Womanifesto Explores Feminism, Flows, and Freedom
By Phatarawadee Phataranawik
SEP 12–DEC 29, 2023
“Womanifesto: Flowing Connections”
Bangkok Art and Culture Centre
Womanifesto, a pioneering, Southeast Asian feminist collective based in Thailand, unfurled a map of its transnational journey in “Womanifesto: Flowing Connections,” a major group exhibition at Bangkok Art and Culture Centre that celebrated the collective’s 26th anniversary. The major survey featured paintings, sculptures, mixed-media works, installations, live performance art, archival materials, workshops and digital projects by over 30 female artists from Asia and Oceania, as well as Switzerland and Germany. The exhibition highlighted Womanifesto’s major works alongside recent projects, including the archival showcase presented by Asia Art Archive at documenta fifteen in Kassel, Germany, in 2022.
Starting with group exhibitions in 1995, ’97 and ’99, Womanifesto’s founding members Varsha Nair, Phaptawan Suwannakudt and Nitaya Ueareeworakul deployed a strategy of fluidity, sharing and collaboration to seek creative ways of overcoming gender-based challenges to self-determination. With a mission to amplify the voices of female artists being stifled in a male-dominated art world, the group staged a series of exhibitions and workshops biannually in various locations across Thailand between 1997 and 2008. Their focus then began to shift to online platforms as well as workshops across the globe. During residencies and workshops in local communities, the group explored and cultivated local culture, especially traditional artisanship.
Gender issues took center stage in “Flowing Connections,” with strong messages delivered by Nair, Suwannakudt, and Thai artist Pinaree Sanpitak. In Sanpitak’s iconic installation Confident Bodies (1996–97), dozens of sculptures of female torsos sprouted deformed or attenuated breasts made from mulberry bark. Nair’s mixed-media work Moment of Truth (2023) featured a series of lightboxes displaying X-rays of the human body collaged with dots of text cut from ancient books. The work illuminated iconic female figures from her ongoing body of work, referencing an ancient Indian text that set social codes, particularly women’s inferior position in society. Suwannakudt’s installation Building Up a Brick Wall (2023) evoked her works from 2010 to 2019, with several soft brick walls made of handwoven fabric and handwritten script about gender discrimination in Asian societies.
Womanifesto’s grassroots ethos was reflected in many works, such as German textile artist Karla Sachse’s installation Basket of Experience (2001– ) made from intertwining newspapers and inspired by the traditional basket-weaving techniques of local artisans from Sisaket, a northeastern Thai province that borders Cambodia. Thai artists Pim Sudhikam and Preenun Nana also presented their new installation of ceramics with herbal medicine texts, titled Full Circle (2023), the fruit of their workshops with the Baan Pue community in Udon Thani, also in northeastern Thailand.
The three-and-a-half-month-long show also transformed the gallery with engaging handicraft workshops hosted by the collective both onsite and online. The artists took inspiration from their 2020 lockdown project “Lasuemo (Last Sunday Each Month), ” a series of Zoom gatherings to share thoughts and collaborate on online projects during the pandemic. In Bangkok, workshops in the gallery got the Zoom treatment every Sunday. In fact, the collective has always found creative ways to gather for the fluid exchange of ideas and experience that are its lifeblood.
Cofounder Nitaya Ueareeworakul turned her Udon Thani home into “Baan Womanifesto,” an artists’ retreat complete with a library and set amid tranquil farmland. There, she cohosts workshops with local artists and communities. Her latest installation, I am Isan (2023), was the result of workshops with locals exploring traditional natural dyeing of handwoven cotton, an old technique that has all but vanished from the area. Her contemporary art practice helps refreshing traditional handicraft. The artist collective also turns also turned “Baan Womanifesto” into a residency for both local and international artists.
The group also paid homage to four members who have passed away. A section of the show titled “In Memorial” displayed striking video art, poetry, portraits, and philosophies of the late Thai artisan Pan Parahom, performance artist-activist Jittima Pholsawek, artist Jiratti Khuttanam, and Japanese performance artist Tari Ito.
The milestone exhibition reflected the legacy of Womanifesto as a formative transinternational feminist network that echoes gender activist movements in Asia through their global artistic practice.
Phatarawadee Phataranawik is an independent journalist and culture reporter based in Bangkok.