Artist Sornchai Phongsa is a living example of the way heritage and traditions, such as belief in ghosts, can deeply influence one’s vision
A large smile brightens the baby-like face of this jovial, warm, and very talkative young man. But don’t be fooled by his youthful appearance, Sornchai Phongsa is one of the most promising painters of his generation. This 26-year-old painter already has an M.F.A from the faculty of painting, sculpture, and graphic art at Silpakorn University. He’s also completed an artist residency in Paris, and has been selected to be an artist in residence in Tokyo this autumn.
Last year, Sornchai exhibited his series Mons Spirits Totem as part of a special exhibition at the Bangkok Arts and Cultural Centre (BACC) entitled ‘Early Years Projects for Young Artists’. Spread across large canvases, these giant artworks evoke ancient ancestors—dark images reflecting serenity, but also danger and an implied violence, or even death. The large portraits of spirits are also partially hidden by brightly coloured red threads that hang down to the floor, which in one instance is covered by charcoal and ash. They are, in short, disturbing images of haunting faces that both reflect the identity of the young artist and leave viewers with a mix of emotions.
Sornchai originally hails from Central Thailand, and is part of a Mon ethnic tribe that have been living in the mountains, fairly isolated from any urban development.
“My family emigrated long time ago from Myanmar, fleeing Burmese military,” explains the soft-spoken artist. “I, myself, was born in Thailand. But we, the Mon people, are officially not considered as Thai. We have, for example, no identity papers. We live a bit like ghosts. I had to fight, from the age of 10 until I was 22, to gain Thai citizenship and be able to go to university and study further.”
This relative isolation develops a strong sense of community among Mon people, and it has helped in preserving ancestral traditions.
“I am living a dual identity,” he goes on to say. “On one side, I am purely Mon by respecting ancestors, and believing in all the ghosts and spirits surrounding us who influence our lives. They can protect or destroy us, and thus we need to organize ceremonies for these ancestors. However, at the same time I have been living now in an urban contemporary environment, adapting myself to another way of life.
“For example, Mon sacrifice animals to ancestors, while Buddhist Thai protect them. Mon live a lot in spirituality, while Thais are more and more infused into a materialistic world. I personally stand in-between, and this duality is certainly reflected in my work.”
The word “ghosts” is one that seems to appear quite a lot in Somchai’s speech.
“It is part of the Thai heritage and tradition,” he adds. “It certainly delights or scares all of us. We all love to think about the invisible, about these ghosts who try to give us a sign. I have been studying this aspect a lot, not only in the Mon ethnic groups scattered around the country but also within other ethnic peoples, such as the Karen or the Tai Yai; observing their beliefs, and the way they mix shamanism, animism, and Buddhist practices.”
When exhibiting last year at the BACC, the young painter encountered some curious and unexpected reactions.
“Some people felt very scared by my paintings,” he recalls. “My brother, for example, who lives upcountry, refused to look at the portraits or even to enter the exhibition. Some other visitors also felt afraid or insecure.
“Actually, the purpose of my work is not to scare people with these ghosts. It hangs more on the sense of ceremony and the beliefs which drive Thai life. Ghosts indeed are positive elements in our lives. They force us to behave well because if we act badly they will punish us. For the Mon, spirit worshiping is also a way to strengthen family ties. My portraits are here to remind viewers that we all need to take care of our ancestry and make tamboon [merit].
“Any Thai can identify his or her self with my painted ancestors,” he says in conclusion. “And finally, my painted ghosts are also a wake-up call for Mon people. To tell them not to be ghosts anymore in Thailand!”
Words and photos by Luc Citrinot