Despite more rejections that he can count, sculptor Banjerd Lekkong achieves his dream of an international exhibition
Disillusioned by repeated rejections to his pleas for help from his fellow Thais, sculptor Banjerd Lekkong decided to look to overseas and raise his profile on the global stage.
And he’s been successful too, becoming the first Thai artist to be selected by a US gallery to exhibit his works in New York.
He first exhibition, “Metamorphosis: Banjerd Lekkong, a Solo Exhibition” is slated to run at the Agora Gallery in New York from May 20 to June 9.
"I'm so happy and satisfied. My art works were once regarded as pieces of metal wreckage but are now fine art,” says the 47-year-old artist who was born and raised in Nakhon Ratchasima, the son of a couple who owned a garage.
Banjerd fell in love with steel as a kid and recalls being fascinated by old buildings as well as Thai mystical figures, the result, he says, of living near the ancient stone temple of Prasat Hin Phimai, and devouring the stories of the Ramayana.
Trained as an architect, he started to meld his other two passions – steel and Thai-style art in 2003 – selling his metal artworks under the brand Lekkong Sculpture.
A mass of swirling shapes and billowing lines, Banjerd’s metal sculptures express both vitality and tenderness.
They tell stories from the Hindu religion in a very specific way through pieces that are both single-character depictions and entire, multi-player tableaux.
Fifteen of his sculptures, including depictions of Singha and Hanuman, and other images from the Ramayana featuring unique aspects of Thai art and literature, have been selected for the exhibition at the contemporary gallery in the centre of New York's Chelsea art district for three weeks.
The New York shows comes at the end a long and arduous road Banjerd has been forced to follow in trying to have his art works recognised.
The economic downturn in 2003 forced Banjerd, who is also an architect, interior designer and contractor, to leave his business behind and instead pursue his childhood dream.
For the past 13 years, Banjerd has spent a considerable amount of time touting his portfolio around public and private organisations in Thailand but to no avail. No one bought his ideas.
“I’ve struggled from the beginning to find approval or support from public agencies,” he laments.
His ideas and the image drafts of his sculptures were not enough to win the approval from Commerce Ministry when he first submitted a registration for copyright. The ministry wanted to see his real art piece.
“I did not produce my work at that time because I was afraid it would be copied by others,” he explains.
He was also turned down by a bank when he sought a loan to fund his project.
“They asked, ‘if anything happens to you, who will repay the loan’?” Banjerd says.
Almost out of money but still determined to sell his sculptures, he started going around art centres asking for a place to display his work and was turned down every time.
That’s when he decided to go international.
“Since my works did not attract people in Thailand, I set new goals. I’m determined to have my works sold in hard currency. People who come to see or buy my art works should be attired in suits and ties," says the bitter but determined artist.
“Some people warned me against dreaming too big but I’ve always believed I could do it,” he says.
Over the past two years, Banjerd has contacted several galleries and museums in Singapore, Vietnam, some European countries, the UK and the US in an attempt to have his work exhibited.
It took Agora just three weeks after receiving Banjerd’s portfolio to inform him that the gallery would welcome his works at the gallery.
“The message I gave to the gallery was that my art pieces are one-of-a-kind and limited in terms of numbers [of pieces]. No one can copy them and they are truly my own style,” the sculptor says.
Finding financial support to the tune of Bt3 million for his first ever solo show in the Big Apple also proved problematic.
He submitted a funding request to around 20 organisations and individuals, including Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha through the PM’s Office but only one firm bothered to reply, and that was a rejection.
But Banjerd persevered though he admits that there were moments he regretted for having chosen to produce Thai art that he thought would represent Thailand in the world community.
As the deadline approached for Banjerd to tell Agora whether or not he would exhibit his sculptures at the gallery, lady luck decided to smile on him.
Last December, despite being fed up at doing the round of potential sponsors only to be kicked back every time, he walked into the offices of Boon Rawd Brewery office to take back his portfolio after twice submitting a request to Singha Corp.
It turned out that its executives were going to consider his request that particular day. Banjerd was accorded an impromptu interview with Santi Bhirombhakdi, president of Singha Corp, and other executives, which lasted about 30 minutes.
One executive asked the artist how the country would benefit from his exhibition, Banjerd replied without hesitation that “Thai artists should never finish [their careers] at country level but should aim for the world stage.
“Later, Khun Santi told other executives to let me go to the world stage,” he says with a proud smile.
Now that his efforts have finally earned him the prize, Banjerd is urging Thai state agencies not to turn down new ideas from Thai youths.
He doesn’t have great expectations from his show at Agora, saying he will be happy if he sells just one work.
“The gallery has set the price of my 15 creations from US$10,000 to $200,000,” he says.
“Agora will be the first step on my ladder to success.
After the New York trip, Banjerd, who plans to exhibit his art pieces every year or 18 months around the world, will be looking to arrange exhibitions at international museums.
“Fine art displayed in museums is world-class. I won’t be disheartened. I will keep submitting my works to well-known museums. If I succeed, it will be an honour for the country. I will make the impossible possible,” he says with a grin.