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Thai Contemporary Art Creation: Migrant Workers are for Whom?

Thai Contemporary Art Creation: Migrant Workers are for Whom?

Assistant Professor Dr. Supachai Areerungruang


Migrant worker issue in Thailand had been highlighted again when Aung San Suu Kyi visited Thailand during June 23-25, 2016. It raised awareness about Burmese workers’ claim to Thai people. In addition, the opinion toward this issue also appeared in both public and online social media. Some Thai people proposed the idea to the society to explain the phenomenon; on the other hand, they expressed the thought against the workers’ request. Therefore, as a researcher of visual arts creator, the researcher saw the importance of the problem that needed art to be an artistic means to build positive attitude on this issue.

Moreover, the understanding of Thai people reflected a part of negative figure that has been promulgated through Facebook. As a result, a researcher could respectfully conclude the problem that Thai people did not want Burmese workers to request for the claim, and wanted them to return to their country.(Suthinun Surachartkun. 2016: Online) However, ambassador to Myanmar Pisanu Suvanjata gives a speech at the ASEAN Studies seminar and gave an example “regarding international relation, I usually went up to Shewedagon pagoda with VIP quests to pay respect to the pagoda. I often saw Thai tourists look at the pagoda. I thought they were appreciated the beauty of the pagoda, but I heard they mumbled about the origin of the gold plates, which one comes from Ayutthaya empire?” The result of traveling to Myanmar was not what they expected because they had been misunderstood. (Pisanu Suvanjata. 2013:11)

However, migrant worker problem did not only happen to Burmese workers, but also workers from other ASEAN countries that have a worker relationship with Thailand. With this reason, the understanding and attitude building on neighbor countries should be contributed in multiple ways: society, culture, and art. It would develop Thailand to be a part of globalization world. Also, it could be argued that the creation is essential; therefore a creative researcher would like to reflect the social phenomenon as another way to build the understanding towards migrant workers. The researcher had been interested in this issue for a period of time, created artworks and displayed them with other artists at Ratchadamnoen Contemporary Art Center in 2016, which could be used to portray the problem. (Supachai Areerungruang. 2015: 18). Nevertheless, the migrant worker issue cannot be resolved, so creative works was another way to meet the solution of this problem.

Method and Production Process

A researcher followed the processes of creative research based on the researcher’s direct experience, seeing migrant workers on the street and workplace. It inspired the researcher to create the creative art works before conducting the research. In addition, the researcher presented the idea of each works to people in the society and other artists at Ratchadamnoen Contemporary Art Center in 2015 and Poh-Chang Academy of Arts Center in 2016. A researcher gained a lot of experience in developing aesthetic by exchanging the ideas with the audiences, and used it to improve this research as followings;

Experiment and Concept

A researcher had interpreted the word “migrant worker” that how a picture should be portrayed to be related to the meaning as the society understood the migrant workers. For this point, a researcher found the answer by his own experience when he brought his child to the school for the orientation at Srinakharinwirot University Prasarnmit Demonstration school (Secondary). A part of a presentation of Parents Association had been mentioned that Thai youths had to realize about migrant workers from neighbor countries that they would seize Thai people’s job. A researcher analyzed and found the purpose of the presentation that they needed to sharpen the thought of parents and pupils to obtain negative attitude on migrant workers. It could not deny that Thai society looked at them as lower-class workers. Thai people did not want to see them, but they still found the Burmese and had to live together every places, such as on the streets, at the restaurant, educational institute, public and private office. They all had migrant workers. With these reasons, the researcher interpreted blow flies, Khmer art, and a hard hat to be a representative to convey through art. Blow flies are an animal or insect that annoyed people, closed to human, and they are disgusting and we had to stay away from them. Compared as a simile, migrant workers were the person that we met every day in the public places, but Thai society thought as they were worthless. To conclude, the researcher had interpreted the word “migrant worker in Thai society” as followings:

1) Blow flies--they were what Thai people see every day, but worthless, so the researcher used Blow flies, or vectors.

2) Khmer art production--it represented the value of the nation that has a long cultural evolution and it had influenced the of Thai art, but Thai people never value it enough.

3) A hard hat, migrant workers uniform-- it made the workers know their value, position, be proud of themselves to be working in Thailand.

When the researcher interpreted the meaning of the representatives of migrant workers, the researcher also started to create the art work by watercolor painting, and then displayed the pictures at Ratchadamnoen Contemporary Art Center, 18 Degrees Exhibition with Poi Sian group, from March 3-31, 2016. The researcher also held the workshop “Art No Wall 2016” on January 2016 at Faculty of Fine and Applied Arts, Khon Kaen University.

Due to the two experiments in migrant issue work, the researcher found that the work was totally outstanding from other artists, and it was the most discussed and stimulated topic. Both experiments encouraged the audiences and artist who attended the event to argue and to be inspired. In addition, everybody agreed that the presented issue was the reality of Thai society affected on migrant workers. It was also useful.

Creative work displayed on 18 Degrees Exhibition at Ratchadamnoen Contemporary Art Center.

Ceramic Drawing work displayed at Ratchadamnoen Contemporary Art Center.

Experimental creative work in the workshop “Art No Wall 2016” at Faculty of Fine and Applied Arts, Khon Kaen University.

A researcher had divided the production processes of Thai Contemporary Art Creation: Migrant Workers are for Whom? into three key steps:

1. Collecting the document and the surveys, a researcher focused on field data from the interview of Khmer workers working in Thailand.

2. Creating the production of migrant workers.

3. Arranging the exhibition for four times.

A researcher began with determining the topic of creative process, interviewing Khmer migrant workers working in Thailand as well as outlining the ideas of interpretation, drafting a picture, and creation. The researcher would explain step by step as followings:

1. Data collecting-- a researcher used the purposive sampling to choose Khmer migrant workers working at constructions site with Thai contractor, and working at HomePro company. The Khmer workers (anonymous) working with the contractor repaired a researcher’s house. So, the researcher could ask in-depth questions and also observe the working of Khmer and Thai workers for one month. At the same time, there was another group of Thai workers working with Thai contractor. The observations enabled a researcher to be able to see the differences between Khmer and Thai workers. It made the researcher understood another side of the issue that different from common perspective in Thai society. It also influenced the art creation of the researcher.

Based on the interview, Khmer workers had been working in Thailand for 12 years already. He used to be a teacher in Cambodia school before moving to Thailand as his relative induced him to work in Thailand. He first started to work as a worker at construction site. At the beginning, he was cheated by a contractor by not giving any wages to him. He built a family in Thailand and had children here. They were born in Thailand and went to Thai school. The worker tried to learn Thai both reading and writing skills with his children. As a result, he was be able to work at HomePro Company because he could read Thai and understood a construction plan.

Regarding the observation, there was significantly different between Khmer and Thai workers, especially working discipline. Khmer workers tended to be more disciplined than Thai workers. For instance, punctuality, taking care of tools, keeping working materials, and keeping the area of working clean. For the endurance, Khmer workers also were more tolerant than Thai workers. The Khmer workers had endured under hot working condition where full of dust. Apart from the discipline and endurance, it was also shown that working skills of Khmer workers was better than Thai workers. They were skillful and presented problem-solving process while they were working

A researcher concluded that the negative attitude towards migrant workers of Thai society was untrue because it could be proved based on the interview and observation. The data was also revealed in the opposite from what Thai society perceived. It showed that the migrant workers were more self-disciplined and more skillful than Thai workers. Therefore, a researcher interpreted the picture as followings:

1.1 Migrant workers were valued as general people, but they needed to have special characteristics unlike normal people. So, a researcher created upside down eyes shape for the migrant workers to be different from the normal people.

1.2 Migrant workers had to reflect as an analogy to Thai society to think and question about phenomenon and today’s society. The researcher drew the representation based on architecture, workers’ camp, water bottle, plastic bag, and hard hat, things that benefited their daily life, and how government support the affluence rather than quality of life of people.

2. Creating the production of migrant workers.

A researcher would like to create Migrant Workers to portray it as a symbol, so people could easily understand and perceive. Therefore, the researcher chose to use bamboo-mulberry paper and ceramic as materials for this creation. The researcher created the drawing by ink on bamboo-mulberry paper and drawing on a paper and ceramic hat. This idea reflected the meaning of migrant workers and Thai society. The reflected picture was created by using Thai arts with the concept of creation. From the researcher’s first production, it could reflect the concept of Khmer art by using a scene of the Churning of the Milk Ocean in the creation. The details of the picture were added with the construction site, where the researcher studied this creation. There were a lot of high buildings. Without migrant workers, there would not have those building standing triumphantly; however, the migrant workers did not have an opportunity to live in the luxurious condominiums. They lived in the house or worker’s camp. The researcher represented worker’s house on the top of the building to present comparative humor to show the differences among social classes. The key point of this picture was that the researcher would like to portray the symbol of Bangkok, so the researcher drew MahaNakhon building, the mega project, submarines, airplanes, and tanks to present that the government tended to support public security rather than the access to resources, basic rights for care aids, education, and equality.

Regarding Pan Din Nee Me Thi Yuen (There is always a place for you), a researcher portrayed the migrant workers by using hard hat to be a symbol of them. It was made of ceramic to create new meaning as they were valuable. The material was elaborately created. The display of this work was changed in different places. The researcher also used camouflage fabric (green, dark green, and black) to spread under the ceramic hat. There was a cartoon representing workers, written “The land provides the place to stand.” in order to allude to the labor’s status in Thailand as the Thai government offered the rule and regulation for migrant workers. Therefore, they had to be grateful for this assistance as well.

For component positioning, a researcher used a wooden box with clear plastic. It contained ink pencil drawing work. This picture presented a worker who was raided by the metropolitan police after work. The research often saw this situation because the government wanted to control the migrant workers, so they had to work in Thailand legally. This scene was created in this research as well. Moreover, the researcher also brought a book of history of Cambodia and a book of Thai History for this presentation, so that the audiences could read and know the history of Cambodia to build a positive attitude on their neighbor and inspire them to see other values.

3. Arranging the art exhibition

A researcher had been exhibited both individual and group in creative research presentation. The researcher had displayed the research for four times as followings:

3.1 Migrant Workers are for Whom?, an individual exhibition held during December 20, 2017 to January 14, 2018 at Charmchuri Art Gallery.

3.2 Indo-Indie Visual Art, a group exhibition held during July 3-28, 2017

3.3 An individual exhibition at Thai Humanitis Forum, September 6-8, 2016 at G23 Gallery, Srinakharinwirot University, Prasarnmit.

3.4 Patchekchon (an individual), a group exhibition held during February 22, 2018- March 14, 2018 at G23 Gallery, Srinakharinwirot University, Prasarnmit.

A picture of art exhibition at Charmchuri Art Gallery

A picture of exhibition room at Thai Humanitis Forum at G23 Gallery

A picture of printing media, Post Today was interested in “Migrant Workers are for Whom?” exhibition and portrayed to the public.

A picture of printing media, Thai Post was interested in Patchekcon (an individual) exhibition and portrayed to the public.

Results and Creation

The creation of migrant worker issue presented that the migrant workers from Cambodia were quality workers. They had a value in humanity as the same as Thai people. The targeted Khmer migrant workers were not the representatives from all of them, but how the quality humanity assure Thai people was. They should not generalize all of migrant workers as dishonored person since the movement of Thai people in the society and globalization. Therefore, it was not new or unusual that people emigrated for living and their family. Thai workers in foreign counties also faced the same thing as migrant workers in Thailand did. Therefore, Thai society should learn and accustom itself to others. Thai youths had to know how to respect for each other and know the value of humanity at the same time.

The art work from the interpretation of migrant worker and the phenomenon in Thai society represented to Thai society. It was presented though the exhibition both individual by the researcher and group presentation with other artists for four times. The finding found that it raised the awareness to people in the society. It could be proved by an interest from the media that wanted to portray migrant workers issue in contemporary art creation which was promulgated to the public twice. For the comments from the exhibition at the art galleries, the concept of art creation was interesting. The work affected on recent Thai society which gave a sense of humor one the picture, but it also showed cruel satire.

Discussion and Conclusion

This creative research aimed to study migrant worker issue and Thai society, to present as contemporary art creation, to present to Thai society to know the value of equality of human. Thai people had been paid attention to this problem because it affected on their way of life, but Thai society looked down at the migrant as a low class labor and did not respect with the humanity. However, based on a study, it was found that the targeted workers were valuable person, and more skillful than Thai worker. The finding was related to the research hypothesis.

Art creation that inspired by migrant worker issues was not various; however, the researcher used it as an inspiration to create creative works. It was related to Suraphong Suratus na Ayudhaya’s study, hero. His research reflected labors’ life and he valued them as a hero because the artist thought that they were valuable person, be patient to face any problems, and be responsible for their family. Even the artist himself could not do like them. (monline) The works motivated the audiences and workers, most importantly, it raised the awareness to Thai society to see the humanity value in migrant workers.

Another finding of creative research was using Thai contemporary art as an inspiration to address social issue. It was the issue that the researcher and Thai society can see it, perceive it, and share it together. This creative work built aesthetic Thai contemporary art in the different way, not a traditional way. The artist did not only research for the myths, literature, or religion concept, but also social issue that people perceived and experienced as a group or individual, or some group of people knew in international level. Therefore, that creation could achieve people in the wide range and it was useful for both aesthetic and functional, creating understanding about social problem, changing the attitude to positive. It caused the better living and balanced the society appropriately.

The researcher suggested some recommendations about creating art in migrant worker issue as followings: a researcher should study other dimensions of migrant problems as well, such as education of the children in worker’s camp, quality of life of the workers, and etc. For those who were interested in creating art, they could use this issue as an inspiration to create their own work. There were other jobs and even Thai workers changing their idea on working. Moving to big city and leaving elderly behind at home was another national problem that needed to be solved as well.

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