Photography & Interview by Matthieu Lunard.
Born in 1969, Jakkai Siributr is a Thai artist whose work can be defined by his use of textile to tackle issues affecting Thai society since the end of the Vietnam War. His embroideries reflect his opinions on matters such as increased urbanization, political instability, corruption, and the urban/rural divide in Thailand. Studying and residing in the USA for nearly ten years, Siributr earned his BA in Textiles/Fine Arts from Indiana University Bloomington in 1992 and a MS in Printed Textile Design from Philadelphia University in 1996.
ML: You have lived in the US for 10 years, how has it influenced your work? Did America have an impact on your way of thinking and critical perspective?
JS: My education in the US really shaped me to be who I am today. Not only did it influence my way of thinking and seeing the world, it put me on my art career path.
If I had stayed in Thailand, there was no way I would have become an artist since I was not a good art student in the eyes of my Thai teachers. The art teachers in the US did not care if I knew how to draw or not, they were more focused on helping me develop my own style and gave me the freedom to create. Only later in university did I learn how to draw. This bi-cultural way of thinking and seeing has been instrumental in the way I create my work.
ML: Why did you choose embroidery as your main form of artistic expression? How do you think it reflects your opinions more than any other medium?
JS: Growing up in the 80’s-90’s, I did not see a future as a full time artist particularly in Thailand. So I chose to study Textiles and followed the footsteps of one of my late aunts who ran a batik atelier and boutique from her home. I’ve spent so much time there during my childhood that I must have been subconsciously influenced by her. At the time I only thought about returning to Thailand with a degree in Textiles and maybe apply for a design position at one of those Thai silk companies or start my own textile atelier if all else failed.
But in reality, my first job upon returning to Thailand was to work as an instructor at Thammasat University’s Textile Art and Design Department and after about 7 years as a full time lecturer , I kind of segued into my current art career with my textiles and Fine Arts background. So textiles is what I know best and feel most comfortable with as a medium.
ML: From your previous interviews what stands out the most is your fight against many forms of injustice. Your work mixes elements of personal and national history, is that because your family history is intimately linked to Thai history? Is that something you feel free to talk about?
JS: While a student I was never once interested in any kind of history, be it the world, the Thai nor my personal history. But ever since Thailand’s current political conflicts started more than ten years ago I’ve come to realize my own ignorance about my own country and the region and by trying to make sense of what’s happening here, I started to read a lot and became interested in the lives of regular people whose rights have been abused by the powerful group of people and I started to make work on this particular theme with the hope that their voices will be heard.
Just when my mother’s memory started to deteriorate I became more and more interested in our family history because my mother and her family lived through the most interesting times from the two World Wars through the Siamese Revolution of 1932 and its aftermath that can still be felt today. After her death, I went through diaries that she kept all her life in which she recorded in details both her family and political affairs and I saw how my personal history is interconnected to the national history.
To be specific, one of my great uncle – Chit Singhaseni, a Royal page was made a scapegoat and later was executed along with two other men after the mysterious death of King Rama VIII. To this day, this crucial page in history still cannot be freely discussed. Chit’s widow and his seven daughters lived with my family after his death so from an early age I saw how they suffered and were ostracized by the public. ‘The Singhaseni Tapestries’, 2018 is an artwork that honors all the women that raised me - my mother and Chit’s widow and daughters. This particular work will probably never be shown in Thailand due to its sensitive subject matter but I felt that I own this part of history and I needed to pay tribute to all the important figures in my life regardless of the repercussions I may receive.
ML: Trying to denounce lies could be interpreted as a fight against repressed memories. Would you say that is it one of the ways of confronting the institutions that cause injustice? Or is it more of a way to educate people that are unaware of these injustices?
JS: My main goal is to create dialogues amongst the audience through my work. But first and foremost, each work that I create is really an excuse for me to gain knowledge about the many issues that I don’t know much about. Through extensive research I hope to become less ignorant and in turn my audience will acquire insight on certain issues they may not be aware of and go on to learn more about it on their own.
ML: Would you say that this urge to educate people about an unspoken history makes you an committed figure against propaganda?
JS: I wouldn’t say I’m in the position to teach anyone or capable of fighting against propaganda. But because there’s a tendency in this country and in our neighboring countries to erase or rewrite their national narratives, I believe that as an artist I have a duty to keep the history alive and to help raise the voices of those who often go unheard. Because in order to move forward, we need to know our history and learn from the mistakes of the past and try not to repeat it again.
ML: You also mentioned in an interview that your work explored the topic of increasing urbanization. Can you explain what touches you the most about this process and how did you chose to express it in your art?
JS: My background is quite unique, my mother is of royal descent and my father is a commoner from the Northeast. This combination has exposed me to both worlds and I’ve always been interested in the rural/urban dynamics. Several of my earlier work addressed issues of migration and socio political between the two.
ML: Your claims have a lot in common with romanticism (romanticism was a XIXth century European artistic movement whose focus was to express a state of mind, romanticism had a significant and complex effect on politics, with romantic thinkers influencing liberalism, radicalism, conservatism and nationalism) who expressed the desire to revive medievalism in an attempt to escape population growth, early urban sprawl and industrialism. Do you relate to movement?
JS: If what I’ve been doing fits into the category of Romanticism, then I don’t dispute that notion. But with what’s going on in the world right now and despite having studied art in the West, I’d prefer that my work is seen through a more diverse and lens and not through only the Western art history lens.
ML: Would you consider yourself a person nostalgic of the past?
JS: I think memories are important especially in a place like Thailand where there is very little regard for heritage ( architecture, culture, traditions ). At my age, I am nostalgic about everything and it hurts every time to see big mature trees being cut down or old buildings razed to the ground just to make way for another shopping mall or a condominium.
ML: Research of aesthetic is also very important in your work, delicate embroideries, vibrant colors, use of elaborated fabrics to display themes. In your opinion does art have to be aesthetic as well as political in opposition to the Parnassians movement (an artistic movement that was born right after the end of romanticism and that was opposed to the idea of romanticism that art should reflect your state of mind and that it should be only beautiful without meaning or commitment)? Is beauty as important to you as the meaning?
JS: Many artists think the terms ‘decorative’ and ‘craft’ used to describe their work are condescending but for me I embrace both. My practice is craft based and I take inspirations from folk arts and crafts so I try to stay true to the textiles tradition in that it should be decorative and beautiful but I also believe that the work needs to carry underlying socio political messages, take for example, protest banners, the Asafo Fante flags or the Mhong embroidered story cloth.
ML: I read that religions such as Buddhism and Islam influenced part of your work as a political statement to what’s going on in the south of Thailand, is it a call for peace between the 2 communities?
JS: I’ve taken multiple trips to Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, the three southernmost provinces now known as the Deep South back in the 90’s when it was still peaceful and I just fell in love with it.
So when the sectarian conflict started in early 2000’s I wanted to find out what caused it and started to create works around these issues so that I could learn more about it.
‘78’, 2014 was created to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Tak Bai massacre and to memorialize those who’ve perished in that incident. Then in 2016 I had the opportunity to return to this region and found that it’s still as magical as I still remember despite all the tragic incidents in the past decade. So I created ‘Changing Room’, 2017 with the hope that I could change the general public’s preconceptions of the Deep South as a dangerous place.
I’ve been returning to the Deep South 2-3 times a year ever since, taking with me friends, curators, diplomats and foreign correspondents as I want to share with them this very special place.
ML: You are very involved in being a voice for the Shan refugee communities, on the Thai Myanmar border, who fled persecutions in the Myanmar’s Shan state. I also know that you are very concerned about the way Muslims have been treated in the South of Thailand. Did the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar also have an impact on your work? Have you thought about expressing something about this issue. If yes how?
JS: ‘The Outlaw’s Flag’, 2017 came out of a research trip to Sittwe in Rakhine State, Myanmar in 2016. My last major work before that was ‘78’ which touched upon sectarian conflicts between Thai Buddhists and Thai Muslims in Thailand’s Deep South. The international media at the time ( around 2012-2016 ) always reported Islamic extremism to the world, but hardly any media outlet ever mentioned what was happening in Rakhine State in which Buddhist extremists were persecuting the Rohingya Muslims. Even though this is a Myanmar issue but Thailand also played a big part in turning them away.
I was interested in the journey that many Rohingya Muslims had to make and risked their lives at sea in the Bay of Bengal. I visited the beaches where many of these treacherous journeys began. Having spent about a week walking up and down the beach, collecting beach debris and observing the everyday lives of many Buddhists and very few Muslims, I asked myself what then is an ideal destination for which the Rohingyas would risk their lives for?
‘The Outlaw’s Flags’ are a series of flags of imaginary countries made from beads and fishnets by combining the emblems of the four nations involved at the time in the plight of the Rohingyas- Myanmar, Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia. Often a flag’s purpose is to unite people whether it’s a sports team banner or a country. But when a religious symbol is placed on a flag, it automatically disregards a group of minority.
ML: Your work about refugees mainly focuses on your region/country. considering the huge refugee crisis happening now in Europe is that something you feel concerned about and that you could eventually mention in your work? Or do you consider that this as something that touches you less personally due to the distance between the 2 continents?
JS: My ongoing work ‘There’s No Place’, 2019-, is a collaboration between myself, the Shan refugees on the Thai-Myanmar border and the general public. It mainly focuses on the protracted refugee situations in which I feel is often under-discussed unlike the other refugee crisis in Europe. So at this point I’d like to concentrate more on contributing to this cause.
ML: Would you define your work as humanitarian?
JS: No. I’m neither an activist nor a humanitarian. I am just an artist who’s trying to contribute more to society by using my art practice as a platform. I’ve always been interested in social developmental programs, it’s something that’s been instilled in me by my mother because we both have had a very privileged upbringing. I’ve been very fortunate so I feel the need to give or be as useful as I can be in my lifetime. So many of my projects lately are community based where the community that I work with has to benefit in some way through my art.
ML: Why are clothes for you an important medium to carry those messages? Is it because it is something everyone wears and that you see every day on the streets?
JS: Clothes and textiles are tactile. They can be worn and be touched. They supply warmth and confidence. They hold memories, the list goes on…but most importantly, the act of stitching repeatedly is therapeutic. It is my daily meditation as well as a challenge to see how far I can push the limits with just a needle and thread.
ML: Lately your work displays animal figures, army jackets sewn with buddha amulets & portraits of people made of pearls who seem to come from diverse ethnicities. Could you briefly explain what all these diverse elements have to do with one another?
JS: I’m interested in telling the stories of the marginalized as I also consider myself as such and these include the topics of sexuality, religion, displacement as well as environmental.