Updated: Jun 2, 2021
The Bangkok Art Biennale 2020 was a runaway success story considering the year and the impact of a global pandemic. The biennale ran from October 2020 through January 2021, though as the event was affected by lockdowns, some exhibitions were extended until April.
Themed around "Escape Routes," BAB2020 featured 82 artists at a wide range of venues, including heritage sites such as Wat Pho and Wat Arun; established art hubs like the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC), and LHONG 1919; as well as retail and residential sites, such as The Prelude One Bangkok and The PARQ.
Needless to say, I think we were all thankful to escape-route our homes and Covid-19 for a brief few hours to enjoy some art.
Now that BAB2020 has officially wrapped, we’re reflecting back on the event, looking at the gender balance of artists featured and asking some questions. Why were fewer female artists represented? Why is the number of Thai female artists so low? How does BAB2020's selection of artists compare to other events in Asia, and to the wider Thai art ecosystem?
The F Word delved into the data to find out, then spoke to BAB representatives, artists and art professors to better understand where these numbers come from, and what they reflect about the art world.
*Editor's Note: data cited below was collected by The F Word and sourced from BAB's literature and website, as well as galleries' websites, other event websites, and online brochures. Gender was determined by the pronouns used and information in artist bios, and confirmed elsewhere available on the Internet. This is correct to the best of our knowledge.
Of the 82 artists featured at BAB2020, 32 were female (39%) and 47 were male (57%), while 2 were groups (1 couple and 1 collective) and 1 was non-binary.
Breaking this down further by “home and away” segments, this equates to 24 international male artists, 25 international female artists, 23 Thai male artists and 7 Thai female artists.
If you’re thinking that last number seems a little low, we think so too.
First, we wanted to understand if the numbers were a fluke. How does this compare to the inaugural Bangkok Art Biennale event in 2018?
BAB2018 was actually far more skewed towards male artists overall, with an event of 75 artists comprised of 20 female artists (27%), 47 male artists (63%) and 8 groups (11%).
Breaking numbers down further, this equated to 32 international male artists, 11 international female artists and 5 international groups; then 15 Thai male artists, 9 Thai female artists and 3 Thai groups.
Although BAB2020 saw a +12% increase in female artists from the 2018 event, there was still a big gap of 18% between the number of female and male artists featured.
And although the 2020 international segment saw a near-equal balance of female and male artists, there was a huge gap of 54% between Thai female and male artists.
Open Calls vs Invitations
The open call has the opportunity to make the biennale more inclusive. Even if there are fewer female artists represented by Thai galleries or invited by curators, they can still come through the open call.
Therefore, it’s implied that events such as BAB are actually more egalitarian in their selection process than other facets of the Thai art ecosystem.
According to BAB data, 504 applications came through the open call, of which 90 were from Thailand (17.9%), though there is no data publicly available about the gender of the applicants.
Yet, only 13 of BAB2020’s 82 artists were selected from the open call. The remaining 69 were invited to create original work or exhibit existing work by the BAB curatorial team.
Of the 7 Thai female artists, Jureeporn Pedking came through the open call, I-na Phuyuthanon and Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook were invited, and the BAB representatives we spoke to weren’t sure about the others.
Doing a bit of number jiggery here, if maximum 6 out of 7 Thai female artists were invited, and maximum 12 out of 23 Thai male artists came through the open call, we can safely assume that more Thai male artists were invited than Thai female artists.
This brings us on to the curatorial team in charge of invites.
The 2020 BAB curatorial team was composed of two women, Ong Puay Kim and Sun Wenjie, and two men, Wutigorn Kongka and Dow Wasiksiri. The two men are Thai, while the two women are from Singapore and China, respectively.
(There is also a fifth curator if we count Prof. Doc. Apinan Poshyananda, the Chief Executive and Artistic Director of the Bangkok Art Biennale.)
According to BAB representatives, each curator specialises in something different, but it's difficult to tell who invited whom and whether curators were in charge of specific segments e.g. Thai artists.
“The curators, they work together, but they have their own ideas about who they select and what kind of artworks. I think what comes first is the artwork and how to make it into a discussion… the artwork and how it corresponds to the theme prevails,” said Pojai Akratanakul, a Bangkok Art Biennale representative.
Both BAB staff Khun Pojai and Khun Air emphasised that the artwork should come first, rather than the artist, therefore artworks are chosen based on the quality of the work and the relevance to the theme “Escape Routes.”
However, seeing as the majority of artists were invited, some invited to create original pieces and others to exhibit existing works, this doesn’t really add up.
The Thai Art World
The BAB reps also suggested that the gender balance of the event reflected the gender balance of the art world in Thailand; that there are more Thai male artists than female, and there are many factors that influence this.
Rémy Jarry, a lecturer at Chulalongkorn University and an art consultant who researched and wrote about BAB2020 agreed: “If you look at the Bangkok art galleries representing Thai artists – what about their lineup of artists? And I think it would be interesting to see on one side the lineup of the artists and the proportion of female artists, and see if ultimately the Bangkok Art Biennale is above or under.”
So that's what we did.
We took a look at six of Bangkok's most well-known art galleries and estimated a rough gender percentage of the artists they represented, based on the information on their websites.
As depicted in the chart above, all six had a higher proportion of male artists represented, ranging between 89% and 55%. The percentage of female artists represented ranged between 45% and 5.5%.
If we total the numbers up, these six art galleries represent a total of 97 male artists, 40 female artists, and 2 groups. That means gender representation is 70% male and only 29% female.
Measured against BAB's 57% male vs 39% female, BAB2020 comes out as way more inclusive than Bangkok's galleries. However, if we measure the galleries against BAB's Thai segment only - 77% Thai male vs 23% female - it's roughly the same, if a little more weighted to male artists.
Rémy notes this may be changing over time, but slowly: “There might be actually more female students in art courses, but it may not yet reflect in the production of female artists, unfortunately. Historically, the art scene in Thailand was more male-centric, that’s for sure… it was linked to the elite culture, so tended to be more patriarchal.”
Other Asian Biennales & Triennales
It's also important to contextualise Bangkok's relatively young biennale (2018 was the inaugural edition of BAB) within a wider Asian context by comparing the gender balance of artists in neighbouring events.
We took a look at how BAB2020 compared to the Yokohama Triennale 2020, Gwangju Biennale 2021, Taipei Biennial 2020 and the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2018, looking at the percentages of male and female artists in each, then breaking this down by international and local segments:
Taking a look at this data, it's clear that the events are all very different.
Yokohama included very few local artists and focused more on international art. Gwangju had a huge proportion of international female artists, yet only featured three local female artists. Taipei's event was the most male-centric, while Kochi-Muziris had the most balance between international and local, male and female artists.
[Listen to our Thai podcast with artist Bussaraporn Thongchai here, or read the transcript in English here]
BAB’s Thailand’s Art Ecosystem Survey (2021)
BAB’s Thailand’s Art Ecosystem Survey (2021) collected the thoughts of 406 individuals who work and operate in the Thai art world, with participation being 67% male, 33% female and 3% other; 94% Thai and 6% non-Thai.
The report states: “Out of all 284 valid responses, 59 (20.8%) expressed a positive sentiment toward the industry, 44 (15.5%) expressed a neutral sentiment, 181 (63.7%) expressed a negative sentiment. Some examples of the topics with a negative or neutral sentiment were slow the growth of the art industry, lack of resources and support, inadequate demand from buyers, nicheness, lack of inclusivity, lack of diversity, lack of opportunity, and lack of platforms for emerging artists.”
Yet, the report doesn’t touch on these examples in any more detail, and instead sticks to questions about how the art ecosystem operates e.g. income, sources of income, art acquisitions, and the role of online platforms.
The report also notes that: “What was obvious from day one is the lack of general statistics of the overall picture of the Thai art industry.” We couldn't agree more.
The survey aims to help rectify the dearth of data, but also doesn’t delve deep enough into topics such as inclusivity, diversity and bias, as well as lack of resources, opportunities and support, which could be contributing to the lack of inclusivity and diversity.
2020's Bangkok Art Biennale certainly featured a disappointingly low number of Thai female artists, and a lower percentage of female artists overall.
However, there are a lot of factors to take in, including aspects we struggled to uncover, such as the gender balance of artists who applied through the open call (particularly in the Thai segment), the potential number and demographics of artists who rejected invitations to exhibit at BAB2020, the number and size of artworks on display per artist, the number of female artists highlighted in BAB events such as panel discussions, and the gender balance of those working behind the scenes of the event.
“Actually, the biennale team is composed of a lot of females,” notes Khun Pojai.
What's true is that the ratio of Thai male to Thai female artists at BAB2020 is worryingly representative of the Thai art ecosystem, which raises questions about gender bias not only at BAB2020, but in other aspects of the Thai art world. And this is before we even get into representation of non-binary and genderqueer artists!
The Bangkok Art Biennale has enough funding for a third event in 2022, after which it's unconfirmed if the biennale will continue. We'd love to see BAB take the third installation in the trilogy as an opportunity to tackle issues of gender and diversity, to see if the festival can be part of making the Thai art world a more inclusive place.
By Amy Poulton
Amy identifies as a bookish backpacker and British bookpacker. Hailing from Birmingham, her granddad has suggested that the family is related to the Peaky Blinders. Amy has written for Lonely Planet, Fodor’s, Lifestyle Asia, Coconuts Media, Bangkok 101, as well as other leading travel and lifestyle media. She has counted Hong Kong, Italy, Mexico and now Thailand as home. Read more of Amy's work on her portfolio site, Page Traveller book and travel blog, Facebook and Instagram at @amy_pagetraveller.