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‘Thonburi: a place’ makes people’s stories part of artistic experience

Desi Anwar

The Jakarta Post

Bangkok, Thailand  /  Wed, March 6, 2019  /  11:59 am
‘Thonburi: a place’ makes people’s stories part of artistic experience

Steeped in history: Once the capital of Siam in the 18th century, Thonburi is a far cry from the gleaming, modern Bangkok. (Courtesy of Felia Salim/-)

What strikes me, wandering the alley ways of Somdet Chao Phraya in the Thonburi district on the west bank of Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River, is the number of cats found there. It is as if these furry creatures own the place.

Mind you, they are not the feral type that makes you want to cross the road at the sight of them, but friendly felines that approach you with a lazy gait and rub themselves against your legs as if they have missed you.

And they are everywhere. Perched on the roof of a dainty house or on a bench on the side of the narrow streets, napping among packets of tissues on a shelf of a tiny local shop, grooming themselves with legs splayed near motorcycles parked against the walls of 3 meter by 4 m houses that the community in this area call home.

Once the capital of Siam in the 18th century, Thonburi is a far cry from a gleaming, modern Bangkok on the opposite side of the Chao Phraya River. The area is relatively undeveloped but steeped in history, with many interesting places to visit for curious visitors in search of a more authentic and down-to-earth experience than the usual tourist sites.

In many of the narrow streets around Somdet -- a short walk from the Princess Mother Memorial Park and the Thai capital’s main river -- colorful murals give the area a cheerful aspect, while potted plants and flowers add to the charm of this old and dilapidated neighborhood. At street corners stand coin-operated washing machines and water dispensers. And of course, those nameless Thonburi cats.

Furry creature: Cats wandering the alley ways in Thonburi, Bangkok, are a common sight.Furry creature: Cats wandering the alley ways in Thonburi, Bangkok, are a common sight. (Courtesy of Felia Salim/-)

And despite the back-to-back houses and the tiny lanes that barely accommodate a motorbike, I am pleasantly surprised at how clean and well-kept this neighborhood is.

In the evening, with their doors opening onto the darkened alley ways, these small rectangular living quarters with their occupants going about their daily business of watching television and enjoying their meals on stools around a low table, are like living tableaus for passersby. Art works in motion.

Which is what brought me to this lesser known part of Bangkok in the first place.

Thonburi, specifically the neighborhoods near the Princess Mother Memorial Park, Wat Anongkaram and Lam Thong Salt Factory, is the site of the third Low Fat Art Festival, a multidisciplinary art festival held every two years bringing international artists to Thailand to collaborate with local ones.

The festival, like low fat milk, only has the bare minimum in terms of funding, resources and support, and yet promises to keep the essential nutrition, which is healthy creativity and experimentation.

Outdoor concept: Jakarta-based Arts Space (ESAS)’s director Ines Somellera reinvents her play, 'Xalisco, a place'¸ for the Low Fat Art Festival in Bangkok, Thailand.Outdoor concept: Jakarta-based Arts Space (ESAS)’s director Ines Somellera reinvents her play, 'Xalisco, a place'¸ for the Low Fat Art Festival in Bangkok, Thailand. (Courtesy of Ines Somellera/-)

Art, normally confined to galleries, theaters, art centers and closed spaces, has always been the privilege of the few. A cloistered universe of like-minded denizens speaking in a language only they can understand.

Around the world, there is no lack of artists. To make art more relevant, however, there is a clear need to grow the audience. The question that bugs Wayla Amatathammachad, the director of Low Fat Art Fes Volume 3, however, is “how can we attract a bigger audience and where are they?”

Perhaps knocking on people’s doors would help. Which was what Wayla did. Doors that are far from Bangkok’s shiny and air-conditioned galleries. At Thonburi. A place where an art space never existed, and among people who probably have never set foot in a theater.

A year of walking around the area, getting to know the community and earning their trust and interest, bore fruit. The festival will be a collaboration of a Low Fat Art Fes team, the community and the artists creating something new and something different.

The key words, according to Wayla, are “activating art awareness” and “expanding inclusiveness”. The festival is therefore, is not merely about installing and performing art but also about making people’s stories, their daily lives and their homes part of the artistic experience.

In order to pull this off, three members from the local community were invited to curate the festival.

There were performances in the memorial park and the salt factory, workshops at rubbish dumps, film screenings at a grocery store, exhibitions at internet cafes, music at a riverside restaurant, performed by 20 artists from 10 countries and organized mainly by people from outside the art world.

Art in motion: The play 'Xalisco, a place' is about a man’s visit to a town that is only alive in his mother’s memory.Art in motion: The play 'Xalisco, a place' is about a man’s visit to a town that is only alive in his mother’s memory. (Courtesy of Ines Somellera/-)

For Jakarta-based Arts Space (ESAS), who was invited to take part in this year’s festival that took place in February, the outdoor concept of the festival was at first challenging, but later as it turned out, a new opportunity for director Ines Somellera to reinvent her play -- Xalisco, a place -- arose.

This Latin American-inspired play had earlier been performed at the Salihara theater in Jakarta in 2017. In this performance, an important and integral part of the play, set in Mexico, was a large wall that was purposely built for the stage. Something that was not feasible with a limited budget and the outdoor setting of the Low Fat Art Fes.

According to Wayla, he gave Ines two options -- present the work in a downtown theater, which would be costly and not in keeping with the spirit of the festival, or to have the play performed in Thonburi, among the community.

Ines, who had made Jakarta her home for the last 10 years, chose the latter. For the space, the yard of a local school just a stone’s throw from the memorial park was chosen.

Instead of a stone wall, Ines used one of the school’s buildings as backdrop. The audience, mostly from the surrounding neighborhood, sat on plastic chairs and on mats laid on the ground.

Having seen Xalisco, a place in Salihara, watching it in Thonburi was such a different experience, not only because Ines used an entirely new cast at the festival (the actors and dancers are from Singapore), or because there was a more linear approach to the narrative this time, but more because the outdoor set actually transformed the play entirely, making it a unique experience both for the actors as well as the audience.

Xalisco, a place, is about a man’s visit to a town that is only alive in his mother’s memory. Xalisco is a place where the uttered words create beauty, love, colors and sensual passion even as the surrounding area is barren sand and dusty, empty of life except for lost, ghostly spirits that blend with the colorless walls and blown in the wind.

Staging the play outdoors, with the dusk falling and the moon rising against the clear sky, while from somewhere came the sound of the children laughing, people chattering, motorbikes roaring and dogs barking, the audience can only be sucked into the play and become one with it.

Boomrong Vicha School, an elementary school by day, became Xalisco at night.

Bringing art into the community is clearly a recipe that works for everybody, enriching the experience for the artists and the person on the street alike.

For the next Low Fat Art Fes in 2021, Wayla is considering to hold it again in a community. Perhaps somewhere outside Bangkok.

As for Xalisco, a place, Ines plans to bring her play home to Mexico in October. And just maybe, perform it outdoors again. (ste)

-- Written exclusively for The Jakarta Post