Art Radar speaks to Thidarat Chantachua, a trailblazing Chinese-Thai Muslim artist who is getting ready to hit Art Stage in Singapore on 26 January.
The artist, also known as Mariem, is showing at Singapore’s flagship art fair with Bangkok-based Subhashok, The Arts Centre.
Thidarat Chantachua’s latest Restart is the centerpiece of her presentation with Subhashok, the Arts Centre, at Art Stage Singapore. This installation brings awareness to immigration issues and the refugee crisis. Chantachua’s roots trace back to China. Her family’s experiences as Thai Muslims living in Bangkok opened her eyes to the constant mobility of our generation. She portrays this flow through a tent; a tent that is not perfect but nonetheless serves as a home. Chantachua stitched a path of stars inside the tent. The stars, she explains, led the migrants to their home. The embroidery inside the tent creates a deeper experience for viewers and transports them to a different dimension.
Thidarat Chantachua was influenced by Yayoi Kusama’s work, the internationally renowned Japanese artist famous for her “Infinity Mirror Rooms”. Chantachua transferred her embroidery from the canvas to an installation because she wanted to use space to play with perception and make viewers feel more. Her patterns create dimensions and help viewers understand that there are many different ways of seeing reality. Quotes from news sources cover the tent. One of the phrases reads: “Welcoming refugees is a ???” Viewers are deliberately challenged to think about this open question.
Restart is covered by quotes from the news. One of them reads: “In many cases we learn that one ticket from the authority affects the demolition of many buildings belonging to families.”
The blending of embroidery with paint gave birth to an avant-garde style, ingeniously combining traditional Arabic techniques with new concepts. When asked if she was breaking any rules in Islam through her innovative work, she responded:
Using Muslim elements to create art is not breaking any rules. In art, there is no right or wrong. There are no rules.
Her inspirational spark came from a Muslim story that explains that the stars emerged from a flower that blew from the earth to the sky. She felt that this story would be more obvious to viewers if she filled the entire canvas, representing the sky, with patterns. Chantachua’s semi-abstract art arose from a desire to innovate and evolve, as she explains:
Many people already made thousands of paintings and sculptures. I wanted to do something different. If I did traditional paintings and sculptures, then I wouldn’t be learning.
During her first three years in university, Chantachua was quiet, kept to herself, and did not explore new techniques. However, a realisation came in the last year and she felt that it was time to change. Before discovering her unique style, Chantachua explored several techniques. Her journey began with abstract art, but it did not allow her to guide the viewer’s attention as she hoped. She then created collages and portraits, but they did not keep her engaged.
Chantachua showed her professor an embroidery piece she made and asked him for guidance. He suggested that she try embroidery on a canvas. Although she was hesitant, Chantachua blended a canvas with paint and embroidery. The result was beautiful artistic alchemy. A breakthrough in Arabic art, her mixed media and semi-abstract approach creates an immersive experience for viewers, transporting them to another world. Chantachua was certain that this style suited her because by threading she could “meditate and learn to strengthen her mind and soul”.
In Point of Faith Chantachua strings cultures together by illustrating a borderless Japanese temple and Islamic mosque. A sense of harmony arises, as if two separate buildings, cultures and religions become one through each thread. Jongsuwat Angsuvarnsiri, the curator of “On the Path of Different Cultures”, Chantachua’s first solo exhibition, views the cultural bond as “A bond that alludes to the unity in humanity, telling us that we can grow stronger when we stay together.” Chantachua travelled around Europe and Asia for this project. She wanted to see how other people view religion, culture and politics. Her artworks from that project focus on the possible harmony among religions.
Unlike most artists, Chantachua does not come from a family of artists. However, she has always liked the arts. She started painting when she was a little girl and even taught herself to stitch. Chantachua’s family could not afford to hire someone to sew her name on her school uniform so she taught herself. Despite her international recognition and a degree from Thailand’s leading arts university, Chantachua’s family was reluctant to praise her successes. They always wanted her to get a normal job in an office. Now, however, they help Chantachua with the embroidery for her works.
One of the most inspiring things about Chantachua is her perception of success. She views success not as in what she can get but what she can give: “It’s about giving, not getting.” Despite her humble beginnings, Chantachua did not get lost in the fame or material gains from her art. What she is happy about is that she has a voice now; a voice that she can use to inspire. Chantachua measures success in terms of her ability to influence people. She hopes her art inspires other artists to create innovative Islamic art. Chantachua‘s success also gave her the confidence to build an art institute. Through calligraphy, embroidery and painting workshops, she envisions the elimination of division among Thai Muslims.
Prostate Oneself 3 is one of her favourite works. It depicts people connecting through prayer. Her creativity eliminates boundaries through each thread. Chantachua does not include the image of a god because she does not want her art to restrict people to one religion. Instead, she wants viewers to connect with the people portrayed. Perhaps that is why Jongsuwat is so moved by her work:
When we open our hearts and embrace the difference without looking from just one angle, we will find that there are so many people out there who are willing to offer friendship and kindness. When we are able to do that, perhaps we may be just that much closer to peacefulness.
Chantachua’s threads re-establish human bonds in a constantly evolving world and illustrate the importance of creating harmonious multicultural communities that embrace differences, a concept which shines through in the threads of Similar Differences.
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