The Art of Politics and ProtestWritten by Jane Littlefair
Thai artist Vasan Sitthiket, founder of Bangkok gallery Rebel Art Space, on the importance of art as protest and how the student massacre of 1976 changed his life and still motivates him to this day.
Thai Visual artist Vasan Sitthiket has a long proven background in fighting for change. With firsthand experience of Bangkok’s anti-government protests in the 1970s, he went on to to advocate for the establishment of the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre in 2008, and all whilst making his name for himself as an artist and political provocateur. Today, many of his long-held motivations have come together under one roof in his latest project, Bangkok’s community-focused gallery, Rebel Art Space. Co-founded in 2013 with fellow artist Wannaphon “Sai” Chimbangchong and curator Bee Jiratti Kuttanam, Rebel Art Space is a studio and show space featuring handpicked artists from all over the world. Designed to foster an environment of creative conversation, it draws a community of artists focused on acts of rebellion and social activism, providing space for conversation and inspiring change.
Think of the art scene in Thailand, and culturally appropriate imagery reflecting and celebrating the country’s traditional heritage is what normally springs to mind. Vassan Sitthiket is a different kind of national artist. A self-proclaimed anarchist who pays no heed to such cultural tendencies, he has made a name for himself as a political provocateur who pulls no punches in his paintings, performances and poetry. With a career spanning over three decades, he is widely regarded as being one of Thailand’s most prominent and internationally recognised artists.
Originally from Nakhon Sawan province, a city in Northern Thailand, Vasan attributes one particular event during his time as a student at The College of Fine Arts in Bangkok as being the great turning-point in this life. He explains, “On October 6th, 1976, I witnessed the student massacre at Thammasat University. This event awakened me to the true meaning of life.” From that moment on, he dedicated his life to pushing the city forward to support the creative community, all whilst propagating the notion that “We can pick our future. That we have a voice”.
In the years since, Vasan has successfully fought to open the Bangkok Art and Cultural Centre and set up various political art projects notorious for being direct, controversial and subversive. Inspired by the many social injustices around him, his work tackles issues of politics, power, and leadership within Thai society. Vasan insists, “as an artist, it is our duty to document today’s society as it is. It is our responsibility to record the suffering of unknown people. Reform might sound utopian, but it’s better than sitting around and doing nothing”.
Despite the recent boom in Bangkok’s creative sector, Vasan recognised that there was still a major lack of dialogue happening at existing art venues. And so, he set about creating Rebel Art Space, a place nestled in a quiet residential area in Sukhumvit Soi 67 where artists can freely engage in an exchange of ideas and candidly present their social and political beliefs without fear of condemnation. The place is as much a gallery as it is a safe space deisgned to nurture debate and creativity. He explains, “I believe that art can be a powerful tool to liberate our society as it allows people to express their thoughts. Art is so much more than just aesthetic. Art has the power to make people think”.
Designed with simplicity in mind, the former residential house is made up of five floors, all of which are painted white to allow the artwork to speak for itself. Despite occasionally getting into trouble with neighbours for the loud noise that accompanies the teenage crowds the venue regularly attracts, Vasan is proud of all that Rebel Art Space has accomplished, stressing that it is enhancing the Thai community by bringing in a new age of art and helping them to “wake up” to the many “ugly truths” of this world.
Exhibitions at Rebel Art Space change every 3-4 months with new themes such as, “No Greed-No War”, “Voiceless Voice” and the current theme of “Human Stories”. The space provides a platform for creatives to participate in discussing larger societal problems, and always tries to involve as many artists as possible. Given its nature, the space has always brought in a diverse mix of local artists, Korean and Chinese tourists, and expat art enthusiasts.
When looking to the future, Vasan believes that Bangkok’s creative scene can improve people’s quality of life through powerful artistic messages. He declares, “my objective will not change. Art is for the people, and we should always express our voices through art. I hope that, 5 years from now, we can move to a bigger space and have more internal performances that bring in young artists from all around the world, facilitating important discussions about our society and current state of the world”. Today, Rebel Art Space is well-known by locals and tourists alike as being an art venue with no limits. If you have an interest in socio-political subject matters, or simply a love of art, be sure to check out Vasan’s latest experiment in public debate.
Address: 10/5 Soi Srijun, Sukhunvit 67, Bangkok, Thailand
Tel: +66 81 666 8383