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In Thailand’s Deep South, Artists Strive To Alter Its ‘Violent Image’

Story and photos by Benar News

The beaches in Pattani province, in the heart of Thailand’s Deep South, are pristine but mostly deserted. Outsiders hardly venture here because the mainly Muslim and Malay-speaking border region is synonymous with an armed separatist insurgency that has simmered for decades with no end in sight.

But artists and residents of Pattani town, the provincial capital and hub of the longtime salt trade in the far south, are working to change that negative image by showcasing the region’s rich artistic and cultural heritage, which is distinct from anywhere else in Thailand.

“We want to tell a different story,” said Hadee Hamidong, an organizer of Pattani Decoded, a creative and design art show that started in 2019 but had to be shelved for two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We want to change the violent image and show another layer. There is so much more here than just those incidents. There are people and different aspects to life. There is centuries-old history and heritage.”

“Deep Salt” was the theme of the 2022 art show. Held in early September, the exhibit drew an estimated 30,000 people at venues in Pattani town and other sites, including a salt farm, Hadee said. Another group, Patani Artspace, which brings together 10 galleries, was staging a parallel arts festival through November 2022 in towns in Pattani and other provinces in the Deep South.  

The coastal town of Pattani, which faces the Gulf of Thailand, has long been a center for harvesting salt from the sea and a trading hub for salt exports to China and other foreign markets. The variety found here is nicknamed “sweet salt” because of its mellow taste. However, salt farming has declined dramatically in recent years due to climate change and unpredictable weather patterns. “It is hard work and requires soil, water and sunlight,” said Abdul Ka-bu, a local salt farmer who attended the “Deep Salt” exhibit. “We cannot depend on them anymore as we could in the past.”

In one video shown at the exhibit, a longtime salt farmer lamented that he sold only 10 sacks in 2021, compared with the 500 to 600 sacks he used to sell a few years ago. The Deep South is among the country’s poorest regions. In Pattani province, the poverty rate is 34.2%, compared to 6% nationally, the World Bank reported in 2019.

The exhibit organized by Hadee also featured handicrafts and calligraphy, musical performances, boat painting, batik-fabric painting, and culinary demonstrations, among other activities. “We wanted to promote local identity, local culture, local heritage, local costume and local knowledge,” said Hadee, who belongs to Melayu Living, an artists’ cooperative based in Pattani.

One of the show’s pieces, “Field Work” by architect-artist Savinee Buranasilapin, featured 600 small circular mirrors, each mounted on steel rods planted in the middle of salt flats at Na Kluea Laem Nok, just outside the city. The concept was to reflect Pattani’s salt trade past when merchant ships docked near the city’s glittering lights.

Nattapon Pichairat, 40, an artist and fabric designer, drew plants found around salt fields on paper and later printed them digitally on fabric. “I chose plants because they are these beautiful little objects that bring such immense joy and feeling of peace … I want to tell others about the beauty and nature of Pattani and nearby areas,” he said, adding that he wanted to “reimagine the city as a cultural hub.”

In “Le Sel de La Vie [The Salt of Life],” Emsophian Benjametha showcased handcrafted ceramic items inspired by Pattani’s “sweet salt” from the production process to the destination. “Without salt, there is no life. Without life, there is no art. Without art, there is no civilization,” said the 43-year-old designer and artist trained in France. “Everyone is welcome in Pattani, a small city with a big heart and a very long and rich history. It’s not bombs and danger. There are many good things here: craft, design, food, the old houses.” 

The region that now makes up the Deep South was once the heart of a Muslim principality that included several neighboring provinces. The British gave the region to Thailand, which annexed it in 1909. Secessionist groups have been waging a rebellion since the 1960s.

Rueanglada Punyalikhit, a lecturer at Silpakorn University, said events such as “Deep Salt” help the region shed its violent image. As part of that effort, she helps local entrepreneurs develop innovative natural products, including herbs, food, drinks, textiles and crafts, made from locally available raw materials. “It is not justified that only violence defines your identity,” Rueanglada said. “From the outside, the situation does not look good due to the news about violence. But when you come here, you can see that life is normal, and it’s not dangerous as others think.” 

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