In ‘paradoxical world’, depictions of animals stitched in calico speak of the human condition
After a long absence from the local art scene, Narissara Pianwimungsa makes a welcome return with a solo show, “A New Interpretation of the Paradoxical World”, at Nova Contemporary Art gallery off Rajadamri Road.
Narissara is known for her figurative paintings of a mysterious lady with large eyes full of wonder, which appeared in Yuthlert Sippapak’s 2003 drama “February”.
While away from the exhibition world, Narissara has been expanding her artistic skills to include other forms ranging from poetry, a book compiling her often unsettling thoughts and working with street artist friends. A turning point in her career, this is her first solo exhibition in six years.
At first glance, the new and feminine collection is reminiscent of her signature paintings of figurative animals like wolves, deer, peacocks, insects and butterflies, all boasting big eyes. However, a closer look reveals that needles, not brushstrokes, have shaped these richly textured animals. The artist has embroidered them using tiny stitches in black, white and red thread, finishing their eyes with black acrylic paint. Cute rabbits made of raisins sit in an installation on the ground, their feet decorated with red thread.
Like her signature painting of the mysterious lady, Narissara’s animals have big eyes and a lonely, sad look about them and reflect, she explains, her feelings following the loss of her beloved father three years ago.
The 43-year-old artist says she began exploring the technique of embroidery on painted calico – the fabric Thai-Chinese use for the mourning costumes at funerals – after her father died.
“I discovered this technique while making the clothes for my father’s funeral. According to Chinese tradition, the daughter is in charge of sewing up the pockets of the clothes when a parent passes away. She dresses him in funeral clothing and seals the pockets to prevent the deceased from taking cash into the next life that should be left beind for the children. The body is then given a second set of clothing, this time made of calico.
“The belief, shared with other cultures, is that no one can take material possessions with them when they die. Besides showing my gratitude to my dad, I also found that the process of making these clothes was a therapy in itself,” the artist reveals.
Instead of using canvases for her artworks, Narissara quilts small pieces of calico into a huge frame, then sketches the outline of the work and carefully embroiders the animals. This technique creates textures that look like animal fur and, interestingly, the stitches make her animals lively. They are finished with little touches of acrylic paint. This collection took her nearly a year to complete.
The physical sewing draws on her subconscious and her animals reflect the spectrum of her inner feelings. The centrepiece entitled “Dream” is a giant deer measuring 3.20 metres by 2.15 metres. White acrylic paint covers the antlers, stomach and tail. A peacock spreading its tail is given the name “Ceremony”, while “Myth” is represented in an owl. An insect fashioned in red thread is named “Red Silence”. And the work depicting the wolf with sly eyes is called “Shadow”.
A video that explains her process in creating the art and the concept of the show can be viewed at the gallery’s mezzanine.
“My observations from films, music, poetry and news brought home the unyielding perplexity, desolation and unhappiness that underpins human thoughts and emanates through holes in men’s hearts. This is particularly true of urban dwellers. I suppose it’s because of the unceasing flow of information from all directions, which makes it impossible to separate truths from lies,” she explains in her video.
“Perhaps these are the conventional feelings of the 21st century. I once asked my dad whether he felt lonely or restless during difficult times and he said not that he could remember. I think the older generation was much more secure in the way they thought. The new generation is filled with anxiety, displeasure and unkempt thoughts, like a tangled thread. “In a traditional Chinese funeral there’s a belief that all the pockets of the deceased must be sewn up. As the daughter, I sewed every single pocket myself and that was the most painful embroidery I had ever done, because I didn’t have the chance to talk to him before he passed away. Therefore, his last thoughts and wishes remained untold, resembling the sealed pockets. That forever changed the way I see embroidery,” she reveals.
The video also includes a quote by South African author and activity Olive Schreiner, which asked: “Has the pen or pencil dipped so deep in the blood of human race as a needle?”
“Although this exhibition is fabricated from my experience, I do not only convey the pain from my loss, but also the hope and healing that embroidery brings. I am trying to express modern feelings in a different perspective; so I draw them through needles and stitches in my contemporary embroidery without outline patterns.
“I express my work through animal form as I don’t want to represent any specific individual. Humans and animals have a long history and they are embedded in our subconscious. I believe everyone has dreamed of animals whether as pets or monstrous beings associated with people.
“Each piece is unique and will be interpreted differently by the viewer depending on his or her past experiences. I believe that a work of art starts from an individual but I do hope everyone will share experiences from my work,” she adds.
The show, which marks the gallery’s first anniversary, aims to promote and support Thai female artists. Nova is also now representing Narissara.
“This year I want to focus on female artists. Narissara has not been active for a long time. I feel that she has the potential to come back stronger than before. She is a very shy person and I want to help her express her words and emotions to the viewer. I discovered her works [‘Paradoxical World’] at Silpakorn University when she received the Silpa Bhirasri award in 2016. I feel like her work is very personal and the embroidery technique is something that attracted me,” says Nova founder and director Sutima Sucharitakul.
The works are selling well too. Half the works in Narissara’s collection – priced between Bt45,000 for a small piece (30 cm by 40 cm) and Bt550,000 for the largest – have been purchased by Thai collectors, many of them young.
Sutima, 28, is optimistic about the contemporary art market in Thailand.“A growing number of people are visiting the gallery daily, both art enthusiasts and potential buyers. There are more galleries who are bringing interesting international artists to Bangkok, which is a refreshing change to the scene. And more public and private museums will be opening soon. It is very important to educate and attract young people to the arts at an early stage in their life,” she tells The Nation.