Between celebration and commemoration: Thai artist Pinaree Sanpitak on the significance of the N-Peace trophies

Posted September 17, 2018

World renowned Thai conceptual artist Pinaree Sanpitak shares her thoughts on the philosophical crossovers between art and advocacy in relation to the N-Peace awards. She has actively supported the Women, Peace and Security UNDP flagship initiative N-Peace since 2016. Above, examples of N-Peace trophies awarded each year to exceptional women and men working in peace and gender equality.

Since 2016, I have gifted prints of my Malai collection as trophies for the N-Peace Award winners. Recently I realised how truly fitting these artworks are for the initiative, not to mention the real gravity of the awards' significance.

Supporting N-Peace was not the first time I have been deeply affected by social issues. I was inspired by the royal-sponsored relief efforts during the severe flood of 2011 in Thailand. Aid packages included the distribution of traditional, multi-use cloths called paa-lai. Amid the volatile ambience of this natural disaster that tore people’s homes apart, I used paa-lai fabrics to construct hammock-like sculptures. These I transformed into an installation - lightly suspending the sculptures in mid-air - which I called “Hanging by a Thread” (2012).

Hanging by a Thread (2012) Collection Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo Courtesy 2013 Museum Associates/LACMA

There is something comforting about the work, something homely, motherly and nurturing despite calamity. Their shape also invokes the Buddhist offering bowl, playing with ideas of spirituality, peace, and temporal deferral, yet the title also suggests an inherent fragility. It was a time of continuing political and social uncertainty in Thailand; we were left hanging.

The Malai collection I created in 2015 also draws heavily on the themes in “Hanging by a Thread”: suspension, womanhood, and the fluid binary between harmony and hardship. The collection includes an installation of toile fabric shaped into floral wreaths hanging from walls, rounded elegant sculptures, and conceptual paintings of flowers.

Malai: Mentally Secured (2015) Collection Singapore Art Museum. Photo courtesy Tyler Rollins Fine Art

In Thai culture, phuang malai are floral garlands, often sold at the side of roads or outside temples. These garlands are not only given in moments of celebration: to a bride and groom, at birthdays, engagement parties, or for good luck. They are also presented in times of grief and silence, at funerals, or as religious offerings of devotion and respect.

N-Peace celebrates women and men’s achievements, working for peace and women’s rights in the Asia region. But their achievements did not come about without struggle and pain. Many of them have seen terrible things, or experienced first-hand the very issues they are now campaigning to have addressed. Some have come from families divided by conflict, some have had to flee the countries and communities they love, some have seen women beaten down, abused, and ostracised. These experiences have hardened them, but they have also instilled in them a sense of determination. And it is precisely that determination, and the active role they now play to drive forward women’s rights, that N-Peace is supporting.

Women’s rights are ultimately human rights. I find it shocking that today so many women are still subjected to gender-based violence, political marginalization, forced displacement, or human trafficking. Conflict exacerbates these inequalities. In 2016, only half of the peace agreements signed contained gender specific provisions compared to 70% in 2015. These are precarious times. We need to do everything we can to ensure that issues affecting women are properly addressed moving forward - especially those living in warzones.

Suspended on the page but fixed through the medium of print, the N-Peace malai trophies represent a liminal space between joyful celebration and sombre commemoration for the women’s rights work of the past, present and (importantly) the future.

About the author

Pinaree Sanpitak is a Thai conceptual and contemporary artist. Her work addresses motherhood, womanhood, and self by using the shape of “breast and body” to provoke the symbol of feminism and femininity. She is currently the resident artist at STPI, Singapore. Find out more about Pinaree here.

Find out more about the N-Peace Network here.

Written as-told-to Mailee Osten-Tan (