KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Petani Semasa is a significant exhibition on contemporary art about the Patani region of Southern Thailand, that privileges local artists. Currently on display at the Ilham gallery in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the works are deeply complicated, and largely unsettling. Featuring 27 artists, the show never resolves into a unified voice, but showcases the diversity of practice and experience of the region. Patani Semasa adopts poetic means of representation from a region largely internationally defined by its enforced marginality.
The Patani region abuts Malaysia and is politically fraught due to unresolved or outright antagonistic tensions between the marginalized Islamic and ethnically Malay locals, and the politically dominant Tai ethnic group that is part of the Buddhist majority in Thailand. This conflict has been simmering for decades, perhaps peaking in 2004 with the Tak Bai incident wherein approximately 78 men were tragically killed by Thai police (some reports put the number of the dead higher). This violent episode is dramatically referenced throughout the exhibition, notably in Jakkai Siributr’s “78” (2014), (which I’ve written about previously), as well as in Jehabdulloh Jehsorhoh’s work, “Remember at Tak-Bai,” (2008), which also serves as a memorial to the tragedy.
An especially haunting work is Nuriya Waji’s “Fade Away 3,” (2016). The painting features a ghostly figure, just barely articulated by a line drawing to be recognized as a woman. Spilling out of her chador (or Hijab) is a dark, smokey pigment, covering her identity and blowing away with a wind that seems to come from behind her. A deep feeling of loss pervades the figure, floating in an undefined locale.
While the majority of the artists of Patani Semasa deal with the contentious politics of the region, they don’t propose solutions, or lean on simplistic answers. While many works on display are dark and violent, the exhibition is successful because of its much more subtle, even quotidian representations of the Patani region, which are equally worthy of our consideration.
Another powerful work made from local materials is Jamilah Haji’s, “The Spirit of Faith 7,” (2011). Using supplies from her family’s sewing store, Haji has constructed a stunning image of prayer, faith, and devotion from colorful thread on a black cloth. Like Waji’s work, the figures in “The Spirit of Faith 7,” are expertly crafted and really pop from the frame, though with a dramatically different affect.
Throughout Patani Semasa a range of social roles for the artist are depicted — ranging from a more factually-based, artist-as-journalist role, to the poetic storyteller. Works of powerful photojournalism, for example, “The Flames of the South: Is Peace Near or Far Away?” (2005–2016) by Vinai Dithajohn are exhibited side by side with much more abstract works such as “Remember at Tak-Bai” — to great success. Throughout the exhibition, newspaper clippings, reportage from specific events, and artifacts are used as tools to enhance and ground artworks in a complex and still-being-negotiated relationship to the region’s history. Another good example of this negotiation is Keeta Isran’s collaging of news clippings and photographs in“The Memory of Shape to Physical Form” (2014), but is seen time and time again.
A lovely counter to the violence is Roslisham Ismail‘s (a.k.a. Ise), “Langkasuka Cookbook Project,” which was commissioned as part of the seventh Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art. Featuring local dishes, and the pleasure of sharing a good meal with others, the cookbook produced by the artist documents and shares unique facets of the Patani region that are not centered on opposition. Everyone can appreciate a good meal.
Starting in Chiang Mai, Thailand at the MAIIAM Museum of Contemporary Art, this is the second and final (planned) iteration of the exhibition. This show productively examines and questions ideas of the nation and borders, while itself moving across them. Within rising authoritarianism and intolerance throughout this region, not to mention the world, Patani Semasa, offers a chance to hear from a region that has been largely unnoticed by outsiders. Eschewing any overt political stance, Patani Semasa simply asks us to start to listen. It is complicated, painful, and — even in its poetry — all true.