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Vasan Sitthiket, Thailand’s 'anarchist' artist
The infamous Thai painter remains as controversial as ever, telling CNNGo he's now working on a new exhibition to expose Thailand's latest political woes
In the 1970s, self-described "anarchist" artist Vasan Sitthiket fought with police on the streets against Thailand's military dictators alongside college students. Later he "worked with" Chinese-backed communist Thais in the northern jungles, though he himself remained based in cities.
At 62, Vasan hasn’t mellowed much with age: "As an artist, I use my art as my weapon, to crash the public, to change what I disagree with," Vasan tells CNNGo. "I don't believe in democracy today, which is ruled by corporations and a greedy, idiot-capitalist military."
As one of Thailand's most radical artists his paintings of U.S. bombardments, Osama bin Laden, Buddhist monks and other hot-button
visuals have earned him death threats as well as plaudits. (See above
"Vasan has something to say," says Greg Escalante, owner of the ultra-hip CoproGallery in Santa Monica, California, and a founder of Juxtapoz Magazine, a radical art publication. "It seems like he is echoing a zeitgeist that many art people feel in the United States today."
Born in 1957 in Nakon Sawan, Vasan looks like a struggling artist with scrambled, thinning hair and a determined gaze. For him, democracy is not all it's cracked up to be, as he sees it as corrupted by industry. "I call it 'demon-crazy.' Barack Obama can do nothing, because he is the puppet (being) played by the ultra-greedy corporations of oil, weapons, medicine and food."
Translating all that with pigments and images on a canvas is not an easy task, and some of Vasan's paintings are difficult to examine. His portraits of Osama bin Laden, for example, include a context some people are unwilling, or unable, to perceive.
"I believe in equality, independence and a diverse society, so I respect differences in religion," Vasan says. "In my opinion, when power ignores the voice of the oppressed, what shall we do? Demonstrate and riot, to get a release from the suffering by the oppressor?
"Bin Laden was in that category. The occupation in Iraq, and 'War on Terror', made the problem worse. I don't agree with [bin Laden] killing innocent people, but this is our problem too, we must be responsible for it. I am an artist who criticizes vulgar power. If I am in a Muslim system, maybe they will cut off my hands or head. But as an activist, I stand beside the poor."
Taking aim at Thailand's political woes
In his latest works, Vasan says he wants to portray the darker side of Thai society.
"Now I am painting a series of 10 evil scenes of Thai politics," he said, describing recent political confrontations by political leaders and their supporters. "I am also thinking about my next show in May, in Singapore. It is about the situation in Asia, after America's [economic] crisis," he said.
"I admire Mao, Che Guevara, Castro, Ho Chi Minh and Chavez, because I still need revolution," Vasan said, evoking leaders in China, Latin America, Cuba, Vietnam and Venezuela. "I don't agree with vulgar, greedy capitalism, and I still dream for this world to be as one."
Thailand's former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, comes in for special denunciation.
"Thaksin tried to take over all our country, by using money. He believed that he could buy power," says Vasan, who has publicly supported Thaksin's enemies -- the Yellow Shirts -- in their bid to imprison Thaksin for alleged corruption.
Thaksin's "populism policies made the poor love him," Vasan adds, but those impoverished Thais wrongly believed that because Thaksin was a billionaire, he would not need to be corrupt, he says, adding that the military's September 2006 coup which toppled Thaksin was also wrong.
As a result, Vasan sees a country rotting from within, because of inequality.
"Thailand has the most injustice. For example, if you have any problem with a general's son, you will be in hard trouble, even you do no wrong. Or if you are the son of a politician, you can kill anyone, free, and never go to court. So we need to change the root of evil in our society.
"I live a simple life, and do not want to be rich. I teach my children that most billionaires are thieves who make big problems for this planet."
Few topics off limits for Vasan
Vasan is proud of his portfolio, which depicts controversial topics. In 1992, he painted Lord Buddha visiting Thailand in 1992, after the Black May massacre when the military crushed a pro-democracy uprising in the streets of Bangkok.
People were protesting the appointment of General Suchinda Kraprayoon as Prime Minister, after he earlier toppled Chatichai Choonhavan in a 1991 coup. General Suchinda ruled, alongside Air Chief Marshall Kaset Rojananil and General Issarapong Noonpakdi, in a disgraced junta. The government later claimed 44 people had died, 38 "disappeared" and 11 were crippled after troops opened fire on the protesters. Other investigators said hundreds were killed.
Vasan's sensitive retinas have also targeted Thailand's corrupt Buddhist monks.
Some of his critics, however, have fought back with ominous threats. In 1992, Vasan created a large painting which included, among other scenes, a portrayal of a Thai Buddhist monk raping a girl -- a crime that occasionally occurs in Thailand.
Vasan said the piece was part of a much bigger painting. But a Thai newspaper that interviewed him published only that detail from his painting.
"Forty-three Buddhist organizations were so angry, and condemned me to death as a penalty," the artist said. "Lucky for me, my friend went to meet their leader, and showed them a full copy of my work, so they understood that I didn't attempt to destroy and insult Buddhism, but had tried to attack the fake monk."
Admired, but a tough sell
Vasan's art shocks many people in Thailand, where blunt, confrontational opinions are usually avoided. Among some Americans, however, his paintings appear fresh and bold, though perhaps unable to compete at the top levels of the United States art market. Still, his artwork has a following, says Escalante.
During the Bush Administration, Vasan's images hammered at U.S. foreign policy, Escalante recalls. "Surprisingly, we saw very little of this kind of political, anti-Bush war propaganda in the U.S."
But due to the provocative nature of Vasan's work, Escalante says it's difficult to market his work, even if U.S. collectors enjoy his anti-war attitude: "Try selling a painting of two wolves dressed as Uncle Sam with hard-ons, defecating. Not so easy."
Escalante compared Vasan with the U.S. artist Shepard Fairey, whose "Hope" poster was used to support Barack Obama's campaign to be president.
"Vasan's outlandishness, insightfulness, and utter disregard for propriety make him the Shepard Fairey of Bangkok, only different. Vasan is better in that he doesn't appropriate at all. Vasan is the real deal."