Past memories, present hauntings
If my exhibition were to be a song, it would be River of No Return.
I still remember it clearly.
Every morning, my mother would sit in front of her make-up table. I would lie on the floor and look at her while she put on make-up on her face little by little. It was a beautiful moment. The smell of her make-up was so nice. Every time they play this song, my mother would sing along. The moments where my mother put on her make-up with this song playing were magical indeed.
I was only two-and-a-half years old when my father was a victim of hate crime. In 1977, he was beaten by racists in Germany and he died several months later. He was 35. My mother had to raise two children all by herself. My memories of my father came from what my mother told me.
Mother said during the time that my father worked in a German company, our family had a pretty well-to-do life. I could see that from the things he left us. We had an 8mm projector and films — a slide projector that my mother would play the films and slides my father recorded when he was in Europe. Some whiskey bottles, souvenirs from Europe such as a small paperweight depicting Pieta, a plate with Caravaggio painting printed on it, etc.
After my father passed away, my mother had to stay at Grandmother’s house, which was in a ghetto. And so, my childhood life was surrounded by poverty.
My mother has Parkinson’s disease and can barely move. I just bought a house and wish we could all live together — my mother, her caretaker, my nieces, my sister and me. My sister passed away on 15 May 2019. She was 47. My mother was totally heartbroken.
When she learned of my sister’s passing, she cried and kept saying that she had begged 35 years ago, when my father died, to the holy spirits to please not let this happen to her again.
The migrant workers in Germany with whom I have worked are women. This project relates to my sister, and also, my father. For my sister, I found the relationship of being a Thai woman who was born and raised in Thai culture.
There are belief systems that control their lives and lead them to believe that women would never be able to be free.
Like most of the women I met in Berlin, my sister believed that life is only happy or complete when you find a good husband. The women whom I’ve met, including my sister, face unhappiness in their family life and do not have good relationships with their husbands. One of the women was raped and had a child. Her life has been ruined since. These led them to a tragic life.
For my sister, she became depressed and died at a young age of 47.
What inspired my art was my life’s journey in the past 10 years. I have had opportunities to create work in many countries and one of the most memorable was in Rwanda.
I worked with orphans who were born in 1994, the year of the Rwandan genocide. They survived the civil war and carry many stories with them. I heard the story of a young man who was born to a mother who had been raped and he had HIV from birth.
This changed the way I look at the world. One way is through information from the media, and the other way, which is more important, is to meet real people with flesh and blood.
All these experiences became my inspiration to understand the lives of those who are trapped, especially people from former colonies, developing countries and those countries that still have some troubles from post-colonial era such as Myanmar.
I met Watuze Ali, a man of Bengali descent who was born in Mawlamyine, Myanmar, in Thailand. He told me that his grandfather was a rich farmer who owned a big plot of land. But one day, the Burmese junta declared those of Bengali descent non-Burmese, and that changed his destiny.
I assume Watuze’s situation resulted from the ethnic cleansing during the U Ne Win regime. Despite residing in Myanmar, his family along with other Bengalis could no longer own land as a result of the ethnic cleansing policy. Since then, he and his family have had a difficult life.
He told me poverty knocked on his door before it escalated to violence, and his family and every Bengali wanted to flee Myanmar. In 2000, when he was 13, he was determined to escape Myanmar for Thailand.
Every Bengali youngster knows the group of people known as “นำพา”. The words in Thai means the Leader. These people are human traffickers who would take them across the border from Myanmar into Thailand and later sell them to roti gangsters in Thailand.
The Leader would sell each person for 4,500 baht (about S$300). In exchange for bringing them into Thailand, they will have to work for the gangster as a roti vendor for one year without payment. You can see roti carts at the corner of every street in Thailand. The roti street vendors are mostly Bengalis from Myanmar.
The Leader would lead them from Myanmar to Thailand by walking, and some of them died during the journey. They would have to walk through bushes and forests, crossing mountain after mountain.
Art is a lens to reality that is most revealing to current social conditions, but with perspective and opinion lent to it by the artist.
If we learn to be more empathetic towards others by giving more love and not looking at them through ideologies or believing everything we receive from the media, we can start to better understand our life and others.
We can start by looking at the people around us and be curious about wanting to understand others. We can then expand to a wider group of people.
To understand the forest, I believe I should start to understand the one leaf in my hand.