Art has revealed to us the ferocity of embroidery, of the needle that pierces the canvas. For Southeast Asian artists, weaving Penelope’s shroud feels like retracing the history of the region; something that is continuously created and destroyed. Jakkai Siributr unveils his creative process, simultaneously piercing and mending, mirroring the duality present in this dichotomy which reveals a violence it heals by patching wounds and divisions together.
Text: Naima Morelli
Images: Courtesy of the artist.
Because the official history is often propaganda, it’s often up to the artists to take the place of historians, researching in the field and using their own history.
“We never learned much about the history of this country,” says artist Jakkai Siributr. “A lot of the history which was taught in school was something that the government wanted us to learn, and it was not necessarily true. I had a desire to learn more and then think deeper about it and create work.”
Jakkai is one of the leading Thai artists, who is known primarily for his textile and embroidery works. Relocating in Bangkok after studying and living for ten years in the US, his work started increasingly to weave personal and regional histories together.
We caught him in Bangkok, visiting him in the house where he grew up. He had just come back from Mozambique, where he held an embroidery workshop, and was ready to depart for the quieter Chiang Mai.
Jakkai received many artistic influences from his family, especially his aunt and grandmother, who planted the seed for his art-making in his early childhood. “My aunt ran a batik studio,” he explains. “She was an artist, had her own atelier, and she was able to make a living from that. I also had a nanny who really liked to sew, worked on repairing the old clothes and fabric, making blankets, a very Asian tradition of patching old clothes. I grew up surrounded by that.”
And then when you were just 15 years old, you left to study in the US. At university, you took up textiles. Were you already thinking of becoming an artist?
At the time, I wasn’t thinking of becoming an artist. This was in the 1980s and there wasn’t really an art world in Thailand. It would have been a very difficult thing to be an artist working in Thailand at the time. I knew that I enjoyed working in the creative field and like my aunt, I wanted it to be commercially viable. That’s why I chose textile. But then the more I got into it, the more I realized that I didn’t really like the commercial aspects of it. When I came back to Thailand in 1996, I started teaching the new textile program at the university. I started making art to show my students what I was talking about. That’s how I became an artist.
Your first artworks when you came back to Thailand were abstract, while today you have a much more figurative style. Why did you start from abstraction?
The reason goes back to my professors at the university. They kept emphasizing that because it’s textile, it has to be different from painting, so it should not be representational. So we tried to express our ideas through this medium, in a different way. It was a struggle for me, because I wanted to break away from that, but I was marked by my professor’s teachings. It took me 5 or 6 years until I was able to express myself in the way that I wanted.
And with this expression, also political subjects entered into your textile work as well. Can you tell me how this happened?
The political themes started becoming part of my work 5 or 6 years after I settled in Thailand. I was away for 10 years and I had a growing interest in understanding more about this place. Why are things set the way they are and why do people think this can never be changed? So I started looking at religion. As Thais, we are automatically born as Buddhists, but I didn’t understand what Buddhism was all about. I realized that the Buddhism I understood through religious practices and rituals had nothing to do with actual Buddhism. A lot of it came from influences from other religions, Hinduism and Brahmanism, and even ancestor worship. Buddhism in Thailand is very syncretic, it’s a mix of different religions. I started to create a work that would address these issues, and how it was connected to social issues in the country as well.
Today, you don’t take political sides. In the Thai art world, which is very polarized and polarizing, were you always so nuanced?
I used to be immersed in politics too much and take sides, but then I grew disillusioned with politics. That was when I really turned away from it and I started making work that was more about marginalized people who are not involved in this power struggle and suffer all the same. Back then, I realized there were a lot of things that I didn’t see, that I didn’t understand. Today, I try to look at it from the bigger picture, as somebody who’s not really immersed in politics, but tries to contribute in his own way.
In terms of taking a more detached approach towards politics, I have read that sometimes your work has become a kind of meditation.
Yes, I can give you an example of a work from 2011 called Evening News. It was an embroidery of all the pictures that appeared on the front page of the newspaper for a year. At the time, it was the peak of political turmoil in Thailand. What I did was to embroider all those two-faced political figures that I used to despise and have hatred for. Throughout that process, I found this meditative quality. It turned out that all these feelings dissipated. So, in a way, that work was also very therapeutic for me. I was able to get all the emotions out through the process of creating the work.
Today, my process is still the same. Now I have 3 or 4 assistants helping me. The assistants enable me to create larger works and installations, but I’m still very hands-on with the work itself, especially that which requires more specific details and techniques.
One of your latest pieces is “18/28: The Singhaseni Tapestries”, presented at The 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT9). It centers around the connections between your own family and political history in Thailand. Can you tell me a bit about it?
I worked on this piece for two years and it was the most personal project for me. It’s centered around the life of my mother, who died 3 years ago. She was also very politically engaged and went to protests when she was still a young woman, right up until the last few years before she died. From the diaries she kept, I could see that her political views changed as she got older. So, the work was about family history, as well as national history.
Part of the work I probably won’t show in Thailand. because it’s a little bit sensitive, but again, it’s related to my family history. I have a great uncle who was working for King Rama VIII as his personal valet. When King Rama VIII died at a very young age of a gunshot wound, my great uncle and two other men, who also worked at the palace, were made scapegoats and executed.
It went down in history that these three men were guilty. My great-grandmother brought her 7 daughters to live here at this compound. So I grew up with them, saw how they suffered and were ostracized throughout all their lives. They went to school and they would say, “Oh, your father is the king’s murderer.” Again, it’s these things that happen in history that are not talked about, not allowed to be talked about, except to be instrumentalized in political arguments.
For me, I wanted to make this work to honor my mother, as well as my seven aunties, and the memory of my great uncle as well. I made 9 big tapestries, made from disassembled garments, and then 5 dresses of my mother, blending political and family history. Recounting it through threading, I’m trying to somehow entangle our common and shared history.
About the Artist
Jakkai Siributr is one of Southeast Asia’s leading contemporary artists working primarily in the textile medium. His fascination with textiles and embroidery began as a child in Bangkok, and he went on to study textile design in college and graduate school in the United States before returning to Thailand. He is noted for producing meticulously handmade tapestry and installation works that make powerful statements about religious, social, and political issues in contemporary Thailand. A main preoccupation of his art is the interaction of Buddhism and materialism in modern life, and the everyday popular culture of Thailand.
In 2011, Jakkai’s work was featured in the exhibition, Here / Not Here: Buddha Presence in Eight Recent Works, at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, and in a major solo exhibition, Shroud, at the Art Center, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand. He was also a participating artist in the 2nd Chongqing Youth Biennial Art Exhibition (2011). In 2012, his work was seen in Phantoms of Asia: Contemporary Awakens the Past at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco and Exploring the Cosmos: The Stupa as a Buddhist Symbol at the Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore. Recent exhibitions include: DISPLACED the politics of ethnicity and religion in the art of Jakkai Siributr, Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, Bangkok, Thailand (2017); Farewell: The Art Center’s Acknowledgments 1995-2016, The Art Center, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand (2016); and First Look: Collecting Contemporary at the Asian, Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, CA, (2015).
Naima Morelli is an art writer and curator with a focus on contemporary art from the Asia Pacific region. She has written for ArtsHub, Art Monthly Australia, Art to Part of Culture and Escape Magazine, among others, and she is the author of “Arte Contemporanea in Indonesia, un’introduzione” a book focused on the development of contemporary art in Indonesia. As a curator, her practice revolves around creating meaningful connections between Asia, Europe and Australia.