Chiang Mai, Thailand, and Central Florida have a few things in common. Both are tourist destinations with lush subtropical climates. And both desire international recognition as art centers. One big difference: Thailand has had the largest number of political coup attempts in the world, making it one of the least stable governments and a difficult place to define a cohesive national identity. Traditional cultures combined with modernization, and public displays of love for monarchs’ past, form the beautifully complex terrain explored by over a dozen ambitious and talented Thai photographic artists.

Southeast x Southeast, curated by Patricia Bambace and facilitated by Museum Director James Pearson, is a superb example of a successful international cultural-exchange art exhibition, a daunting feat presented flawlessly. Highlights include The Street Vendors by Nat Bowornphatnon, a commercial photographer’s venture into fine art: He invited Thai street merchants and their carts into his studio, effectively isolating each subject from the noise and distractions of the streets, allowing the viewer to connect with each vendor, and explore the visual intricacies of their mobile storefronts.

Another powerful series is Bygone Day by Gun Ketwech, a personal and eloquent response to Thailand’s changing political and cultural climate. Ketwech uses diptychs to create visual conversations between simple images of everyday life that are enlivened by the accompanying personal and socio-political text. Perhaps the strongest presence in the exhibition is Assada Poronond’s series on Thai punk culture, In Pins and Chains. Like his American predecessors Diane Arbus and Richard Avedon, he presents stark frontal portraits of non-ordinary individuals, giving the viewer permission to stare. In Thailand, punk rock isn’t just about fashion and music: it’s also about politics. Young people put their hair up in liberty spikes, adorn themselves with safety pins and chains, and venture out to dingy, isolated clubs to hear political hardcore bands shout infectious anthems of disapproval and change. These bands put themselves at great risk, sometimes in prison or worse. This series documents a specific time and place in Thailand’s history, but the message of dissatisfied youth fighting for political change is universal.

This not-to-be-missed exhibition is part of the Southeast Museum of Photography’s 40th anniversary celebration. For more information:

Phillip Ringler is a photographer, curator, educator, musician and contributing writer for ArtScene Press.
Photos: Philip Ringler