Who is jumping on the #WomensHistoryMonth bandwagon and who is using this time to genuinely amplify women's stories, and emphasise existing work being done to uplift women and manifest equality?
Let's take a case study of two art exhibitions in Bangkok hotels under the theme of Women’s History Month: "Women in the Arts" at the Hilton Sukhumvit vs "Herspective" at the Rosewood Bangkok.
Women in the Arts
Let's start with "Women in the Arts," a series of female portraits by artist Saverio Lucci, displayed in the lobby and Mondo restaurant of the Hilton Sukhumvit hotel. Yes, you read that right. This is a solo body of work by a male artist.
Lucci’s portraits combine different styles of art, aiming to reflect modern women in eras ranging from Renaissance to Art Nouveau to contemporary.
“All are real women. Some I meet in person or I choose a subject based on her character,” says artist Lucci. “I use traditional techniques and old styles, but represent changes in time and culture in the female subjects.”
For example, British singer FKA Twigs seems to be the obvious inspiration for this piece entitled "Renaissance Tribe" [a name that needs some unpacking]. This 2021 Renaissance-style portrait retails at a cool THB300,000 – one of the more expensive pieces in the collection.
Although women appear in Lucci's artworks, there’s no denying that the choice of a male artist and male-gaze portraiture is a confusing one for Women’s History Month.
Lucci's work is skilled and beautiful, but a collaboration with a male artist as part of an event misleadingly named "Women in the Arts" doesn't celebrate women, it reduces women to only being depicted in the art by a male artist, rather than as artists or art professionals themselves.
Additionally, the portrait collection creates an image of femininity defined through the male gaze. Women in paintings are often oversexualized or over-romanticized; female existence, identities and bodies reduced to mere decoration, often to serve romantic desire or aesthetic virtue.
Do women have to be pleasing to the male gaze in order to be celebrated in our art spaces?
The disproportion between the number of women in paintings versus the number of female artists has long been a key problem in the art world globally. As the Guerrilla Girls first demanded back in 1989: "Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?"
Since then, the Guerilla Girls have conducted recounts, first in 2005 and then again in 2012. These are the latest results:
Arguably, the "Women in the Arts" exhibition could have been creating commentary on how the male gaze on the female form has pervaded art since the Renaissance period and continues to be a complex issue in contemporary works, with this ironic exhibit parodying itself in order to make a point for Women's History Month... but after reaching out to the Hilton Sukhumvit and Saverio Lucci for comment, it was obvious this wasn’t the case.
“We worked with Saverio Lucci when we opened the Hilton Sukhumvit and have kept in touch since then.” Explains Lilly Pattara, a sales and marketing representative at the Hilton Sukhumvit. “With the effects of Covid this past year, we wanted to create something colourful for the hotel. So, for 2021 we plan to have art exhibitions featuring a different artist each month. Lucci is the first artist we have collaborated with on this and we chose him because his passion in his art is the female – all his artworks feature females.”
What’s more, the literature around “Women in the Arts” claims the exhibit, "celebrates the many faces and figures of women," yet the subjects are mostly young white women, some Chinoiserie/Orientalist portraits and FKA Twigs - all slim and abled-bodied.
A more confusing phrase is: "The technical mastery conceals a subtle anxiety in the young woman's face.”
Although, as a woman, I can vouch for subtle anxiety being something omnipresent in my daily life. I mean, women can't walk home at night without being murdered by a police officer, work at a massage parlour without being gunned down, wait for a green light without being attacked, take a taxi home without being raped, or fucking exist without the constant threat of rape or death. Such is the subtlety of it.
News outlets quote Lucci as saying: "Women have always been my primary source of inspiration and my artworks try to capture their elevated sophistication. This partnership with the Hilton Sukhumvit Bangkok is a privilege and a testament that Hilton as a company is focused on celebrating the diversity and strength of women."
So focused, in fact, that the Hilton decided a man was the best person to represent women?
It's obvious to us here that "Women in the Arts", "International Women's Day" and "Women's History Month" are just marketing fodder for this hotel, which doesn't seem to understand or consider the feminist values these words represent.
“Women in the Arts” is on display at the Hilton Sukhumvit until the end of March.
In contrast, "Herspective" at the Rosewood Bangkok is a collaboration with SAC Gallery, showcasing four Thai female artists: Thidarat Chantachua, Praiya Ketkool, Thanathorn Suppakijjumnong and Aor Sutthiprapha.
This chorus of voices echoes the plurality of the female experience; each artist exhibits two to three works, and these four collections contrast against each other in both form and subject.
Mysterious Path / Gravitation From Your Story
Chantachua’s thread artworks feature geometric shapes typical of Islamic art in a unique way, with the thread representing how Islam connects those of the faith together.
Star on Earth / Wild Wonder / Flower Cracker 2
Ketkool’s paintings depict scenes of nature filled with intricate, repetitive details in minute brushstrokes, showing the delicacy of nature and how something small fits into the bigger picture.
Together No.1 / Together No.2
Suppakijjumnong’s portraits of women in face masks are comprised of little typed notes in folded Japanese Awagami paper, which open to reveal pandemic-inspired phrases in both English and Thai.
Origin #1 / Origin #4 / Origin #5
Sutthiprapha’s sophisticated clay pieces offer different shapes for the viewer depending on the angle of perspective, representing development and multi-faceted character.
“SAC Gallery and the Rosewood Bangkok hotel coordinates under Art Connection, which is the space that connects between the third floor of Rosewood Bangkok hotel and BTS Ploenchit Exit 1.” Explains curator Pinyaphat Satchukorn.
“It’s like a gateway to come through the hotel. Many people use it as a walkway all day. So SAC Gallery and Rosewood Bangkok use this space for showing artworks by Thai artists. For the International Women’s Day theme, I tried to curate a group of female artists our gallery represented. The condition that Rosewood Bangkok gave us was to only feature Thai artists, so we choose these four female artists, who each have their own unique style.”
That's not to say "Herspective" is perfect. This blurb line definitely feels a little off, or at least clunky: "If tenderness, sensitivity, simplicity, and vulnerability are considered common attributes of women, this exhibition, “Herspective” reflects the converse side of womanhood with its display of determination of wisdom."
Is this implying that the former attributes are more feminine, while determination and wisdom are the other side of the coin? Are these artworks not tender, sensitive, simple, or vulnerable? Or are those supposed conventional feminine traits not in their own way wise and determined?
Why must a woman always fit neatly into one category or another?
However, the comparison between this exhibition and the Hilton's "Women in the Arts" is like night and day. In "Herspective" womanhood is not defined by depictions of conventionally beautiful bodies, but rather the complexity of character and experience.
If only all of Bangkok's art spaces could curate a women-focused art event so thoughtful.
“Herspective” is on display at the Rosewood Bangkok until the end of May.
Case Study Results
In the case of the Hilton’s so-called “Women in the Arts,” this is just one example of how brands and art spaces can easily hop on a social movement bandwagon without being held accountable - caring more about marketing buzzwords than the meaning behind them.
But, with a little research, it’s easy to see which businesses and galleries are genuinely getting involved in trending events to promote existing values.
We at The F Word take our hats off to "Herspective" and look forward to discovering and sharing more feminist artworks in the city, as well as holding Bangkok's art spaces accountable.
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.