From past to present
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From past to present

Artist Manit Sriwanichpoom reflects on current Thai society by drawing parallels to broken Buddha statues

ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT
From past to present
Manit Sriwanichpoom at 'Ayudhaya 2023'.

When photographer Manit Sriwanichpoom visited Wat Mahathat in Ayutthaya in 2021, he was surprised to see broken Buddha statues. What was unique was broken parts of the Buddha statues were replaced with fragments from other Buddha statues. He wondered why the Fine Arts Department structured Buddha statues that way, since the fragments were a mismatch.

"I thought the Fine Arts Department officials maybe wanted to show how the Ayutthaya kingdom had once prospered but was then devastated after being attacked by the Burmese. Those Buddha statues might tell the history of Ayutthaya," said Manit.

Manit photographed the broken statues and kept them for years until politics took an unbelievable turn. Traditional conservatives and neoconservatives -- groups that had disagreed for decades -- eventually came to an agreement. The result was that fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra returned to Thailand without spending a day in prison. The event inspired Manit to create the photo painting exhibition "Ayudhaya 2023" to reflect Thai society today.

"Thaksin's case demonstrates our justice system is meaningless. He could stay in hospital without serving his sentence in prison. This reminded me of the broken Buddha statues because spirituality and virtue are no longer intact. I changed the photos to black and white and deleted the background. After that, I painted on the photos using mainly red and black since paintings during the Ayutthaya era featured red, black and white due to limitations," Manit explained.

"I didn't change the shape of the Buddha statues because I want to let them narrate the history of Ayutthaya. The exhibition reflects current Thai society, which is divided into many groups. Issues regarding virtue and the justice system are not much different from when the Ayutthaya kingdom fell."

The return of Thaksin brought joy to his supporters and disappointment to his opponents. His supporters claimed that Thaksin's return was a sign of reconciliation and ended conflict between the two sides, however, Manit disagreed with the comment.

'Ayudhaya 2023' by Manit Sriwanichpoom.

"The conflict is still there. Only people with power made an agreement and called it reconciliation. Actual reconciliation must be based on truth and justice. However, people with power have never admitted guilt. Therefore, this is not reconciliation; it is only a suppressed situation."

When asked what is the best solution, Manit admitted he did not have a specific answer, but he believes that society will continue moving forward.

"A key factor that allowed traditional conservatives and neoconservatives to come to an agreement was the emergence of a new third power. The new generation do not accept traditionalists and neoconservatives, but support a new party. These two groups believed the new power was a threat to them so they decided to team up," explained Manit.

"Previously, there were only two sides against each other. Then, a third power rapidly emerged in the 2023 election known as the Move Forward Party which garnered 14 million votes -- higher than votes for the Pheu Thai Party and Palang Pracharath Party. Therefore, the old powers had to find a way to hold back this new power, but nobody can stop time. As the old powers and their supporters gradually pass away, a new generation that supports new power will rise. This agreement is only a temporary stabilisation of the situation."

Manit has been an artist for over four decades. His thought-provoking photographs reflect social, political and religious views. His notable collection "Pink Man" criticises Thai society and politics through the iconic image of a man in a pink suit. Due to his valuable creations, his works are held in many museums internationally.

In addition to being a photographer, artist and owner of Kathmandu Photo Gallery in Silom, Manit is a film producer. One of his movies, Shakespeare Must Die, was banned in 2012. Based on William Shakespeare's Tragedy Of Macbeth, the film was criticised by the censorship board for stoking division. After almost 12 years of appeal, the Supreme Administrative Court lifted the ban on the film in February this year. As a result, people will have an opportunity to see the film at House Samyan and SF Cinema from June 20 onwards.

Manit said this victory is one for freedom of expression.

"As a producer, I have to pass two obstacles to reach audiences -- the Film and Video Censorship Board, and major cinema chains. I won a lawsuit since the Supreme Administrative Court lifted the ban on Shakespeare Must Die. The court's ruling stated that the censorship board violated fundamental rights of freedom of expression. This is a historical victory because the censorship board was ordered to pay 500,000 baht compensation to our team. This means a government organisation has to be responsible for this compensation. This will cause the censorship board to seriously think before they decide to ban a film."

Shakespeare Must Die also passed a second obstacle after SF Cinemas agreed to screen the film. Although Manit is delighted that his film will finally be screened publically, he commented that the Thai film industry is struggling.

"There are fewer than 50 Thai films released in a year because content is controlled by the censorship board. Cinema, which is a duopoly business, is another obstacle that limits the number of releases. If a filmmaker creates something too unusual, the film may not be approved for screening in major cinemas."

Some artists believe that the power of art can change society, but Manit believes that art does not set out to change society. It intends to stimulate and trigger people in society to think. Even though his work does not make much of an impact on society, he still wants to create art.

"My work reflects the era I live in. If people want to know how my life was in this era, they can view my work. If we want to know what life was like in the early Rattanakosin kingdom, we can view mural paintings of that time. When we look at Buddha statues created during the Sukhothai kingdom, we can see the people's happiness of that era. Art reflects a time in history and my work serves like a social record of my era," explained Manit.

"Ayudhaya 2023" runs at ATTA Gallery, Charoen Krung 30, until Sunday. Admission is free. For more information, visit facebook.com/ATTAGallery.

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