Parents bequeath what they can to their children, and loving children are proudly grateful to receive whatever it is. It becomes theirs to make the best of. Imhathai Suwatthanasilp and her three younger sisters each inherited a pigtail of their father’s hair.
Imhathai turned her bequest into intensely personal art. You can see it this month and next at the Ardel Gallery.
“My dad always had short hair, but in 2003 he intentionally began growing it long,” says Imhathai, 31. Her father had been diagnosed with cancer.
“In a few years it was down to his waist. Then he tied it into four pigtails and cut them off, giving one to each daughter.
“He said he wasn’t a wealthy man and all he’d been able to give us was an education, an intangible thing. But he said his hair had grown from his own body and was a symbol of his identity and his flesh.”
And then one day Imhathai noticed more hair on her hairbrush than usual and became worried about her own health.
“I started counting every day how many hairs had fallen out. I found out that the average adult loses up to 100 strands of hair a day, out of 100,000 to 150,000 hairs on the head. After keeping tabs for several months I realised that my hair-loss rate was normal, but I kept all the fallen hair anyway, even though I had no idea what I’d do with it.”
The Silpakorn University art graduate (she’s now a lecturer there) found a use for it while doing a three-month residency in Paris in 2006. Her fallen hair became the main material in her sculpture “Snake”, binding together resin tourist souvenirs of the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe and Notre Dame Cathedral.
You can see the little models of the landmarks within the hair, but the overall effect is reminiscent of characters in the eternally popular French novel “The Little Prince” seeing a boa constrictor that had swallowed an elephant and thinking the misshapen snake was a hat.
Imhathai also found a way to honour her father’s bequest, stretching the pigtail out across three wooden slingshots he’d made. The physical link to her memory became a deeply personal way of depicting family bonds. “I was never sure what to do with my dad’s hair, but his words guided me in the right direction.”
She’d also kept the pillow from her father’s hospital bed, and crocheted a cover for it from her own hair. “My Father’s Pillow” the artwork is simply called, fragile and disconcerting.
“Crocheting is ideal for preserving material that’s valuable but fragile,” Imhathai says. “Hair has its own life cycle. As the follicles produce new cells the old cells are pushed out. Age, disease and a wide variety of other factors influence each follicle’s life.
“I use only fallen strands, not cut hair, to symbolise life’s delicacy and decay.”
The drawn-out process of crocheting in repetitive patterns has its meditative quality as well, and at the same time reflects her affection and inner longing for the subject at hand.
Her first solo show “DNA” – in 2007 at Bangkok’s White Space Gallery – combined family photographs and sculpture that included her hair among its mixed media. The show’s title invoked hair’s reliability in DNA testing to determine someone’s identity. For Imhathai, DNA also stood for Devotion, Nostalgia and Adoration.
Her creations were placed in front of photographs related to significant episodes in her life, so the exhibition was an album and, in part, an autobiography.
Her tresses formed a garland next to a picture of her grandmother holding her when she was a baby. A family portrait on vacation had drinking glasses in front of each person, representing them – a beer mug for father, a long-stemmed glass for mother, a tea cup for baby sister – each topped with a little crystal ball enclosed in their hair.
Imhathai moved from memoir to mercy in her show “Hair for Hope” at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre earlier this year. It offered succour to people dealing with cancer, her art pieces crocheted from the hair of patients undergoing chemotherapy. They were sold to cover the cost of treatments for people in need at Chulabhorn Hospital.
There were butterflies in that show, apt metaphors for life’s constant changes, its creatures remaining strong yet still delicate throughout.
“The butterfly was a symbol of love and hope for many of the old masters,” Imhathai notes. “I put a lot of effort into crocheting the hair to underscore how every strand becomes part of the beautiful whole.”
And the butterflies are on the wing once more in “Hair for Hope: The New Beginning”, now at the Ardel Gallery of Modern Art.
Again, the hair of cancer sufferers was used to create three new butterfly works. Elsewhere, 2,000 flowers patterned from hair rest in an enclosed light bed. Another 52 butterflies of blown glass soar on wings of human hair.
“The glass butterflies outside a frame are my way of trying to inspire cancer patients to keep the faith and stay hopeful. And, like the field of flowers, they should be grateful for every day that life gives them.”
Imhathai is next hoping to show support for the soldiers who put their lives on the line in the deep South. She’d like to create artworks from their hair too – even as short as it is.
“Collecting the strands that fall from my head is a good way to look back at myself,” she says. “I’ve never dyed or even blow-dried my hair – I just let it be natural. What I’m learning these days is that I have a lot of grey hair, despite the fact that I’m only 31!”
<< “Hair for Hope: The New Beginning” continues until September 30 at the Ardel Gallery of Modern Art on Boromrachachonnanee Road Km10.5 in Bangkok’s Thawee Wattana district.
<< The gallery is open Tuesday to Saturday from 10.30 to 7 and Sunday until 5.30.
<< Find out more at (02) 422 2092 and www.ArdelGallery.com.
<< See video at www.Nationmultimedia.com/video/ or www.Facebook.com/Sunday Leisure The Nation