First of all, back to the beginning. Last Wednesday, the CAP volunteers met a diverse group of participants brought together by Mplus in Suan Prung park to collaborate on a “community mandala” that would allow all of us—participants and facilitators alike—to express our individual thoughts about “pride” within the prism of a larger geometric design. We engaged critical questions about our inner selves, sexual identities, and social realities through the selection of colors, patterns and symbols, crafting a visual statement of queer reality that was both healing and chaotic.
After we had completed our individual mandalas (and after a brief and very sweaty video interview for Thai PBS) we gathered in a circle to share our works, opening up our own “circles of support” to the larger circle of the group. After awhile, we began seeing mandalas in everything, and it soon became evident that what we were creating was not merely a visual mandala; it was also a human mandala. We were doing more than just creating art: We were getting to know each other.
The final result of this workshop, a vibrant, 16-section “Pride Mandala,” was featured as part of a community art exhibition at the Tawan Center, the destination point of the Pride parade. A large geometric design made up of sixteen individual expressions of “pride,” the Pride Mandala unites the individual with the collective, the microcosm with the macrocosm; offering both a critique of the establishment’s inability to accept LGBTQ voices into socio-political discourse and an opportunity to open up a common visual space in which all viewers—gay and straight, red shirt and yellow shirt, young and old—can come together without prejudice or mistrust. The mandala, by boldly re-interpreting a traditional Buddhist symbol in the context of a charged political debate about “traditional culture,” presents a focused statement of political resistance, arguing that all Thais—both gay and straight—have a stake in the preservation and enjoyment of traditional Thai, Lanna, and Buddhist cultural traditions.
The mandala is among the most ancient forms of Buddhist art, and has a long and rich visual history stretching back to the genesis of representational art. From rock carvings, stylized lotus blossoms, and “sacred circles” demarcating early Stupas and other Buddhist structures, the mandala has developed into a potent unifying symbol for the Buddhist world. Here in Chiang Mai, for example, architectural space remains cloaked in the language of mandalas; the chedi, as an expression of the Buddhist cosmos, is actually a Buddhist mandala rendered in three dimensions rather than in two. Mandalas reflect both an ancient view of an enchanted cosmos and a more contemporary view of quantum reality, one which accepts that that which we refer to as “reality” is actually a holographic construction, and that the true structure of reality is circular rather than linear. This concept—as powerful as it is simple—has found a voice in nearly all of the world’s spiritual traditions, perhaps most profoundly in the spiritual traditions of the Amerindian peoples of North America.
Such a connection to the artistic traditions of North America is fitting, since this work is also part of a project aimed at broadening the horizons of cross-cultural dialogue in America. In the coming months, the Pride Mandala will be featured as part of an exhibition at Dartmouth College, in New Hampshire (USA), allowing its message of inclusion, tolerance, and mutual respect to reach literally across the globe. The exhibition, entitled “Cultural Canvas: Building Community Through the Arts,” will present the mandala alongside creative works culled from a broad swath of Chiang Mai society—from Burmese migrant children to single mothers—and will hopefully, in the process, help to raise awareness amongst educated people in America of the struggles faced by many here in Chiang Mai. As the ancient wisdom of the mandala suggests, we are all part of the same circles—circles of life, support, and community—and we must recognize and celebrate these circles if we are ever to create a truly “human” community.
As Pongthorn Chanlearn, the founder of MPlus, wrote in a recent editorial in the Nation, “It is simply untrue that local cultures are completely distinct and separate from other cultures, as no cultures exist in a vacuum.” Indeed, the mandala, as a common Buddhist symbol, symbolizes this nuanced view of culture and community. The concept of symmetrical, centrally arranged space demarcating different “realms” of cosmic reality and interior space unites Lanna culture—typified by Chiang Mai’s hundreds of soaring golden chedis –with broader currents in Buddhist thought. By blocking visual access to the mandala, the red shirt protestors thus also partitioned and diminished Lanna culture, hiding it behind a veil of ignorance and cultural stagnation. For what does it mean to consider “Lanna culture” in relation to “Pattaya culture,” or even “Thai culture” in today’s rapidly globalizing and shrinking world? Today, the only way to “preserve” a culture is to enter it into a dialogue with another culture; to trust “culture” to the natural and humanizing processes of discourse, inquiry, curiosity, and change. As Pongthorn Chanlearn writes, “A flowing current brings fertility from upstream to downstream and prevents the decay that comes with stagnation. Likewise, culture, without being held hostage, renews itself in time and nourishes subsequent ages. This is true of all cultures, as they withstand the passage of time and pass on the legacy of previous generations.” (The Nation, 5 February 2009)
This weekend, true Lanna culture was held hostage, barricaded both within the fences of a shopping mall and within the confines of a narrow and restrictive cultural mindset. When I began the process of planning this "community mandala" workshop for MPlus, I could not have forseen that the mandala itself would figure as an actor, however silent, in a lived drama of social resistance. In a way, the mandala, though it may not have reached the largest possible audience, did assume the role of "common space" in this dialogue, if indeed there was any to be found. The Rak Chiang Mai 51 may have torn down the stage, locked demonstrators inside of a temple for hours, and blocked access to the artistic heart of the day’s activities; however, in all of the chaos surrounding the day, they failed to tear down the one visual statement directly criticizing them. They may have succeeded in "protecting Lanna culture" from a gay invasion of Pattaya-esque proportions, but they have failed to silence the cries of resistance and empowerment echoing out from Chiang Mai’s gay community, just as they could not silence the Pride Mandala. When I leave Chiang Mai in (sadly) just under a week, the Pride Mandala will be following me, making its way to America as part of a small exhibition at Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH, carrying MPlus' message of inclusion literally across the globe.
If you’d like to read more about the current political situation in Chiang Mai, feel free to visit this link: http://www.nationmultimedia.com/2009/02/22/national/national_30096290.php
~Jon Lohse, CAP Volunteer
Hi, I’m Kiera, I come from
It became apparent almost immediately that the children had other ideas… In this work shop, the lesson plan was not followed; however, we got to know the boys much better. We now have an understanding now of how much a change in their routine can affect them. With Khun Piranan absent and a late breakfast, they were not in the best of moods. Nong Wichai is the man of the house, in Khun Piranan’s absence he was doing his best to ensure all the daily chores were done, happily oblivious to our set plan. Improvised tools with bells on them will be made for Nong Mai to paint with. He loves the sound of bells and with his limited range of movement; we hope painting with sound will enhance his experience. We know that although we have a three hour workshop period allocated, one hour is a much more reasonable length of time to expect to hold the children’s attention. It is now very clear to us that these two boys have the ability to express their desire to do something, and also their desire not to participate. Because of the boys’ limited range of expressions, it is often difficult for us to understand what they are trying to say; through observations and progressive interaction, and a lot of patience, we are able to connect with them on an emotional level and understand them. We believe it is very important to allow the ability to develop effective communication and freedom of choice.
This workshop presented the girls at Buddhakasetra with a unique challenge: how to depict a creative, imaginative view of their "identities" while accepting the explicit boundaries of their physical bodies as "outlines." This body/self schism forced the girls to confront some deep questions about their own identities: Am I defined by my size or shape? Does "who I am" transcend my body, or is it an intrinsic part of it? Am I ashamed of my body, or am I proud to identify with it? Many girls chose to resolve these problems by selectively editing, spending much of the first hour of the workshop erasing, redrawing, and perfecting their outlines. Some of the final posters presented idealized visions of "body," as viewed through a curious prism of anime culture and influences from Western and Thai popular media.
Other girls chose not to depict "themselves," per se, but rather chose to place their figures into a whimsical arrangement of important symbols, items, and meaningful patterns.
This poster in particular seemed to speak through the haze of fashion and media references which has replaced "identity" in today's society, taking part unknowingly in a dialogue of archetypal womanhood stretching back to classical Minoan culture. Describing the snake as a symbol of her desire "to go to the moon," this girl demonstrated her ability to gather a wide variety of symbols, sources, and concepts into a coherent statement of being and desire, combining her dreams, hopes, and emerging womanhood into an elegant symbolic gesture.
Still other participants chose to project their identities outwards, imaging themselves in different times, places, and situations. This girl imagined herself in a sort of cultural clothing foreign to the rough, undeveloped, and distant environs of Buddhakastera, giving a creative voice to her own dreams of growth and escape . Some girls imagined themselves as rock stars, others as nurses, mothers, and teachers. Indeed, something more than just "identity" was on display in these posters; hopes, dreams, and struggles poured out of these girls pastels, paintbrushes, and markers.
After the girls had finished their posters, we all gathered together to discuss the many ways in which "identity" can be portrayed in art, and to share our own identities with each other through our posters. This process of constructing and deconstructing differing views of "self" was fascinating both to watch and participate in, and hopefully revealed to these girls of limiting backgrounds and circumstances the infinite possibilities for personal growth, achievement, and transformation that lie in every girl's creative potential.