• Benjamas Saefung, a Yao, demonstrates how she embroiders by hand./Nation photo
  • A Hmong woman weaves hemp into fabric./Nation photo

The fruit of royal blessings

Art August 23, 2016 01:00



Beautifully presented in Bangkok, northern hilltribe fabrics attest to Her Majesty's foresight

Perhaps more than any product from any initiative launched by Their Majesties the King and Queen to improve people’s lives, the gorgeous fabrics woven by northern hilltribes symbolise the benefits that accrue. Wonderful traditions are preserved, valuable skills are passed on, Thailand’s reputation is enhanced, and the craftspeople are better off financially.

It’s all there to see in the exhibition “Crafts from the Hands of the Hills ... To the Hands of the Queen”, continuing at the Queen’s Gallery in Bangkok through October 11.
One of many events commemorating the Queen’s seventh-cycle birthday this month, the show has textiles made by Karen, Lisu, Hmong, Yao, Akha and Lahu artisans, presented in artistic, multidimensional formats with text guides detailing the inspirations drawn from royal support. You can see the brilliant clothing worn daily, the sumptuous patterns woven into the fabric and the ornate embroidery unique to each ethnic group.
The exhibition opens with a segment called “Beauty in the Dark”, reaching back to the original Royal Project in 1969 – promoting alternative crops to opium, which had been a mainstay in the northern mountains. 
Curator Nuntapong Sinsawus explains how the large frames of assembled fabrics have their own symbolism. “Mahanatee”, for example, has “droplets from gentle hearts accumulating in an ocean of compassion” that returns fertility to the arid land. Various patterns have been sewn together in a “Yang Yeun” frame to represent the growth rings in a tree, echoing Her Majesty’s belief that people, indigenous art and nature can flourish together, mutually benefiting in terms of quality of life. 
On the second and third floors are exhibits about the different hill groups, with members demonstrating how the cloth is woven, sewn, stitched and embroidered. One wall has a huge blow-up of a picture taken by the King from a helicopter, showing mountains stripped bare by loggers. 
Another large panel seems at first to be just a collection of sheets of A4 paper, but seen closer is a mass of pages containing the Queen’s hand-written notes on all the hilltribe people who came forward one by one seeking help. Nuntapong says the notes were found, along with many of the cloth samples, in the Support Foundation storehouse. 
In the notes, Her Majesty comments on the individual samples she purchased from the tribes and suggests that larger pieces of cloth be embroidered and rendered into clothing other than trousers and blouses. 
Benjamas Saefung, a Yao from Kampaeng Petch province, is among the craftspeople demonstrating their skills. Wearing baggy pants with a distinctive embroidered pattern and a long jacket with furry red tassels at the hem, she energetically plaits cloth. 
Benjamas sheds genuine tears of appreciation as she describes how meeting the Queen changed her life. Her daughter, then six, was afflicted with heart disease. “She would have died if not for Her Majesty’s kindness,” she says. “She’s 22 now and well educated, and I earn money from my weaving, so I’m very happy.”
The Akha certainly know how to dress up. The classic women’s costume is heavily decorated with silver coins and other silver pieces, and silver necklaces and bangles are typical. The cotton thread is dyed with indigo several times to achieve a deep blue, and the fabric is embroidered with thread of brighter colours and decorated with seashells, Job’s tears and metal.
Lisu clothing is perhaps the most colourful of all the ethnic groups. The women don bright headbands decorated with beads and tassels and their vivid tunic tops are embellished with tiny cloth strips. 
Kingkaew Yakae from Mae Hong Son demonstrates her skilful sewing, lacing two cotton strings on a wooden post before stitching – no stitch more than half a centimetre long. 
The techniques used by the Hmong are fascinating, using stems of hemp, which are soaked, pounded and turned into yarn. Hemp fibre is sticky but strong, so the cloth lasts a long time. The Green and Blue Hmong can be distinguished in part by their clothing styles, but they share tightly pleated skirts above the knee, decorated with batik patterns and amazing embroidery.
The Lahu, renowned for their sewing talents, use cloth bands to bring out the colour of the fabric. At the Queen’s Gallery, Lahu women show how it’s done while the men demonstrate the age-old methods used to make baskets. These baskets would have been used to present the Queen with fabrics and vegetables when she visited. 
Sorba Sansutiwong and his wife Mala joined the Support Foundation more than 20 years ago. “We’re very poor, but we’ve been able to send all three of our children through vocational school thanks to the foundation,” Sorba says. “Without Her Majesty’s help, we wouldn’t have been able to do this. I don’t think I could have continued doing traditional basketwork.”
His words precisely define the Queen’s intention. Preserving local wisdom and cultural heritage by giving the artisans a supplementary income ensures that the younger generation takes an interest in the traditional ways. Key by-products are pride in their individual skills and collective identity, and an enduring harmony among the generations.
The gallery’s fourth floor features Her Majesty’s work table, complete with her notes on the specific problems facing individuals she’d met. Videos are displayed on large monitors of the Queen visiting the northern hills and helping people.
The tribal folk are putting on livelier shows on the fifth floor – dances, singing and instrumental music. Clearly the dances of the Karen are as beautiful as the textiles they weave and the clothes they wear. 
Nearby there’s a DIY workshop set up where visitors can try their hand at making handicrafts.