Lekha Shankar | Two Indian artists in Bangkok exhibition of women’s art

Arts collective Womanifesto showcases Flowing Connections involving local communities to huge reception and critical acclaim

One of the largest, most unique and important art exhibitions in Bangkok ends here in December after running for three months. Its name is Womanifesto — Flowing Connections and it is in progress at the city’s premier Bangkok Arts and Culture Centre (BACC).

Womanifesto is one of the first collectives of female artists created in Southeast Asia, and was launched in Bangkok in 1997. Among its founding members is Varsha Nair, an Indian multi-disciplinary artist who lived in Bangkok for nearly two decades before moving back to Baroda. It is in Baroda that she did her art education and is now based.

The second Indian artist in the art collective is one of its newest members, Rashmimala from Assam who also did her art studies in Baroda.

The unique feature of the Womanifesto collective is that the group of women artists met regularly on a biennial basis outside the exhibition space.

This year marked their grand re-emergence in an exhibition venue where the diverse and dynamic artworks of more than 30 women artists from Asia and other countries filled the sumptuous galleries of the top arts centre in the city.

The archive section in the exhibition gave details of the Womanifesto workshops held in various unique spaces over the last two decades.

One of their most significant meetings was in 2001, when the artists met at a farm in Si Sa Ket province of Udon Thani in northeast Thailand.

That was when Varsha Nair urged the group of artists to not stay indoors but to ‘Go Picnic’ outdoors.

The result was that the group of artists went out and learnt a lot about their environment, and the arts and crafts of the region, and these led to the start of their connection with communities, which influenced their artworks immensely and has now become intrinsic to the collective.

German artist Karla Sachse spoke about the baskets she learnt to weave from the local artisans, and the baskets became “female vessels” and “baskets of experience” in her art works.

Swiss artist Lilliane Zumkemi was fascinated by the snails in the region, and these went on to become peace symbols in her art works.

Thai ceramic artists Preenun Nana and Pim Sudhikam created clay installations that resembled leaves, something they learned from the students of the local varsity.

One of the highlights of the Womanifesto exhibition in Bangkok this year was the interaction of the artists with the students, public and the community. There were talks, discussions, workshops and performances, which involved a great deal of interactions with the public.

In the section of the workshop titled We Mend, many participants from the audience wove together patches of clothes, each with a personal history. Many of the art works were interactive at the exhibition where members of the public tried their hand with various materials.

It was fascinating to see old generation artists interact with new generation students.

In fact, many young artists joined the Womanifesto collective during this year’s mega-exhibition in Bangkok.

Well-known Indonesian performance artiste Arahmaiani swung a red flag with the word, juyup, meaning universal peace, to rap music, and she was joined by students and even children during her spins. The Muslim artiste spoke of her many trips to India to study a particular form of Buddhism at a centre near Mysore offering proof of the multi-dimensional philosophy of this collective of artists.

Well-known Thai artist Pinaree Sanpitak’s breast images, Surojana Sethabutra’s herbal medicine scriptures and Pakistani artist Nilofar Akmut’s mobile library of children’s books created a lot of interest.

Rashmimala’s Tracing through a Backyard recreated her memories of certain plants grown in the backyard of homes in Assam and she painted these on the local muga silk fabric. She says it was important to keep alive the old traditions of the region.

Varsha Nair inscribed the script of an old Indian text on x-ray images of the human body stating that the text referred to the lesser position of women in society. She chose to question that, by placing the text on x-ray images of men and women.

Thai artist Phaptawan Suwannakudt showcased handwritten script in ink, on handwoven fabrics, based on the weaving techniques she learnt from a craftswoman.

Nitaya Ueareeworakul  used recycled paper in her artworks, and the paper still retained the text and colour of the old period.

During Covid, the Womanifesto group shifted to online discussions, having a “digital courtyard” called LASUEMO (Last Sunday Each Month), which allowed members to meet via Zoom on those dates.

While the return of the Womanifesto collective to a grand exhibition venue was welcome, the exhibition also portrayed the collective’s unique ethos — the importance of production processes, flowing connections with the community, and growing links between the old and new generations.

From that point of view, it was one of the most unique and important exhibitions held in the city.

It was also decided for the Womanifesto collective to have a semi-permanent venue. The Baan Womanifesto House, in Udon Thani was chosen for this, and it would house the archive and library, and also host various art activities for local and international artists, including workshops and residency programmes.

As one of the first feminist collectives of its kind in Southeast Asia, the Womanifesto collective continues to be of historical significance to art in Thailand and the world.

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