Cultural ties?

• Nathan Beard explores ‘Thainess’ in his exhibition A Puzzlement.

AFTER the death of his Thai mother in 2019, Perth artist Nathan Beard re-evaluated his Australian-Thai heritage and looked at how the West had perceived “Thainess” over the years.

Using personal items belonging to his mum, film, installation and photography he began to piece together works for his exhibition A Puzzlement, which fuses the Western take on Thai culture with Beard’s diasporic version growing up in Perth.

A Puzzlement is a wry nod to a song in the 1956 Hollywood film The King and I – the story of UK widow Anna Leonowens who travelled to Siam (Thailand) in the early 1860s (from Western Australia) to teach English to the wives and many children of the stubborn king Mongkut. 

A Puzzlement is borne from the desire to locate how my relationship to Thainess might be formed without the primary source of my mother’s cultural influence after her death,” Beard says.

“I wanted to investigate the way in which Thai culture and identity might be disseminated or preserved within the West through institutional archives (specifically in British institutions such as the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew Gardens and the British Museum which I was researching during a six month residency this year) and popular culture, to suggest that the concept of ‘Thainess’ is not a fixed one.

“For me it’s a malleable and porous construct, contingent on a range of shifting historical and personal influences.

“The idea of ‘Thainess’ is central to my work and I use a range of mediums to try and highlight the slipperiness of this concept, and how it relates to shifting perceptions of diasporic identity.”

Featuring a range of kitsch objects including glittering face masks, stick-on lips and gold leaf wallpaper with bold prints, the exhibition is not afraid to have a wry smile about Thai life.  

In one piece, his mother’s Buddhist shrine statues are juxtaposed against 90’s fast-food Thai-themed toys in a mischievous celebration of Thai culture that spans the mundane to the divine.

“Although Thailand was never colonised, Thai culture is historically quite hybrid and draws from a range of global and historical influences, and this perspective was very much pronounced through my own household experience,” Beard says. 

“My work specifically draws a lot from the visual extravagance and materiality of domestic shrines, and the aesthetic of decoration and adornment my mum reproduced within an Australian context as a way of expressing her cultural pride.”

Influenced by artists like Danh Vo, Camille Henrot and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Beard has a bold, visually arresting style.

A multidisciplinary artist who experiments with photography, video, sculpture and installation, Beard graduated with a first class honours in art from Curtin University in the 2010s and went on to hold several solo exhibitions, becoming a finalist in the Ramsay Art Prize in 2021.

“My Thai heritage was very much celebrated and highlighted by my mum and aunty growing up, but it’s important to note that what I grew up with was a version of Thai culture that was reproduced within a Western context,” Beard says. “There’s a much larger Thai community here than when I was growing up but I’m not really involved with it. When I was in primary school especially my mum was much more actively involved in this community, but as she got older she withdrew from it in order to focus more on her own family in Thailand and a smaller network of close friends and Thai-owned businesses she frequented.

“As her social circle became more narrow, my access to this broader community and my familiarity with it also diminished.”

A Puzzlement is at PICA in Northbridge until January 8.

by STEPHEN POLLOCK

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