"Uncensored": A Liberation Manifesto of Thai Artists in an era of Dictator

On 7 July 2019, A group of independent​ artists came together to put on an art exhibition with one primary purpose, “annoy” Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha. Headache Stencil, a popular graffiti artist, and Rap Against Dictatorship (RAD), a politically active hip hop group, co-organized​ this event titled Uncensored. The event was lively, attracting many visitors throughout the day to admire a diverse range of visual art and to listen to the impressive musical performances.
 
1139
 
Featured artist’s gathered for a group photo
 
In conversation with Headache Stencil, he explained that though the original motivation for the event was to irritate and gain the attention of the current Head of State, he hoped those attending his event would take away a more positive message. He explained that this exhibit was meant to demonstrate the opportunity that exists for everyone to speak on the political injustices of today. He discussed his hope that those in attendance see that making expressive art should be accessible to everyone and that everyone should feel inspired to create even in the face of reduced freedom, “Art should not just be a tool for the artist. It should be a tool for everyone”. In this same vein, Headache Stencil explained the importance of having a space for art therapy at the event for people to experiment and express themselves.
 
The event was held at The Jam Factory, in an outdoor space. The perimeter of the venue was decorated in pieces of art from a variety of artists, with a stage in the center for the performers. One mural that gained a lot of attention from viewers depicted a simple black background with incredibly intricate decorative calligraphy. At any given time, there would be a small gathering of onlookers trying to decode and read the challenging lettering, if they could successfully decipher the script it read ‘‘The state calls its own violence, law; but that of the individual, crime” - a quote for anarchist German philosopher Max Stirner (As quoted in The Great Quotations (1960) by George Seldes, p. 664). Whether or not it was intended, the way this artwork presented itself shared an interesting parallel with Thai politics at the moment. To an outsider, Thailand may look like it’s back on track with democracy with its recent election. With closer observation, like with the mural, something more honest and substantial exposes itself. Thailand’s political system only passes as democratic on the surface, a rigged election system, a stifling interim constitution and the silencing of critics, just begins to describe of the ways Thailand government today fails to represent its citizens.
 
1140
 
Mural created by Headache Stencil. Caligraphy reads: ‘‘The state calls its own violence, law; but that of the individual, crime”.
 
Another standout visual piece at the event was set up as a photo opportunity for those in attendance. The interactive art piece featured a 1m2  area of ground roped up off with caution tape and a box floating at head height in the center. Onlookers could enter the roped-off area and stand under the box to hide their face. Hanging from the caution tape was a sign that read ‘free speech zone’. This work touched on a topic that Thai political artists are incredibly familiar with, anonymity as a source of freedom. Many predominant Thai artists, including some featured at the event, create and showcase their work anonymously because the risk of persecution is too high without cloaking their identity. Though the name of the event was Uncensored, many in Thailand feel that if they do not self censor their words and actions then they must censor their own identity for their own safety.
 

1141

 
Guest in attendance of event posing in designated “Free Speech Zone” 
 
It was not just the visual art at the event that was so thought-provoking. Musical performances that went on for the second half of the event were equally captivating, drawing in a huge audience that stood enthusiastically chanting and clapping along. Though throughout the event individual members of RAD performed solo tracks, it wasn't until near the end of the expedition that the collective performed their most well-known song together, “What My Country Has Got,”. This song was released by the group in October 2018, upon its release the music video went viral and quickly became an anthem for resisting Thailand’s military rule. With lyrics like “Parliament house is the soldiers’ play yard. The charter is written and erased by the army’s boots”, this song was a courageous release for when it was produced and even now, despite having had an election since, people continue to chant along, still finding honesty in the words.

1142
 
Headache stencil addressed the crowd gathered to watch musical performances by Rap Against Dictatorship.
 
The politicizing of art is something that has been on the rise since the 2014 Coup d'etat. As free speech has become more repressed, many artists have put their own freedom on the line for the sake of political commentary. Both of the headlining artists at this event, RAD and Headache Stencil, have had experience with attempted censorship and threats from the military. Still, they continue to make art. Though this was the first collaborative political art event organized by Headache Stencil and RAD, Headache Stencil insisted it would not be the last. The overwhelming support by those in attendance and the desire of many artists to participate in the future indicates that there is plenty more political art to be made and observed by the people in Bangkok.
 
Article type: