15 January 2020
15 January 2020 - Written by Lucia De Stefani
Thai photographer Kamonlak Sukchai reflects on the role of folklore as an enduring vehicle for representing and perpetuating today’s societal values, in conflict with a more modern strain of civil awareness.
On the surface of dark waters, lotuses float gracefully and with purpose, anchored invisibly to the lake bed beneath. Their slender stems root in mud, stretching through the sludgy marsh, toward the air. This makes them, in traditional Buddhism, a symbol of liberation, purity and detachment from earthly desires. Droplets slide from their sleek petals, leaving them unchanged.
But the lotus at the core of Kamonlak Sukchai’s artwork, borrowing also from traditional Thai folklore, suggests a slightly different reading - the fictionalised, whimsical, tale of a Red Lotus, a girl tainted by naiveté, maybe caprice, and a natural carnal drive, as well as the greedy appetites of men and a proverbial outcome.
Having floated along the sacred muddy river that birthed her, the young woman alights on an inhabited shore. Villagers worship her, but the men soon pursue her for her purity. Escorted by ascetic women and a holy man, she travels to a remote forest for refuge, but this bucolic truce does not last long.
As her sensuality flowers, she reaches for the fruits of a holy tree. In the process, a sorcerer is stained by her menstrual blood, which dims his magical powers. He demands her purity in return; and once conceded, it’s gone forever. They proceed into the woods, they mate, but when she bathes in the holy pond, the waters redden and the holy place is desecrated. As a consequence, she is sacrificed, her genitals and breasts severed, but she begs to be reincarnated as a red lotus, in order to redeem the sins of her lifetime.
The structure of this marvelous tale stems from Thai folklore and combines artefacts and oral tradition in ways that are both playful and masterful. While alluding to fairy tales, songs, nursery rhymes, literature and dances, Sukchai invents for herself a tale that retraces the codes of folk tradition.
Brought up in a conservative family, Sukchai naturally absorbed the values perpetuated by myth and folkloristic practice. Her inquisitive voice found an outlet in her art, asking questions and seeking answers about the meanings and consequences of a conservative approach that stands in conflict with a more empathetic strain of civil awareness.
“My interest [was] in Thai folklore, the effect that it has on people, and the power it has to control over our society's consciousness, how these stories affect our values, how it still affects and governs our ideas and values today,” Sukchai says.
Sukchai is unafraid to borrow from the sentimental realm of soap opera: shimmering saturated colours, unnaturally performative poses, and serial repetition of whimsical details result in the mise-en-scene of an ancient legend that trickles down from generation to generation, replaying the same set of values again and again, in spite of changing times. Sukchai’s irreverently ironic gaze renders the fairy tale more human and vulnerable, reducing the sanctity of the acts as well as the severity of the crimes.
By adopting folklore as a vehicle for representing the nuances of certain values in Thai society, Sukchai explains, she critically revisits outdated cultural customs while poking fun at old-fashioned and reactionary practices, a tool that enables viewers to shrewdly reflect upon them and question the structure of society today.
Kamonlak Sukchai is a Thai photographer. After graduating with a Major in Cinema Production Design, she turned her attention to visual storytelling and now works on projects that focus on cultural and social issues. Follow her on PHmuseum and Instagram.
This article is part of the series New Generation, a monthly column written by Lucia De Stefani, focusing on the most interesting emerging talents in our community.