In her latest ‘hair-raising’ exhibition, Imhathai Suwatthanasilp studies the proverbial ‘7 Elements’
IMHATHAI SUWATTHANASILP has for more than a decade been painstakingly crocheting strands of her hair into outlandish mixed-media artworks, in what she calls a commemoration of her origins and significant episodes in her life.
Her hair remains the primary material in the exhibition “Ruen Sam Nam See” (“7 Elements”), which takes its name from a Thai proverb about the seven attributes a housewife requires to be considered “perfect”.
Continuing all this month at Bangkok’s Numthong Gallery, the show follows on from “Ok Reun” (“Rebirth”) in 2014, in which she likened getting married to being reborn, since it involves building a new “nest”.
In “Perfume Portrait”, a web of crocheted hair encloses a perfume bottle, from which stream more strands.
Among other commands, the proverb suggests women must take good care of the family, be skilled at cooking and needlework, speak politely and be kind and compassionate.
“As a married woman I’m now interested in the traditional beliefs about married life,” says Imhathai, who recently resigned as an art lecturer at Silpakorn University – her alma mater – and is moving to Pa Sang in Lamphun, her mother’s hometown.
Black hair is sculpted into a skeleton shape in “Self-portrait No 1”
“Ruen Sam” is a reinterpretation of terms like ruen guy (body), ruen krua (kitchen) and ruen non (bedroom). She sees ruen guy as a temporary dwelling for the sprit, depicted in a two-piece artwork. The first part, “Self-portrait No 1”, features a mass of small pieces crocheted from her fallen black hair, arranged to resemble a human skeleton in a coffin-like glass case.
“I was thinking of the time I collected my father’s ashes after his cremation,” says Imhathai, 36. “A monk arranged the ashes into the form of a skeleton to demonstrate how everything is subject to change. The small crocheted pieces are like the tiny cells in our bodies.”
A detail of “Self-portrait No 2” shows the grey hair used in place of black.
“Self-portrait No 2” occupies another glass case. More small free-form pieces fashioned from her hair, this time grey, are arranged in four long lines. The artist uses only fallen strands, not cut hair, to symbolise life’s delicacy and decay.
“Crocheting is ideal for preserving material that’s valuable but fragile,” she says. “Hair has its own life cycle. As the follicles produce new cells, the old cells are pushed out. Age, disease and a lot of other factors influence each follicle’s life.”
“Four Pelvis Stoves” address the issues of womanhood.
Ruen krua is presented in pelvis-shaped clay sculptures – “Four Pelvis Stoves” – with a light bulb underneath each one and a sphere of blown glass above. Beneath the glass is a web of illuminated crocheted hair.
The idea came from the old-fashioned tao cherng kran wood stove, which is indeed shaped like a pelvis. “The shape made me think of my mother and late grandmother and about the state of being a wife and a housewife.”
One of three “Love Rorschach” paintings inspired by the famous inkblot test.
Three acrylic paintings collectively titled “Love Rorschach” suggest ruen non. The inkblot test with its mirror images provides an ideal metaphor for Imhathai’s symmetrical depictions of marital sex rendered with hair, spots of ink and graphite.
“When even a picture of a couple having sex is identically repeated, it can become as meaningless as an inkblot. But different meanings can be discerned, varying with each person’s perceptions. This set of paintings has to do with questioning a relationship that begins and ends with a sexual affair.”
The “Nam See” of the exhibition title alludes to nam kham (words), nam hom (perfume), nam ngern (money) and nam (water).
Letters crocheted from the artist’s hair form “Family Quote”.
Nam kham suggested an expression used by her late father – “yoo yang ma ma” (living like a dog). She’s crocheted hair into letters and arranged them into the phrase, but it’s seen upside down.
“One day when I was about five, my dad told me to write this phrase on the fridge with a marking pen. I had no idea why, but I followed his orders. Later I discovered he’d been depressed about his business and he was sarcastically saying you don’t need to worry about anything if you live like a dog.
“That fridge is long gone, but I still remember the episode every time I walk into the kitchen.”
“Family Portrait” is a string of tiny perfume bottles, each elaborately shrouded in hair.
Nam hom becomes a pink bottle of rose-scented perfume wrapped in a web of hair from which many more strands flow, as if forming a woman’s portrait. Its title is “Perfume Portrait”, and another, called “Family Portrait”, is 10 tiny perfume bottles adorned with hair in elaborate patterns.
“I don’t find wearing perfume necessary but, for many women, it makes them feel special. I’ve dressed up the tiny bottles as if each were a woman ready to walk down the catwalk.”
“Control” suggests the need for balance in life.
In “Control”, hair knit into two sculptures containing Bt1 coins in careful balance represents nam ngern. “If you add more coins, they’ll fall over, and fewer coins wouldn’t provide the right counterbalance. We have to find that balance in life.”
Nam itself takes the form of drawings of organic shapes suggestive of water’s ritual use or virtually any other purpose.
Set on a wall is a series of “Aqua Imagery” representing the importance of water.
Imhathai’s obsession with hair stemmed from her father’s decision after being diagnosed with cancer to let his hair grow long. When it reached his waist, he tied it in four pigtails, then cut them off and gave one to each of his daughters.
“He said he wasn’t a wealthy man and all he’d been able to give us was an education. But his hair had grown from his own body and thus symbolised his identity and his flesh.”
That paternal bequest became an intensely personal work of art in her first solo show, “DNA” in 2007. Her father’s pigtail was stretched out across three wooden slingshots he’d made. And, on a pillow taken from his hospital bed, was a pillowcase crocheted from her hair.
Imhathai Suwatthanasilp relates the changes in her life through art fashioned from hair.
Imhathai says the lengthy process of crocheting in repetitive patterns has a meditative quality, and her “haircraft” has been put to charitable uses as well. Her 2012 “Hair for Hope” utilised the shed tresses of people dealing with cancer, woven into butterflies and flowers signifying love and hope. Money raised in sales covered treatment costs for several people.
“Yes, I’m still obsessed with hair,” she says. “It has its own life cycle and speaks metaphorically about decay and rebirth. But, after I move upcountry, I think the main material and the subject matter might change.”
IN HER ELEMENT
“Ruen Sam Nam See” (“7 Elements”) continues through August 31 at Bangkok’s Numthong Gallery on Soi Aree 5 North off Phahonyothin Road Soi 7.
It’s open daily except Sunday from 11 to 6.
Call (02) 617 2794 or visit www.GalleryNumthong.com.