“A twelve-year old girl, the daughter of a noodle stall owner, was sold by her own parents to a brothel agent for 3,000 baht (US $120). The price was discussed by the parents in comparison with that they had received for other goods which they sold in the market.”1
I will address this discussion by putting forward my analysis that revolve around the notion of imaging as an aesthetic and critical re-vision.2 This will be demonstrated by my critical analysis of a painting by Thai artist, Phaptawan Suwannakudt, of her work entitled Nariphan III (1996). In my analysis, I will attempt to show that the art of imaging is not just about women artists presenting alternative images or using art as a form of freeing women from such one-dimensional and oppressive imageries. It is also about how Phaptawan managed to transform her visions and memories into forms that reinvest the signifying systems of art with the power to prefigure new modes and conditions of seeing, feeling and thinking.3
We will begin by talking about the three central figures in the foreground of the above painting. Firstly, we see three young girls similarly dressed in what could possibly be school uniforms. Two of girls on the right side standing close to each other with hands touching but not holding while the other girl on the left is alone but standing in similar fashion as the other two. The distance between them is rather intriguing. Although it could mean a possible non-relation between the girl on the right with the other two girls, even though all three girls looked very similar to one another. It is almost like a replication but not quite. And perhaps we could also guess that they barely reached puberty as can be inferred from the absence of any indication that they had developed breasts. They all have on top of their heads, a petal-like object of which the topmost pointed part resembles an erected, phallus. Their facial, expressions appear languid and their eyes neither looking at us nor looking away, except that their gaze seems to be focused at something/ or someone outside of the canvas. With the exception of the girl in the middle where her eyes appear to be closed and she has somewhat of a sad expression. Interestingly, the girl on the far left, her face expresses a kind of slight eagerness and anticipation as compared with the other two girls. All three of them stood with legs spread shoulder-width apart like they are in a state of pause, as though they have been walking rather slowly. Conversely, there is also a sense of linger, that they are waiting for something/someone. Both of their hands are down close to the side of their bodies, their lower right arm slightly raised with open palms, while their left hands are much closer to their bodies with palms facing inwards. It is almost as though that their right hand is waiting for another hand to grab their palms and lead them away. Perhaps reluctantly and with some internal resistance.
These description, from their facial expressions to the manner of their body language suggests a sense of innocence, fragility, exposed, and vulnerable. For these three, young girls of school-going age, youthful energy and vitality seems lost here. Turning our attention to the background, we can see that the girls stood out prominently against the gradient of greens beginning from the top to slowly turn into dirty brown at the base of this composition. Which could be a symbolic indication that some kind of transition/ process had taken place. The background is filled with floating tadpole-like leaves or fruits, some are more brightly coloured than others, while a few has a small, red human-like figure attached to it, still floating but not as high as the ones without.
What we can gather here of Phaptawan’s painting is a dichotomy of the relationship between what is real and what is imagined, or reality/myth. The way the elements in this ‘scene’ is portrayed within this frame suggests that there could be another dimension that could be added or introduced. We can also gather that Phaptawan uses the young girls and those fruit-like elements together and weave it into a story to convey a tale that carries a deeper and darker meaning. Such is the trademark of Phaptawan’s work who is trained as a muralist in the traditional art of Thai mural paintings. Her temple murals conveys stories of Buddhism, mythology and Thai traditions and since moving to Australia in 1996 she has employed her skills in the development and communication of new narratives where she produces paintings such as the Nariphan series. While using the linear and narrative forms of traditional painting, Phaptawan often portrays overlooked aspects of Thai society which was the reason why she chose to focus on the woman’s role within Thai mythology. As in Nariphon III, she depicted the Buddhist story of the nariphon fruit, which represents a girl in Thai mythology who rots quickly after being harvested. Hence the symbolic meaning of the gradient background, as the colour green represents unripe fruits while brown symbolises a state of decay or decomposition. The artist used this tale to critique contemporary social practices in Thailand, where daughters of impoverished families are sold at a young age into prostitution. In her three-panel series, Nariphon 1-3, Phaptawan used the familiar image of mythical nymphs that live in temple trees to denounce the prevalence of child prostitution in Thailand. She painted the series after learning that a 12-year-old girl helping at her local noodle shop had been sold into the trade for 3,000 baht (US$120). From this account, Phaptawan is dealing with the issue of change and consumption (ripening/harvested/ consumed); prostitution/prostitutes is the ‘girl fruit’. This poses a set of difficult dilemmas and tensions in the lives of young girls. Either they have resigned themselves to their dark fate or in resistance. The irony here lies on the fact that the freedom of these young girls who have become victims to such abominable acts were taken away by the very same people who brought them into the world.
From this we can see how Phaptawan, through her paintings, is exercising her power to define and represent the conditions of Thai society which troubled her, and also at the same time defining her own interpretation of a feminine aesthetic. As noted by Flaudette May Datuin, that within these developing outlines of a feminine aesthetics, we can redefine the “aesthetic,” not as a function of pure form and the pure gaze (pace Bourdieu), which the critic supposedly perceives and relentlessly inspects for its sake. Instead, the “aesthetic” is all about encounter, affect, gesture, and movement. Form embodies not just style, but also testimonies of struggle, pain, gains, and triumphs.4 Through her reinterpretation of traditional narratives, Phaptawan’s artworks present revelatory accounts about the struggles of young girls and women faced in contemporary Thai society. It is interesting because she does it seamlessly and without totally rejecting her traditions nor aligning herself with any conscious feminist advocacy or movement, but using traditional form visual narratives to address a contemporary problem that concerns the issue of the feminine. Such revisions and re-makings have led Phaptawan to carve out her own unique niche of artistic expression, one that does not necessarily become “anchored” within a particular catalogue of styles or forms.
1Datuin, Flaudette May, 2000, Women Imaging Women: Feminine Spaces, Dissident Voices (Categories for a Feminist Intervention in the Art Histories of Southeast Asia), in Text & Subtext catalogue, Earl Lu Gallery, pp.21.
2 ibid. pg 24.
3 ibid. pg 24.
4 Datuin, Flaudette May, “Reclaiming the Southeast Asian Goddess: Examples from Contemporary Art by Women (Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia).”Annual Review of Gender Studies, the 4th issue, Center for Gender Studies, Kawamura Gakuen Woman’s University 2006. Image & Gender, vol. 6, 2006, pp.14.