Navin Rawanchaikul’s Places of Rebirth (2009) was inspired by the Thai artist’s first visit to Pakistan, the birthplace of his ancestors, in November 2008. As part of the South Asian diaspora, the artist’s family moved to Thailand in pursuit of opportunity in the region, and in the aftermath of 1947’s partition of South Asia which had forced millions to migrate out of political and religious exigency. By train, ship, and foot, his mother and great-grandfather traveled from Gujranwala (the Punjab region that is now Pakistan) and India to Chiang Mai in Thailand to arrive at the place of his family’s “rebirth.” During this period, Chiang Mai was a city of many migrants, who came from India, China, and Burma (now Myanmar). The fluid nature of this migratory history is familiar in South and Southeast Asia and often results in the exchange and adaptation of cultures, giving its participants a trans-geographic identity. Consequent to his family’s assimilation into the region, the artist’s family changed its name from Rawal to its present more Thai-sounding form; in a related artwork, he portrays his great-grandfather in a turban, and himself in kindergarten uniform, displaying his former Indian last name in Thai script. These two portraits are titled Kheak and Kheak Origin (both 2010). In Thai, kheak means foreigner, signifying the artist’s inquiry into a past that seems for him partially lost.
In Places of Rebirth, Rawanchaikul narrates his family’s migration and his own cross-border and cross-cultural negotiations. Painted in the style of the Indian movie posters that fascinated the artist as a child, the work’s self-conscious populist aesthetic reflects an artistic practice that moves from billboard painting to sculpture and pulp comics. Produced in collaboration with former cinema billboard painters, this panoramic display blends multigenerational images of the artist’s family and friends with those of people he encountered in Pakistan, and historical images from the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan. As a portrait of a community’s passage through time and space, his navigation of regional geopolitics is represented through his imaginary journey as a Thai artist in a local taxi (onomatopoeically known as a tuk-tuk), that transports him, along with his Japanese wife and their daughter, across the famous Wagah border dividing India and Pakistan. The painting underscores the way in which the idea of nation is defined by historical narrative, while layering that narrative over the personal and the imaginary. The painting is peppered with upbeat and optimistic messages of brotherhood, friendship, and togetherness that stand in stark contrast to the nations’ present divide. This reimagining and blurring of identity reflect the artist’s desire for a communion based on a dismantling of borders between nations and individuals.