The why of kwai

Artist Maitree Siriboon is using his latest exhibition to rehabilitate the image of the buffalo

In Thai, the easiest way to insult someone is to call them kwai _ a buffalo, our beast of burden that has come to symbolise, unfairly, stupidity.

The Mondrian Buffalo.

Artist Maitree Siriboon is not amused by how many people still think of his beloved animal that way, and through his work he wants to restore the dignity of the lovely kwai.

The 30-year-old from Ubon Ratchathani recently opened a solo exhibition called "Buffalo's Heart" at Thavibu Gallery in Silom Road. The show is a collection of photography and mosaic pieces. Maitree focuses on his Isan background and pays tribute to buffalo from cultural and historical perspectives.

Conceived as part of the "Isan Dream" project where he works with locals in his home town, he has entrusted an anonymous local boy to be the lead character in his photographs. The boy leads the audience through Maitree's memories of agricultural existence.

During the "Buffalo's Heart" opening, we talked to Maitree about his work and love for the creature.

Tell us how the exhibition came about.

Maitree Siriboon.

Conceptually, this exhibition remains the same as with my previous works where I explore my identity as an Isan boy. Recently, I have been travelling abroad a lot. But the more I visit other countries, the more I know how much I love my homeland and how much Isan means to me.

Buffalo strongly remind me of my past, my identity, my roots, that's why I chose it as the theme.

Besides reflecting your past, it seems that you have dedicated this exhibition to buffalo.

Yes, there are two parts in the exhibition. The first part is to show how much I admire buffalo. The other part is about how I feel sad that many Thais still look at buffalo with the same mindset _ thinking of them as a symbol of foolishness or an animal of hard-labour. In 2013, buffalo have gone beyond that. They are smart. They are land decorations. In Suphan Buri, there are buffalo that put on performances and attract a number of tourists to the city.

I want younger generations to challenge or question the old ideas. Do we still think of buffalo as a symbol of stupidity or is it time to rethink? For example, in the image Panda Buffalo, I give the buffalo a new identity and it can be seen the way people see the famous panda Lin Ping.

The mosaic works remind me of the colourful glass mosaics in Thai temples, are they the same kind?

My background is in Thai art. Working on a mosaic is like a meditation. It is really difficult to cut all this glass. I used to go to temples a lot when I was an art student. I used to sit there and sketch. One day, I stopped sketching and just sat there. Right then I was attracted to the art of mosaics.

Some of the scenery and backgrounds in the photography in this series looks similar to your previous works. Are they from the same places?

No, they are not. These are the places that I have researched specifically for this exhibition. The places that were in my memory are all gone or changed. So, I had this image of the ideal places and then I surveyed for a place that matched. However, they are in my home town, Ubon Ratchathani.

Why do you choose to work with people in your home town?

I believe in the Buddhist concept that life is uncertain. I believe making merit is more than just visiting a temple or donating money. I believe art is a bridge that will lead people to better places. I feel good to give them a chance to do something different than their normal lives and, perhaps, it might inspire them in some ways. I have struggled by myself before I got where I am today. I know how hard it is to make it alone.

You talk a lot about your dreams. Is there any dream project that you would like to do?

In five years, I want to bring rice farmers to the Museum of Modern Art in New York as a performance art. They must be real farmers who have never left their home towns before. I hope I could do that!


"Buffalo's Heart" is on at Thavibu Gallery in Silom Road until July 13.

Buffalo Boy And His MacBook.

Buffalo’s Heart (2).

Related search: Bangkok

About the author

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Writer: Yanapon Musiket
Position: Life Writer