2. Pornsak Sakdaenprai took photos of a number of monks as laymen. (Image courtesy of NUS Museum)

 

As the premier photographer in the Pimai district in Nakorn Ratchasima, Pornsak Sakdaenprai’s (1938-) photos, taken between 1965 and 1967, showcase his commercial studio prints. Of these, he took photos of a number of monks as laymen (see image 2). The backstory is interesting. In his talk at the exhibition opening, Pornsak described how he used a knife to scrape the negative to give these monks a dashing hair-do, giving us a window into what Manit called “early photoshopping techniques”.

 

Image 3. Liang Ewe took many commercial studio prints. (Image courtesy of NUS Museum)

 

Similarly, Liang Ewe (1911-1992) took many commercial studio prints, and the composition, too, captures an era’s style and proclivities, such as subjects wearing American cowboy hats or in twin outfits and photographed together (see image 3). Xoomsai (1906-1961) focused on nude photography, an act of derring-do within conservative Thai society, which exposed him to accusations of dabbling in pornography. Saengjun (1924-1997) was interested in everyday realism, and the photographs shown in the exhibition depict Buddhist vegetarian festivals and elephant processions through his hometown of Phuket (see featured image). Wong-Savun (1932-2009) likewise engaged with street photography in his Rama I Bridge series (see image 5), experimenting with ground angle shots and composition techniques, depicting people walking down a bridge against a foreground of barbed wire, yet distilling within these photographs an aura of moody circumscription and the grim tension of modernity and progress. Last but not least, S.H. Lim’s (1930-) fashion and glamour photography feature many Thai celebrities of the 1950s and 1960s, some identified by name and others not (see image 6), some in more stylised poses while others are whimsical.

 

Image 5. ’Rong Wong-Savun engaged with street photography in his Rama I Bridge series. (Image courtesy of NUS Museum)

 

While the technical virtuosity of these photographs is open to view, the trajectory from ‘technician’ to ‘artist’ to ‘master’ is less obvious. Manit himself conceded that this period is somewhat of a black hole – whilst teaching a class on creative photography, he was hard-put to find sterling exemplars for his students. [3] One of Manit’s criteria of selection – “the courageousness of the creativity within the social context of their lifetime” – thus compels a contextualisation of these photographic oeuvres within Thai art photographic history from the 1950s until the 1980s, a period dominated by the influence of the Royal Photographic Society of Thailand (RPST), which was formed in 1951 and came under royal patronage in 1958. RPST held annual photographic competitions and was pivotal in shaping much of the standardisation of subject matter within Thai art photography, aligning closely and in fact, to use art historian Clare Veal’s term, “synonymous” with officially sanctioned notions of national identity according to the three pillars of nation, religion and monarchy. [4]

At first glance, Buddhadasa’s dharma photographs, Saengjun’s local Buddhist festivals, Liang Ewe and Pornsak’s studio portraits and S.H. Lim’s glamour shots of celebrities, even Wong-Savun’s atmospheric street photos, do not appear to stray far from the three pillars, with the sole exception of Xoomsai’s nudes. Manit’s stipulated courage quotient, too, seems pegged at being the first or the only photographer to render photos a certain way, without the concomitant ability to examine how their technical experimentation deviates from or even defies the principles of Pictorialism as advocated by the RPST, whose manoeuvre to legitimise photography as art meant emphasising photography’s artistic properties that were in line with painting, and de-emphasising its technological aspect. This happened even as late as 1984, as evidenced by an argument by Chao Chongmankhon (President of RPST) in the Creative Photography competition catalogue. [5] Additionally, though grouped together, differentiating aspects amongst the “masters” may elide into periodisation: for example, Buddhadasa’s practice is conceptual on a scale that Liang and Pornsak’s commercial photography aren’t, in that his process of composing a photograph involves staging, a directing of the event for the camera. Similarly, what standards are being applied when likening Wong-Savun and Saengjun’s work to “street photography”? Were there other Thai photographers also aestheticising the bodies of women? These are but a few of the questions that arise.

 

Image 6. S.H. Lim’s fashion and glamour photography feature many Thai celebrities of the 1950s and 1960s. (Image courtesy of NUS Museum)

 

Nor do these photographs give up their mysteries as to the subjects sitting for these portraits, time and place of event, or indeed, how one should go about parsing through the anthropological and social significance of these prints. As art historian Simon Soon argues, historical photographs “speak as documents without narrative” [6]; what they can tell us about the past are limited by framing. Hence, the importance of the transparency of the research process, the debates and conversations around Manit’s own heuristic findings through his decade-long pursuit of these archival images, his ethnographic hunt of “flea markets, vintage dealers, libraries, estate collections and resource centers” [7] and his utilisation of a network of personal contacts. Hence, the importance of what Clare Veal calls “co-habitational time” with artists – of the seven, only two of the “masters” are still alive. Likewise, the importance of an exhibition such as this held at the NUS Museum, an institution of “knowledge production” and research conduit to enable further ethnographic investigations into subject matter, social contexts and technical standards of the period.

It would be disingenuous to ignore the ‘artist-curator’ paradigm with its germinal ability to direct agency and shift power towards conferring an elevation of status through the exhibitionary framework and backed by the curator’s own canonic currency. Entering the regional circuit further affords the claim to iconic status a tautological validation (one becomes a ‘master’ by being called one). As Flores describes, the artist-curator’s agency needs to be weighed. But as a force for good, it can act as agent provocateur in a challenge to reformulate national form, as a conduit between artist and audience, as a channel to give national art practice a non-western derivation, introducing into regional or global frameworks the “ineffable element in local expression” that goes beyond markers of indigeneity. Each artist’s body of works in Rediscovering Forgotten Thai Masters of Photography was first solo-exhibited at Kathmandu Photo Gallery in Bangkok, a space owned by Manit, then showcased together at Bangkok University Gallery in 2015. These may be viewed as testing grounds.

Manit’s remarks in the exhibition catalogue reveal his focus: the recuperation of forgotten masters is indeed to develop a non-western derivation of self-knowledge, as he says, to stop “breath[ing] air through the white man’s nose”. Whether posterity will concur that these are indeed masters is hard to say, and photographs of the past may never yield their secrets. Still, these photographs trigger a remembrance of the past, not as it were, but that which left traces.

 

Manit Sriwanichpoom
A view of the exhibition. (Image by Elaine Chiew)

 

References

[1] Patrick Flores, “Turns in Tropics: Artist-Curator” in Modern and Contemporary Southeast Asian Art: An Anthology, edited by Nora Taylor and Boreth Ly (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 2012), 171-188.

[2] Manit Sriwanichpoom, “Introduction” in Rediscovering Forgotten Thai Masters of Photography, exhibition catalogue (Singapore: NUS Museum, 2018), 11.

[3] Ibid, 10; Interview with Zhuang Wubin, Rediscovering Forgotten Thai Masters, 16.

[4] Clare Veal, “The Photographic Conditions of Contemporary Thai Art” in Journal of Taipei Fine Art Museum, No. 34 (Taipei, Nov. 2017), 91-122.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Simon Soon, “Images without Bodies: Chiang Mai Social Installation and the Art History of Cooperative Suffering,” in Afterall 42 (2016).

[7] Siddharta Perez, “The Cooperation in Recuperation: Curatorial Hope For An Institution” in Rediscovering Forgotten Thai Masters, 3.


Rediscovering Forgotten Thai Masters of Photography: A Project by Manit Sriwanichpoom is a group exhibition that runs at the NUS Museum from 15 March to 21 July 2018. Featuring works by Buddhadasa Bhiku, Liang Ewe, S.H. Lim, Saengjun Limlohakul, Pornsak Sakdaenprai, ’Rong Wong-Savun, and M.L. Toy Xoomsai, the exhibition is co-curated by Manit Sriwanichpoom and Siddharta Perez. All photographs are courtesy of NUS Museum.

Guest Contributor Elaine Chiew is the editor/compiler of Cooked Up: Food Fiction From Around the World (New Internationalist, 2015). She has won prizes for her short fiction and also been shortlisted in numerous other U.S. and U.K. competitions. Her most recent stories can be found in East of the Web and Unthology 10 (Unthank Books, 2018). She has an M.A. in Asian Art History at Lasalle College of the Arts and is currently based in Singapore.

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