A woman lies prostrate at the centre of a deep, red, rectangular recess carved into the Gallery Seescape floor. Surrounding her are a ring of posts that blend into the painted walls and floors. Thick cotton cord binds her lower body and wraps around her right forearm; in order to free herself she must complete the pattern. She drags her constrained body across the floor, unravels some cord, slips it between her toes, slides it around three posts in quick succession, pulls the cord into her mouth for leverage and tightens the stitch with a tug from her teeth. Her feet propel her across the floor to the next set of posts.
In her performance ‘Knit’ at Gallery Seescape, Kawita Vatanajyankura transforms herself into a spool of thread and a knitting needle within a human-sized circular loom. She embodies the mechanical processes of contemporary manufacturing industries to expose the plight of women’s labour trapped by these capitalist systems.
Although many of us suffer from endless exhausting work days, we often lack empathy for the backbreaking labour that is driven by our consumption habits. Instead, we are titillated by shiny advertising and bright colours, qualities that manipulate us to value the status, convenience and satisfaction something delivers. Kawita coopts these strategies and transforms her body to reclaim the visibility of women labourers.
The power of art is to use poetics and metaphor to reclaim submerged stories. Kawita weaves herself into the design of ‘Knit’, and is literally tied down and trapped by her labour, panting, at the centre of a web of cotton cords. The pattern she weaves evokes a spider’s web that alludes to the Greek myth of Arachne, who was transformed into a spider by Athena at the conclusion of a weaving contest; the goddess felt its superior technique and the story it told disrespected the gods. For Kawita, the myth “gives us a sense of social classes and how we shall not ‘cross the line’ and compares ourselves to those who are higher. In contemporary capitalism…the labourers in the lowest class do not have their own voice to stand up for themselves, for their own rights, or for equal opportunities.”
Kawita exudes warmth and charisma. Throughout her work she is framed by saturated swathes of colour that belie the intense physical strain it takes to transform herself into a tool. Of this process she states that, “the repetitive task has removed my mind from the external body parts and so the body is only left as a blank space. Anything with a blank space is an object, and I have become an object psychologically.” Despite the alienating character of her process, she has created an aesthetic which lowers peoples’ resistance, enabling them to be more receptive to engaging serious social issues. This manipulation of the audience’s gaze toes the line between marketing and art, labour and product. The exhibition curator, Sebastien Tayac, further explains, “If you’re too direct, you alienate people. The point of art is not to accuse, it’s to open a pathway to discussion”. The result is to manipulate the viewer to empathise with the labour and social history embedded in the products we consume every day.
Mass production is another element of capitalism that erases the stories of objects and their makers, eliminating the history and craft embedded in each bolt of handcrafted textile. For example, numerous patterns connect Thailand to its regional neighbours, arising from the displacement of groups from their home countries, including the Hmong and the Karen, who brought their techniques and motifs across borders. Over the years, as these textiles became more desirable and marketed as authentic Thai products, industrialised manufacturing diverted income from families in an effort to scale up production for the ever consuming masses. This diluted the symbolic and cultural meaning woven into the textiles, but it is also important to avoid romanticising this history: textiles were a means for a woman to show that she could be a good wife: in anticipation of her marriage she would prepare furnishings for her home, a form of labour binding her to the patriarchal society. The nature of traditional textiles has long anchored women to a household role.
Another way to consider the patterns in ‘Knit’ is that spiders create webs as a survival tool. NGOs and government interventions have begun recognising the loss of culture and the impoverishment of smaller family units, and they are empowering women with weaving to generate income for their families. One example is Women’s Education for Advancement and Empowerment (WEAVE), an organisation that works with refugees on the Thai-Myanmar border, many of whom have lived there for as long as the nearly-three decades’ conflict.
WEAVE is helping refugees reclaim weaving and take control of their narratives. One story they share is of Maw Soe Meh, a Karenni ethnic woman who lives in the refugee camp with her husband and five sons. For over fifteen years she has depended on relief goods provided by international humanitarian aid groups. Yet, the monthly food ration is insufficient to meet her family’s needs. Maw Soe Meh’s involvement in WEAVE’s Fair Trade handicraft project has become an important aspect in her life, “I am able to bring additional income to supplement our family’s needs. Most importantly, I have gained confidence in making decisions on how best to spend my income that will greatly benefit my family.”
The repetition of menial tasks can be burdensome, but it can also be therapeutic and liberatory when a practitioner is empowered. Kawita taps into this spiritual and psychological aspect, and uses meditation as a strategy to “lose the sense of being and then become something else…to lose a sense of pain, of negativities of life…it also keeps me focused on the task.” Similarly, the women of WEAVE find respite from the psychological burden of their circumstances. Maw Lu Meh, another Karenni refugee, explains, “I’ve been a refugee for almost half of my life. I arrived on the Thailand side of the border at the age of 18. I am now 38 years old. The war has torn my family apart as well as my village and we were left with nothing…weaving has helped me deal with my anxiety and fear. Every time I weave, I am weaving the story of my life. I create new patterns and designs and it gives me a sense of freedom and hope.”
The impact of art to highlight social issues cannot be understated. Kawita further explains that, “my art is usually straight forward, simple and accessible. It is created to make all public audiences understand, especially those outside of the art world. I believe that art is more powerful when it is out of the art world and therefore, most inspirations and ideas are originally from the labourers and will be told to a very wide audience within public art, public performance and public platforms such as public billboards, shopping malls, hotels…” in hopes that we may look at the labouring women who surround us with a great deal more empathy.
In previous projects Kawita has transformed herself into scales, carrying poles, ice shavers and other objects that bear the burden of Sisyphean tasks undertaken by women every day across the world. Her exhibition ‘Unveil Escape’ at Gallery Seescape crafts a focused and poignant tribute to Thailand’s 3,000 year history of weaving. Weavers’ tasks are crucial to their livelihood and the subsistence of their families, whether they are engaged in the menial mass production, or in the more empowered setting of an NGO. Kawita honours these artists by foregrounding their process and their tools.
Upcoming Festival Frenzy!
Chiang Mai Fringe Festival
Range of performances, from one person shows to interactive ensemble pieces.
October 24th-27th from 12pm-9:30pm each day
Facebook: Chiang Mai Fringe Festival
Unfolding Kafka Festival 2019
The third edition of this festival digs into the wild side of Kafka’s animal and crossbreed characters to release them from the ordered world.
MAIIAM October 26-November 4
More Information: maiiam.com