IMHATHAI SUWATTHANASILPRebirth Crown, 2013, baked clay, glass, human hair, dimensions variable. Courtesy Numthong Gallery, Bangkok.


Imhathai Suwatthanasilp

Numthong Gallery

Since her first solo show in 2008, Imhathai Suwatthanasilp has developed a signature mode of production using human hair, often her own, which she weaves, crochets, embroiders or laces into quiet, intimate two and three-dimensional works that reflect on the nature of familial ties, domestic life, the female body and feminine identity.

Her recent solo exhibition at Bangkok’s Numthong Gallery, entitled “Rebirth,” featured 17 works, including sculptures, two-dimensional textile-based constructions and drawings, many of which incorporate materials such as shells, stones, wire coat-hangers and terra cotta, in addition to real and synthetic hair. Most of these pieces explore her bittersweet feelings about changes in the life of her family, after she and each of her three sisters, including her twin, moved out of their longtime home to marry or live with a partner—hence the show’s Thai title, “Ok-Reuan,” which translates to “leaving the nest.”

A mixed-media piece titled Four Crowns (2014), featuring synthetic hair laced over four blown-glass objects shaped like pelvic bones, refers to Imhathai and her siblings at the time of their transition to married life. The hair is colored red, a reference to the association between this color and matrimony in Chinese tradition.

IMHATHAI SUWATTHANASILPFour Crowns, 2014, synthetic hair, glass, dimensions variable. Courtesy Numthong Gallery, Bangkok.

A similar blown-glass pelvic-bone sculpture appears in Rebirth Crown (2013), mounted like a matrimonial tiara over a terra cotta female bust, which is enclosed in a knitted covering reminiscent of a wedding veil or alternatively—since it is colored black—a widow’s veil. The ambiguity is deliberate, according to the artist, who sees the transition in her and her sisters’ lives as akin to the ending of one existence and the beginning of another—a kind of death as transfiguration. The work is remarkable both for its astonishing craft, which appears to have stretched the limits of what is attainable through glass-blowing, and the way it conveys a kind of talismanic feminine grace, potency and confidence that is more majestic than funereal. Several drawings in the exhibition also portrayed a pelvic bone figure, through filament-like lines etched onto canvases painted black.

There were also several pieces that served as ambiguous commemorations of domesticity. The Thirty First (2012) is a set of vase-shaped objects loosely knitted from strands of hair that the artist collected daily from her shower drain for a month. Each egg-size vessel holds a small, smooth white stone at its base, each painted with a number from 1 to 31.

IMHATHAI SUWATTHANASILP, The Thirty First, 2012, human hair and stones, dimensions variable. Courtesy Numthong Gallery, Bangkok.

Dreamcatcher (Home Sweet Home) (2014) features a rural landscape embroidered onto a hexagonal skein of sheer fabric stretched across a circle of seven wire coat-hangers. The little scene of a traditional Thai-style wooden house on stilts, set in a garden with birds, flowers and trees under a sunny sky, seems wistfully sincere. Yet its twee-ness seems to be a tongue-in-cheek reference to the kind of clichéd, sentimental landscapes produced by generation after generation of Imhathai’s fellow graduates from the conservative “Thai art” faculty of Silpakorn University, Bangkok’s oldest art school. This sweetly ironic work could be seen as an emblem of Imhathai’s career success in developing a truly contemporary mode of artistic expression, which sidesteps the sometimes stultifying conventions promulgated by Silpakorn’s tradition-based program, from which she earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in art.

All in all, “Rebirth” proved why Imhathai has developed a substantial following in the Thai art scene, with more and more invitations to exhibit abroad. The show demonstrated her talent in working and reworking a variety of themes, tropes, tones, materials and forms. It all seemed just right, yet without contrivance. It’s hard to resist comparing Imhathai to two predecessor Thai artists with kindred approaches in exploring the metaphor of vessels as bodies—namely, Montien Boonma (1953–2000) and Pinaree Sanpitak. Yet Imhathai has clearly staked her own claim, and it is persuasive.

IMHATHAI SUWATTHANASILPDreamcatcher (Home Sweet Home), 2014, synthetic hair, clothes hangers, fabric, diameter: 90 cm. Courtesy Numthong Gallery, Bangkok.

Imhathai Suwatthanasilp: “Rebirth” was on view at Numthong Gallery, Bangkok, from September 13 to October 11, 2014.