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Thai–Australian artist Phaptawan Suwannakudt has been challenging norms throughout her distinguished career, which began when her famous father taught her to paint. By Andy Butler.

Thai mural master Phaptawan Suwannakudt

Mural painter and artist Phaptawan Suwannakudt.
Credit: Aroon Permpoonsopon

Phaptawan Suwannakudt stretches her arms far above her head and leans to her left, lifting slightly off her chair. She’s demonstrating through a webcam the kinds of movements required when painting large-scale murals. She says there’s a muscle memory that comes with whole-of-body art-making, where teams of painters make their way up scaffolding to complete elaborate compositions.

She’s in her Marrickville studio as her son, who’s on artist assistant duties, moves in and out of the frame. They’re preparing for the Art Gallery of New South Wales to collect a suite of 10 canvases, part of a new work, Re Al-re-g(l)ory, created for The National 2021: New Australian Art. Suwannakudt is one of 39 artists included in the cross-institutional survey of contemporary Australian art.

Suwannakudt shifted to painting on canvas, rather than walls, when she arrived in Australia from Thailand in 1996. She shows me the movements of working on a smaller scale, her arms making more modest gestures. When she continued her career in Australia, she had to make the move to painting on canvas from scratch, without the technical training of an art school. “The orientation of the canvas was strange to me,” she says.

The story of Suwannakudt’s apprenticeship as an artist follows her everywhere, a compelling narrative that creates an aura around her. At the same time the familial, political and cultural histories in which she grew up, and how they inform her current worldview and relationships with the world around her, bring an emotional and conceptual depth to her art.

Suwannakudt is the daughter of a legendary Thai artist, Paiboon Suwannakudt, also known as Tan Kudt. In the ’60s he revitalised a classical form of Thai mural painting that had gone out of vogue in the 19th century. Tan Kudt kept himself and a team of mural painters employed with commissions for hotel lobbies, as well as mural projects for Thai Buddhist temples. When Suwannakudt was a young child, Tan Kudt began a large mural at Wat Theppon temple, on the outskirts of Bangkok, using leftover materials from his commercial projects. Suwannakudt’s training began there.

Suwannakudt tells me of this with joy and wonder, drawing on vivid memories with details that have stayed with her for decades. As she speaks, she is also clearly aware of the patriarchal structures within Thai Buddhism and other parts of the culture that defined her upbringing.

At seven, Suwannakudt became Tan Kudt’s assistant on his Wat Theppon temple project. “At the time, my younger sister was five, and my elder sister was 11, and she’d already entered puberty,” she tells me. “In Thai temples they don’t allow women in. I escaped that, because I could run around without a top on and nobody knew if I was a girl or a boy. But I was the only female child there.”

She and her father were extremely close. Both shared the same nickname “Chang” – meaning “elephant” in Thai – and her childhood fascination with his work meant she followed her father everywhere. While she wasn’t allowed to paint or to touch the monks at the temple, she cleaned brushes and palettes, swept, and was surrounded by the creative energy of the mural team. She learnt to read as her father passed her foolscap pages of a novel he was writing – she’d recite it back to him. Her father took on anyone who wanted to learn how to paint, and Suwannakudt became a sitter for drawing lessons. “They’d draw my feet, and I’d have to keep them very still,” she says. “It meant my father would always know where I was because I couldn’t run around.”

The Cold War era in Thailand of Suwannakudt’s youth – as for much of South-East Asia and the rest of the developing world – was violent and politically tumultuous. Anti-communism was virulent and bloody, spurred by American intervention in Vietnam, Indonesia and other countries in the region where people were agitating to free themselves from a United States-led world order.

Suwannakudt first picked up a brush in this context. Tan Kudt and many of his mural painters were from the Isan province in northern Thailand, which was seen as a hotbed of communism. When the Thai government cracked down on suspected communists, some of the painters had to go into hiding. Tan Kudt faced a shortfall of hands to complete commissions, and while she was still in high school, Suwannakudt stepped in.

She went on to become the first woman to lead a mural painting team in Thailand. After university, she did a short stint teaching English to Laotian, Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees as they passed through Thailand. She returned home when her father became ill, and on his deathbed he asked her to ensure his mural painters were looked after. Suwannakudt was 21. She led the team for 15 years, re-entering the kinds of temples she grew up around, now as the woman in charge.

In a review of Suwannakudt in an edition of Eyeline Magazine from 1999, academic Ashley Carruthers writes about an exhibition at Sydney’s Sherman Galleries. He notes the difficult terrain of the art world and Australian culture that Suwannakudt was entering. “Despite her seniority and status in Thailand, she has been presented (and priced) as a ‘young’ artist in Australia,” writes Carruthers. “One wonders if an artist of similar stature coming from Europe or North America would get this same treatment.” He goes on to note the paucity of Australian discourse around “Asian art”, where these artists are relegated to a status as supplementary to or “exotic” within Australian contemporary art, commenting that this kind of work is often shoehorned into solely being an “authentic” expression of a “traditional” cultural identity.

These issues still plague Asian–Australian artists today, and such interpretations would turn viewers away from the curiosity and questioning at the heart of Suwannakudt’s work. Her paintings of the late ’90s, for example, had a deeply feminist engagement with the world around her. Suwannakudt was also instrumental in the formation of Womanifesto in 1995, a two-yearly artist-led event in Thailand that focuses on the work of women artists around the world that still runs today.

In one painting from 1996, Nariphan III, three women stretch across a canvas with fruit on their head, referencing the Thai Buddhist myth of “girl-fruit” said to grow in a mythical forest, which must be picked before it starts to rot. Suwannakudt based the painting on a story she had heard of the 12-year-old daughter from a local family who was sold into sex work for $US120.

Suwannakudt showed a preoccupation with how Thai Buddhist mythology created an enclosed patriarchal world. “The temple was like a boundary where I noticed that I was different. There were no other girls or women around, this was very normal. So I learnt to see myself in third person. I was not the person I was, but I was a person with a gender.”

Another painting from the same period, 1998’s My Mother Was a Nun, depicts Suwannakudt’s mother during a period when she became a Buddhist nun, and reflects on the male-dominated world she encountered. At a local temple, she was placed solely on domestic duties, such as cleaning the kitchen,  and left in disappointment after a few months.

Re Al-re-g(l)ory for The National found its initial seeds following the death of Suwannakudt’s mother in 2019, after a long battle with dementia. It was a monumental shift, severing her last parental link to Thailand. It prompted deep reflection on her time growing up, and what it meant to no longer be a daughter, while raising children of her own.

This new series is a response to the current pro-democracy uprisings in Thailand that began in early 2020 and is the first time Suwannakudt has been openly political in her artistic practice. “I was never allowed to protest when I was younger,” she tells me. “My sister went to a protest once and my father left the house in anger for 24 hours.” The gravity of the violence of the anti-communist ’70s sat heavily with her whole family. In 1976, Thai police and right-wing militants massacred 46  leftist protesters at Thammasat University in Bangkok.

The death of Suwannakudt’s mother meant there were no longer any parents left to worry about her reinvigorated drive to be politically outspoken.

“This series is me learning to say ‘no’,” she says. “No” in the sense of saying no to political injustices, and of saying no to staying quiet. “It’s a social code of conduct, where you can’t say what you wish, because it’s not polite. To say what you wish, as a girl, it’s doubly impolite.”

Scores of nearly white blank pages float off the wall alongside Re Al-re-g(l)ory. It’s a nod to the blank A4 pages that define the current pro-democracy uprising in Thailand – used to hide the identity of protesters – and also to the political censorship in Thailand.

The 10 panels she has painted for The National are based on anti-communist propaganda posters that were ubiquitous in Thailand during the Cold War, which made clear that left wing allegiances were evil and went against the values of liberty and freedom. Suwannakudt has reworked this imagery – crossing out text, blanking out dialogue – in a revisiting of the political culture of the time.

“Two of my girlfriends ran away to join the Communist Party in high school,” she says. “Sometimes I wonder if I could have been like them.”

Re Al-re-g(l)ory reflects on how political movements are linked across time, and how different generations of activists carry the torch for justice. Embedded within it too is the question of how we wear the scars of the political histories we inherit. The trauma of political violence can be felt with great intensity. Suwannakudt says she’s processing “the history of not being able to say ‘no’, the history of authority, the disappearing, the silencing, the massacres”.

One of the most iconic and harrowing images from the massacre of 1976 is a lynched leftist dangling from a tree, a stranger about to hit his body with a chair. It is still raw in Suwannakudt’s memory.

The Sydney Black Lives Matter rally last year was to be Suwannakudt’s first participation in a protest – at the age of 61. As the day came closer, she was surprised by how overwhelmed she felt. When the NSW government declared the rally illegal, she decided not to go, and felt a strange sense of relief. “It was too much for me, even though it was nothing compared to Thailand in the ’70s and ’80s,” she says, “you know, when one of my father’s painters was arrested, it was me and my sister who went to take him food in prison.

“When I didn’t go to the rally I felt like a coward,” she says. “But my daughter went, and I was so proud of her. It was like she fulfilled what I couldn’t do.” Suwannakudt’s daughter is in her early 20s, a similar age to the protesters in Thailand.

A generation of younger Asian–Australian artists is finding a foothold in our national cultural landscape, following a relative boom in the early to mid-’90s. In navigating the realities of being a young Asian–Australian artist today, many acutely feel the lack of a documented history of those who came before.

For the AGNSW chapter of The National, Suwannakudt is shown alongside younger contemporaries, including Leyla Stevens, Benjamin Prabowo Sexton, Justin Shoulder and Abdullah M. I. Syed. Re Al-re-g(l)ory meditates on the importance of reciprocal intergenerational dialogues in many facets of life, including art, politics, culture and family. As Suwannakudt enters her fifth decade as a professional artist, her oeuvre and that of other senior Asian–Australian artists is the legacy that still shapes our culture today. Her work continues to offer new insights, as Suwannakudt finds strength from those around her to stand up for what she believes in. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 17, 2021 as "Mural compass".

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Andy Butler is an artist and writer. He is the exhibitions curator at West Space in Melbourne.