Migrants, sex workers take pride of place in Bangkok art festival

An art installation by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama on display at a shopping mall in Bangkok as part of the Bangkok Art Biennale 2018.
An art installation by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama on display at a shopping mall in Bangkok as part of the Bangkok Art Biennale 2018.PHOTO: AFP
A man walks on an art installation titled What Will We Leave Behind by Thai artist Nino Sarabutra, which is on display as part of the Bangkok Art Biennale 2018, at the Wat Prayurawongsawas Waraviharn temple in Bangkok, on Oct 19, 2018.
A man walks on an art installation titled What Will We Leave Behind by Thai artist Nino Sarabutra, which is on display as part of the Bangkok Art Biennale 2018, at the Wat Prayurawongsawas Waraviharn temple in Bangkok, on Oct 19, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK (THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION) - Sex workers and migrant labourers feature prominently in an art festival in Bangkok as local and international artists tackle issues that the artistic director says are otherwise ignored in the city.

The inaugural Bangkok Art Biennale (BAB), which runs until February, features 75 exhibits in 20 venues including the city's ancient temples, luxury hotels and malls.

For the theme, Beyond Bliss, several artists chose social and environmental issues, said artistic director Apinan Poshyananda.

"These are often collateral in our pursuit of bliss," he said.

"This is why we decided to turn the entire city into a giant venue, so we could make it accessible to everyone, get everyone to think about it," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

One of those issues is migrant workers, who number more than three million in Thailand, according to the International Organisation for Migration.

Rights groups say there are many more, working largely in risky, low-paid jobs such as construction and in the fishing and seafood industries, where abuse is common.

A large bamboo sculpture by Mr Sornchai Phongsa - who is the son of illegal migrant workers from Myanmar - is titled Alien Capital and was built by illegal migrant workers.

"The work is a comment on how Bangkok thrives on migrant workers, yet the workers themselves are invisible and silent,"said Mr Poshyananda. "This work gives them a voice."

Mr Firoz Mahmud also addresses migration with his stylised photographs of Bangladeshis in large green glasses seeing a better life in Thailand.

Thai artist Imhathai Suwatthanasilp's No More Sewing Machine installation features parts of sewing machines wrapped in the hair of sex workers in the northern city of Chiang Mai.

"It ridicules society's notion that sex workers can be rehabilitated by teaching them sewing," said Mr Poshyananda.

"Why must that be the only option?"

Another Thai artist, Mr Chumpon Apisuk, tackles the stigma that sex workers face, with a 10-minute video featuring female and transgender sex workers in Chiang Mai talking about their dreams.

Pueng, who works in a massage parlour, says she would like to build a home for her family and have her own grocery shop. Apo, a bar girl, says she dreams of owning an airline, because "it looks good, and people will see me as a smart woman".

The video seeks to "build up confidence of sex workers, and is a way for them to voice their pride," said Mr Chumpon.

Thailand has more than 123,530 sex workers, according to a 2014 report by the United Nations agency for HIV/Aids.

Although prostitution is illegal, it is tolerated, with visitors to the country seeking out its go-go bars and "soapy" massages as much as its white-sand beaches and gilded Buddhist temples.

"The sex industry is a big business that brings in tourists and helps the workers support their families," said Mr Poshyananda.

"Yet we stigmatise them and dehumanise them. Perhaps this will open our eyes to their lives and their dreams."