Born in 1971 in Chiang Mai, Thailand, Navin Rawanchaikul seeks ways to connect art with the lives of everyday people. Places of Rebirth is motivated by the artist’s journey back to his family’s homeland. Although born and raised in Thailand, his family emigrated from India in 1947. On his return, Rawanchaikul interviewed Indian immigrants of his parent’s generation who now live in his hometown of Chiang Mai, attempting to understand their journey to Thailand and the process of making a new home there. Their stories support the fact that globalization has brought rapid and continuing change, constantly remaking geographies and the people who inhabit them and often causing the idea of home itself to be detached from a fixed conceptual location. Rawanchaikul describes his own complicated childhood, from growing up in Thailand and being perceived as an outsider to coming to terms with his Indian descent and using it as his motivation for creating art.
Painted in the style typical of Indian “Bollywood” movie posters, Places of Rebirth deals with the artist’s background as a son of the Hindu-Punjabi diaspora and his cross-border, cross-cultural heritage. It blends images of Navin’s family and relatives with others showing people he encountered in Pakistan, alongside historical images from the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan. These portraits of a community’s passing through time and place are bridged through the imaginary journey of a local Thai taxi (tuk-tuk) transporting Navin and his Japanese family across the border of India and Pakistan. Spiced with a humorous critique of the fractious relationship between India and Pakistan, the narrative presents a re-reading of personal history while raising questions of contemporary nation and identity.
According to Rawanchaikul, his project is rooted in retelling stories from the past to his young daughter Mari. “I think about what it is like for her to grow up as half an outsider in Japan . . . . Thinking about the future of my child also makes me think about how I grew up and who my ancestors are.” Rawanchaikul spent his childhood trying to be Thai alone, and finds himself repeating his parents’ advice to his daughter, who has encountered teasing for her ambiguous identity: “Be yourself and respect your roots.” Mari appears in her father’s paintings and sculptures, often imagined in places significant to their family history. With the inclusion of a hand-written letter to his daughter, Places of Rebirth presents an intimate look into familial relationships, also seeking specifically to inform his daughter about her own mixed heritage.
Show: Places of Rebirth
- This complex painting is more than twenty-three feet long. Examine it carefully and make a list of all the things you notice.
- The work includes images of the artist and his family as well as people and places culled from news reports, historical records, and the artist’s imagination. Find examples of each. For instance, Rawanchaikul has included a rendering of a 1947 photograph by American documentary photographer Margaret Bourke-White that depicts a young refugee contemplating his future.
- In this work, Rawanchaikul takes an approach reminiscent of a style of Bollywood movie poster. Find examples of these posters online and list the attributes that Places of Rebirth shares with them. Are there also ways that this work differs from a Bollywood movie advertisement?
- Rawanchaikul uses the title Places of Rebirth. How might this relate to the mural he has created?
- Rawanchaikul has said that after hearing stories of the partition
during his first trip to Pakistan, he understood why his family did
not like to talk about that time. The 1947 partition of India and
Pakistan sparked one of the largest population movements in
recorded history; half a million people perished and twelve million
were made homeless. Research this historic event. What events
precipitated the partition? What immediate effect did it have?
What repercussions has it had over the decades? Report your
findings to your classmates.
- In Places of Rebirth, Rawanchaikul has created an extended
family tree culled from family photos, news events, and personally
significant places. At the top center are the words “An Odyssey
of Life.” What has featured in the odyssey (long and eventful
journey) of your life?
Create your own “Odyssey of Life” collage incorporating:
–Family photos both recent and older (be sure not to destroy original photos; photocopy or re-photograph them for use in your collage).
–Images of places that are important to you and your family
–News reports that relate to your family history
–Writings, including names, slogans, and headlines
On an 11 x 17-inch sheet of illustration board, experiment with various possible arrangements of these materials. When you feel you have arrived at a composition that best expresses your family history, secure the images with glue. If possible, make a color photocopy of your collage to “knit” all the images together. This project can also be accomplished digitally by scanning images and using Adobe Photoshop.
- As an artist who travels frequently, Rawanchaikul keeps in touch
with his daughter Mari through long handwritten letters that
chronicle his research and revelations about his family history. In
one letter he writes: “Let me tell you again what my mom taught
[me] . . . she said, “be yourself and proud of your roots.”
Interview an older family member to find out more about your family’s history. What did you learn that you did not previously know about your roots?
English Language Arts