Striking impressions: Exhibition explores Tony Jaa’s softer side

Thirteen artists created works inspired by the martial arts star as part of the first instalment of an exhibition looking at modern Thai icons. The action hero spoke to 'Brunch' about artistic expression, national pride and how he'll never forget his humble roots

Elephants aplenty. Bunnies, gorillas and cartoon caricatures. Flying kicks, elbow attacks, headbands and bandaged wrists, fierce martial arts poses or more pensive representations.

STRIKE A POSE: From far left, ‘Warrior Face’ by Rizing Sun (Peerapan Nunthachai), ‘Spirit of Jaa’ by Zing (Peerapong Uthaipan) and ‘Chang’ by Reii (Yipthida Wichyanandh).

This was how Ja Panom, or Tony Jaa in the West, was depicted by 13 contemporary artists in "Pride of the Nation", an exhibition illustrating the action film star's importance to Thai popular culture. In this first instalment of a seven-part series by Artery Post-Modern Gallery exploring national icons through art, elephants featured particularly prominently. They were sprayed on plywood, painted in oils on canvas and in many other combinations of media.

Tony Jaa is inextricably linked with pachyderms, from his family background to many of his film roles and even action stunts. Even his catchphrase in the Thai martial arts action hit Tom Yum Goong was "Where the hell is my elephant?"

In sitting down with Brunch at the exhibition opening, the 36 year old explains the connection.

MAKING AN IMPACT: Right, ‘Tony Jaa’ by Dale Horgan.

"I come from Surin. My family has always been involved with elephants. We used to capture elephants from the wild to train them to be used in labour work, but we don't do that any more."

While elephant training is no longer the family business, Jaa is still involved in the animals' care. He helped establish a museum and a foundation to cremate deceased elephants and established a graveyard for them at Wat Pa A-Jiang in Surin, as well as the Sala Erawan there.

"This is probably the only place in the world that has elephant funerals," he says. "And it's a very educational temple that shows you how elephants and humans coexist."

The variety of styles, media and nationalities of the exhibition were represented by Alex Face (Patcharapon Tangruen), AMP (Alongkorn Makphol), Bon (Danaiphat Lersputtitrakan), Dale Horgan, May (Athisa Busayankanist), Reii (Yipthida Wichyanandh), Rizing Sun (Peerapan Nunthachai), Zing (Peerapong Uthaipan), Tabunstudio (Chaiwat S), Tikky Waw (Pichet Rujivararat), Cece Nobre, Matt Diamond and Satoshi Yoshioka.

"It's very interesting how all 13 artists perceive me," Jaa says. "Most often I am seen as a tough fighter, always angry and throwing punches, but like everyone else I also have different sides that can be softer and more spiritual. I like most of the pictures here, and they represent who I am very well.

"We talked about this project, and I talked about myself a little bit and the artists worked from there.

"They see me as a hero because I do Thai boxing and I star in several movies that are all about preserving our cultures and values _ like elephants. And also, especially after talking to them and telling them about my life, they admire how I fought my way up and never gave up pursuing my dream. No matter how much I achieve today, I'll never forget my humble beginnings and the way it used to be."

Though known for action-intensive martial arts films such as Ong-Bak and its two sequels _ or prequels, rather, which he co-directed and co-wrote himself _ at the exhibition he gave a performance of conceptual dance little related to his stunt work. While it featured a few flips and fight poses, it more closely resembled experimental dance theatre than martial arts.

``It's great to express different sides of me to the public,'' Jaa says, ``and this is something totally different from acting and stunt work. I've done a performance like this before at the Supannahong Awards [Thai National Film Association Awards], but this time it was more intense, as the exhibition is all around me and I was very inspired after seeing the works and talking to the artists.''

ART ATTACK: Clockwise from right, artists participating in the Tony Jaa ‘Pride of the Nation’ exhibition, a video by artist Bon (Danaiphat Lersputtitrakan), a work by Alex Face (Patcharapon Tangruen), ‘Mighty Jaa’ by AMP (Alongkorn Makphol) and another creation inspired by Tony Jaa.

The street dance was well received, and fit in with his personal notion of Thai-ness, further explored by the painters in the exhibition. The ``Pride of the Nation'' series looks at film stars, musicians or other popular figures from the perspective of popular culture (the next subject will be Toon Bodyslam) and is part of a push to promote a national identity that is more diversified as well as up to date with youth sentiment and artistic expression.

``I am proud to be born in this country,'' Jaa says. ``You don't have to do Thai classical dance or muay Thai to express your Thai-ness. It's in your mind, your manner, your lifestyle and your love for the country. And there are many ways to express it. These artists do it with their art. I do it with my performances. You can do it to with whatever you do best.''

He has just finished shooting Tom Yum Goong 2, directed by Prachya Pinkaew and co-starring action starlet JeeJa Yanin. The film promises more of Jaa's trademark stunts and fight scenes, but he is more proud to have become a first-time father, as his wife just gave birth to a daughter.

On domestic life, he says, ``I'm totally happy. It's like graduating from a man to a more complete man, like I've fulfilled my purpose as a human being.''

Future acting work may include international films, as Jaa has previously caught the eye of Jackie Chan (who reputedly wanted him to play a role in Rush Hour 3, though filming would have conflicted with Ong Bak 2) and other international directors and action stars.

``The executives at Sahamongkol Film will make decisions for me,'' he says. ``Nothing is decided yet and we're still looking for the right role for me.''

One thing that is certain is Jaa's contribution to the promotion of Thai culture internationally, an influence that is reflected in the artworks on display.

``Art, all kinds of art, is contagious. You can't see a movie, listen to a song or see a painting without being inspired or curious. I got a bit of the limelight, and I got to star in big films that were screened around the world. People saw me punching, kicking, screaming for my elephants and became curious about it. They wanted to know where it all came from, and many have even taken muay Thai lessons or visited Thailand as a result.

``My life story has been exposed and they know how rural life in Thailand is, how a simple boy grew up.''

Watch out for `Tom Yum Goong 2' in cinemas, and the next instalment of `Pride of the Nation', featuring Toon Bodyslam, at Artery Post-Modern Gallery, Silom Soi 19, both early next year.

About the author

Writer: Ezra Kyrill Erker
Position: Writer