Thailand’s unique northern capital builds on centuries of artistic and cultural exchange
Originally a Lawa walled city, which thrived as far back as the 5th century AD, and later ruled by Mon Buddhists till Thai chieftains from the north arrived in the 13th century, Chiang Mai has long been a simmering stew of multiple cultural and artistic influences.
Enriched as a trade crossroads along mule caravan routes between China’s Yunnan province and the port of Mawlamyine (Moulmein) in Myanmar, the city expanded its status and influence after an alliance of three Thai princes consolidated power in the 13th century to establish Lanna, the greatest kingdom the north has ever known.
Lanna was succeeded in 1802 by the smaller Kingdom of Chiang Mai, which continued to see a constant influx of craftspeople and traders from neighbouring China, Myanmar, and Laos. Long before tourists began visiting the region in the 20th century, Chiang Mai flourished as an important center for pottery, textile weaving, basketry, oiled-paper umbrellas, silverwork, and woodcarving. After the city was linked to the outside world—the first Thai monarch to visit Chiang Mai was Rama VII, in 1927—word soon spread among Thais and foreign visitors that the quaint northern capital was a non plus ultra destination for arts and crafts.
By the mid-1960s tourism had replaced commercial trade as Chiang Mai’s number one source of outside revenue, a ranking it has maintained ever since. Running close behind, however, are the sale of art, local handicrafts, and modern design products. Chiang Mai now, as in the past, boasts some of Thailand’s most skilled sculptors, working in wood, stone, clay, metal, and acrylic, as well as other contemporary materials. Chiang Mai is the birthplace of colour-incised lacquerware, which has evolved from traditional utilitarian designs to the purely decorative.
The northern Thai textile tradition has likewise distinguished itself both in the past and the present. Indigo-dyed cotton clothing was once de rigueur attire for most northern Thai folk, and today indigo tones in interior fabrics immediately evoke associations with Chiang Mai. Woven motifs—particularly mat-mee (ikat or tie-dying) and teen jok (weft brocade)—dating to the 17th century, crop up in everything from modern furniture upholstery to gallery wall-hangings. As a result of this astonishing creative variety, Chiang Mai today supplies designers and design products not only in the immediate region but to Bangkok, London, Paris and beyond.
Among the pioneers of the movement is Patricia Cheeseman Naenna, who founded Studio Naenna (www.studio-naenna.com) in Chiang Mai in 1988 to help preserve and further local weaving traditions. Today her community of weavers create most of their work using frame looms, without the use of fly shuttles, resulting in fabric pieces in the traditional width of 40 inches. For all-cotton wall hangings based on traditional Karen designs, the weavers may employ traditional backstrap looms. In addition to the usual sarongs and/or wall hangings, Studio Naenna fashions loom-woven textiles into scarves, shawls and clothing. Her weavers have mastered over a hundred traditional designs in cotton and silk, and introduced dozens of original designs. Studio Naenna’s most popular designs are weft ikat, a technique in which yarns are tie-dyed before being woven together to produce soft geometric patterns. This technique originated in northeastern Thailand but has been popular in northern Thailand for at least a century. Studio Naenna uses only natural fibers and dyes, which they extracted themselves, from locally available plants and herbs, to assure consistency and quality.
When one speaks of the vanguards of Chiang Mai’s contemporary design movement, Sop Moei Arts (www.sopmoeiarts.com) is an enterprise that always garners mention. Named for a district in the Salween River basin in the far west of northern Thailand, the company was set up as a cooperative to help Pwo Karen villagers market their traditional handicrafts in novel ways. Traditional Pwo Karen basket shapes, for example, have been transformed into fruit bowls, handbags, wine-bottle holders, and other items of daily use in modern urban households. In all cases, the Pwo Karen basket-weavers ensure that their baskets follow the correct detailing and techniques. The weavers also borrow techniques from other ethnic groups in Laos, Myanmar and southwestern China, particularly designs which are on the brink of extinction.
Rather than weave faithful copies of traditional Pwo Karen textiles, the tribal weavers reinterpret fabric designs for modern contexts. Sop Moei Arts has used international textile and fashion consultants to aid in this process, the result being a unified design vision. Some of their textile products include table place mats, table runners, serviettes and croissant servers. Wall hangings that weave pieces of bamboo and wood together with colourful fabrics are another Sop Moei Arts specialty. Taking their inspiration from spiritual totems common to several tribes in northern Thailand as well as the northern Thai culture, the hangings have been enlarged to better accommodate modern display spaces and come in a variety of patterns that are in themselves one-of-a kind pieces of art. At their showroom in Chiang Mai’s historic Wat Ket neighbourhood, Sop Moei Arts also offer carefully selected furnishings, such as rattan and teak furniture, made by third parties.
Chiang Mai native Vichit Chaiwongse, a Silpakorn University graduate, worked with the Thai government’s Fine Arts Department for several years to document architectural ornamentation throughout Thailand. After contributing to restorations at Wat Arun, Wat Phra Kaew and Prasat Hin Khao Phanom Rung, he opened Gong Dee Gallery (www.gongdee.com) in 1989 to focus on the present-day arts of northern Thailand. This highly regarded gallery offers an exceptionally wide range of works, including modern easel paintings by local artists, original furniture designs and home accessories linked for the most part to northern Thai themes.
Drawing from his experience documenting traditional architecture for the Fine Arts Department, Khun Vichit applies ornamentation techniques to Gong Dee’s accessories line. Boxes and vases, for example, for use around the modern home, may be decorated using the same lai kham—gold-leaf stenciling—techniques traditionally used for wooden temple doors. Gong Dee’s ever-expanding furniture line is particularly impressive. Khun Vichit has long employed native woods for pieces inspired by traditional forms, and more recently has created synthetics that have the appearance of hewn stone but are much lighter and easier to work with. This artificial stone has become an important feature of Gong Dee’s most up-to-date furniture products.
At the other end of the spectrum, a grassroots artists’ collective called Baan Kang Wat (facebook.com/BannKangWat) occupies a cluster of simple, two-story cement-and-wood houses set around a small outdoor amphitheater near Wat Ram Poeng, famed for its meditation retreats. Resident artists live above their shops and studios, much like they would have in Thai villages of old. Each of the creatives in the village offers a different twist on local, handmade work. Some host demonstrations or classes open to the public.
Among the shophouses at Baan Kang Wat, Nok Pha Nit Studio rotates from day to day among several media, including ceramics, jewelry and woodcuts. Another home studio, Jibberish, focuses on zakka, a pan-Asian fashion and design phenomenon that originated in Japan and has a huge following in Thailand. Described as the art of seeing the savvy in the ordinary and mundane, zakka encompasses minimalist designs for functional objects, such as bookshelves painted with a whimsical theme, or teapots daubed with cartoon-like faces. A palette of cream, light pastels, gray, and natural wood predominates. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the Thais love it.
Art galleries can be found on virtually every corner of Chiang Mai’s old city within the square moated walls. The contents range from cheap and kitschy tourist art found in one-room shophouses, to high-end studio art at the aforementioned Gong Dee Gallery. Somewhere in the middle of the two extremes lies Sangdee Art Gallery (www.sangdeegallery.org), which not only hosts regular art exhibitions but doubles as a bar and café popular with the NGO crowd.
The July 2016 opening of the Maiiam Museum of Contemporary Art (www.maiiam.com) has galvanized the art scene in Chiang Mai as nothing that’s come before it has. Jean Michel Beurdeley and his late wife Patsri Bunnag, together with their son Eric Bunnag Booth, have renovated a 3,000 sq.m warehouse near San Kamphaeng to the east of Chiang Mai in order to share their immense private Thai art collection and host rotating exhibits by contemporary Thai artists. The permanent collection includes seminal works from such masters of Thai contemporary art as the late Montien Boonma, Kamin Lertchaiprasert, Chatchai Puipia, Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, Navin Rawanchaikul, Natee Utarit, Vasan Sitthiket, and Rirkrit Tiravanija, as well as young and emerging artists from around Thailand.
Maiiam opened with ‘The Serenity of Madness’, a firstever retrospective of the work of avant-garde filmmaker Apichatpong ‘Joei’ Weerasethakul, winner of the Palme d’Or at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. That hugely successful program was followed by ‘The Timeless Present Moment’, a solo exhibition by famed Chiang Mai painter Kamin Lertchaiprasert which includes carefully selected works from two periods in the artist’s life and is currently running until 6 February 2017.