Degree Critical, Fall 2018

Wednesday 03/27/2019

Photograph from the series Pondan, 2018 by Samak Kosem. Courtesy the artist.

David Willis in Conversation with Samak Kosem

by David Willis (Class of 2013)

Samak Kosem (born in Bangkok in 1984, currently based in Chiang Mai) is a Thai artist and academic who, despite his scant exhibition record, is swiftly making a name for himself in Southeast Asian art circles. I first encountered his work when I stumbled across his book of photographs at Tentacles Gallery (a great place to discover art books in Bangkok, located within the N22 gallery complex). Titled A Sound Like Someone Is Trying Not To Make A Sound [published by Walailak University, 2018], the book documents the lives of gay Muslims living in the south of Thailand. It’s an area dominated by a Malay-speaking Muslim community, and the site of a violent conflict that began in the 1950s, when the ethnic Malay population, who had traditionally paid tribute to the Siamese kings, chafed under forced assimilation to the modern Thai state. The conflict sparked a cycle of terrorist attacks, guerrilla warfare, and brutal government crackdowns that continues to this day.

Partly the product of his anthropological field work (Kosem holds a BS in Anthropology and an MA in Social Development from Chiang Mai University, where he will apply for his PhD this year), the book also draws upon his personal experience, presenting photos of his informants in the South alongside his own stories of growing up queer while attending an Islamic school in Nonthaburi, central Thailand. Hardbound in a limited run of a hundred copies, the book straddles a range of seemingly distinct concepts—including Muslim and queer, art and anthropology, public and private, Thai and Malay—richly illustrating the ways in which such binaries co-exist and rub up against one another, albeit not without considerable friction.

After reaching out to Samak to acquire a copy of his book, he invited me to meet him at his installation, Nonhuman Ethnography (2017-2018), part of the first Bangkok Art Biennale (held from October 13, 2018 – February 3, 2019). Appearing in the portion curated by Patrick Flores at OP Place (an exhibition which one local curator described to me as “the only part of the Biennale worth seeing”), Samak’s contribution consisted of videos, photographs, field notes, and mixed media artworks made from sheep pelts and plastic bags. Handing me his book with a big smile and a nervous laugh when we met, Samak kindly agreed to an interview about his research-based practice, conducted as follows.


Degree Critical: In keeping with the title of your installation Nonhuman Ethnography, the photos and videos mostly depict sheep wandering around, and waves crashing at the beach. How do these subjects relate to queer Muslims in the south of Thailand?

Samak Kosem: The idea for this project is based on a chapter of my thesis for my Anthropology PhD, titled “Sheep, Waves, Check Points, Jinn.” The issue I wanted to address was queer Muslims in Southern Thailand, but it is quite a sensitive issue because nobody who lives there can accept that homosexuality exists in the community. They just don’t want to bring up the issue at all. So, I decided to make my theme for the first year “Sheep” because people would ask me all the time “What is your topic?” and I could not tell them I was researching queer people. I saw a lot of sheep so I thought OK, I’ll just do sheep. Then, when I knew I was going to be included in the Biennale, I decided to make work for all four subjects, to develop a queer lens on culture from different angles.

So the first year I studied sheep, this year was the wave, next year I will do check points, and later the jinn [the name for spirits or ghosts in the Muslim tradition]. The jinn will bring us closer to understanding queerness, as they are something that is invisible, alienated, and in that way similar to queer community in Southern Thailand. Have you seen the TV series American Gods? It has an episode with a queer, Muslim jinn, who is also a taxi driver in New York. This gave me an idea about how it all might be connected. After I finish my study on the jinn, I will move straight into the queer issue, but I still need time to warm up. I think it will take many years, both to develop my art and to get to know the LGBTQ community in the south, because no one ever talks about that down there. They are all hiding.

Festival of Sacrifice no. 3 and no. 4, both 2018, [framed sheepskin] by Samak Kosem. Installation view at Bangkok Art Bienniele (October 13, 2018 – February 3, 2019). Courtesy the artist.

DC: How long did it take before you could find any queer people to talk to?

SK: It took me at least six months before I was able to gain the trust of a group of queer people, and then it took me a year before I was able to get someone to introduce me to gay students in the Islamic school. Not because it was all that difficult really, but because of the timing for the people I work with. Everyone has their lives, everything is all connected, and that’s why I don’t mind working through these other issues, to understand the context and the bigger situation. As you know, anthropology takes years of fieldwork; it will take as long as it takes.

DC: Can you tell me more about the context around the sheep?

SK: The sheep actually say a lot about gender relations, because in the south, sheep must be sacrificed at every holy ceremony. In fact, they keep sheep exclusively for that purpose, not for sale at the market every day, like cows or pigs. For instance, if you have a healthy baby, you have to kill sheep, but the number depends on the gender: if you have a boy, you kill two sheep to show gratitude, but if you have a girl, you only need to kill one. That’s why there are two sheepskins in this work, and just one in the other [Festival of Sacrifice no.3, and no.4, respectively, both 2018]. It’s the same with money; if your parents die, they will give the son a full inheritance, but a daughter will get half as much. The idea is that she will get money from her husband, like she’s his problem. Next year I will still use the sheep’s wool, but in some different way.

Film still from Sheep, 2017-2018, [14:08 minutes]. By Samak Kosem. Courtesy the artist.

DC: What about the waves?

SK: In the south, bombings and shootings occur in the towns and markets, but the beaches seem to be one of the few areas that are usually safe from the conflict. Only there do people really feel relaxed and comfortable. I like to return and study the waves in different seasons. The video Waves (2018) was shot at Ramadan when it’s very quiet and there’s no one there, and the other video A Thin Veil (2018) was shot when the beaches were crowded. I shot the footage at different beaches in Pattani, and in Chana, Songkla Province, which is the district where they are protesting coal production [footage of the protestors appears in A Thin Veil]. I like to observe the feeling of the Thai and Malay people mixing there, all their activities and their livelihood.

DC: In A Thin Veil there is a person who sticks plastic straws in the sand. Who was that?

SK: That was the artist Anis Nagasevi, based in Pattani. He was in the show at MAIIAM [Patani Semasa, an exhibition of artists from the South of Thailand at the MAIIAM Museum of Contemporary Art in Chiang Mai held from July 19, 2017 – February 14, 2018]. His work is very interesting, because most artists in the south make work about the continuing violence, but Nagasevi wanted to make work about something else, and talk about environmental issues. He has a project called “Patani Landlord.” He has a cafe in Pattani, and he collects all kinds of materials and recycles them in his artworks. I was talking to him about collaborating on the video, and that’s how I got the idea to collect the plastic bags for the other piece. I was thinking about things living with the waves, moving at the beach, relating to the title of this project, Non-Human Ethnography.

Sheep Fieldnotes and Waves Fieldnotes, both 2018 by Samak Kosem. Installation view at Bangkok Art Bienniele (October 13, 2018 – February 3, 2019). Courtesy the artist.

DC: Please tell me about the field notes. You made an installation of photographs paired with field notes [Sheep Fieldnotes and Waves Fieldnotes, both 2018] but the writing is not in Thai.

SK: It’s in Melayu, the language spoken by Muslims in the south. It’s a dialect of Malay, written using Arabic characters. You have two ways to write Malay, Rumi and JawiRumi is written with the Roman alphabet, and Jawi with Arabic characters. Jawi is more common in the south of Thailand than it is in Malaysia, where Rumi is standard. They have their own ways of spelling things; they don’t want to use Anglicized words, and they are still in Thailand, so using Melayu is a way for them to assert their Malay identity. The writing is from my own anthropological field notes, and I asked a friend to translate it back into the local language. I got the idea after reading the anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod, who wrote an essay titled “Writing Against Culture” (1996), in which she critiqued those Western ethnologists who went into foreign cultures, gathered knowledge, and then published something in English but never shared their research with the community that gave rise to it in the first place. I also took inspiration from the artist Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, who has written about the lack of understanding for contemporary art among Thai people, including in the south.

DC: Why are some of the words written in red?

SK: Those are keywords, important things from my notes, though there is no translation from the Melayu. I wanted people to remain curious about my experience as a researcher in that region. And with the red, I was also thinking about the “Red Zone,” the area with all the violence where I did my research. As a photographer I like portraits, so I was sad to cover the faces, but the erasure also makes sense, because in my fieldwork, when I ask southern Muslims about gays, they mainly respond “Oh, we don’t have them here.” It’s also like the portraits in my book, where the faces are covered with red spray paint and Jawi script. When I did my first exhibition I had to find ways to shroud the people’s faces, so I covered them with prayers, like what you learn in Islamic school. Growing up queer in that system, even if you study and pray, people judge you, saying that God will not accept your prayers. In the portraits covered with red paint, I used the Islamic definition of homosexuality, written in Jawi. For the other portraits, I bought stickers with prayers in Jawi, and stuck them on the photos, and my friend later explained to me that the prayers were to protect against evil beings, like jinn, or to protect against evil sins, like homosexuality.

DC: How did you choose the title of your book: A Sound Like Someone is Trying Not To Make A Sound?

SK: It comes from my favorite novel by John Irving, A Widow For One Year. I thought it captured the idea of these people who cannot express their identity freely, but they still have an identity. I believe it’s important for marginal people to do something, to make a sound. Later I went back to think about sound: the sound of the waves on beaches in the south is always overlapping with the call to prayer, because the mosque is always close by. The waves also speak to the situation with the fundamentalists, because in the south they talk about the “new wave” to refer to fundamentalist Islam. The traditional version of Islam in that region is less extreme; the new wave is all about returning to some more pure, more extreme version. In the past, they had movies in the south. They had cinema, music, they could wear colorful clothes; but later, there came new mosques and madrassas funded from the Middle East, and now people wear black, women must wear long hijabs, and so forth.

DC: How did your queer contacts feel about you going public? Has there been any backlash against you or them?

SK: I published some short blog articles about this project in Thai, so some people originally from the queer community down there now know me from my writing, but they are mostly relocated in Bangkok now. Most southern queer people move to Bangkok because they cannot be themselves in the south, but by the time they turn forty they often move back because of family issues, such as pressure to get married and start a family. My informants haven’t had any trouble. The main trouble has been with the gatekeepers. When I go to do research, or to show, or to publish, many people tell me, “You can’t do that!” That’s why I just went ahead and published online, because institutions are too slow. They don’t want to talk about these issues.

Photograph from the series The Prayer Book, 2018 by Samak Kosem. Courtesy the artist.

In terms of negative reactions, I participated in a panel discussion where a certain academic from the south took over my entire Q&A, ranting at me, accusing me of causing problems for the locals by publicly discussing the presence of queer people in their community. He then gave a talk immediately after me, and a number of professors and students walked out of his lecture in protest of what he had just said. So I don’t worry too much, I just do my thing. But it was actually quite interesting, because the first thing he said was that my work made his mind feel “twisted,” or “broken,” like he just couldn’t make order of it in his head. I was inspired by that, and thankful for his attack, because those words—twisted, broken—related to an issue from my fieldwork. It reminded me of how, when I talk to young people of my generation in southern Thailand, a lot of them join the separatist movement, and are intent on changing the government. They have lots of ideas and opinions, but if you want to check if their logic is sound, just bring the LGBTQ question to them and they break down. They get very awkward and don’t know how to respond. You realize that many people have never even thought about the issue at all, or they respond to it in a negative, unsupportive way.

DC: Do many of your informants still go to mosque to pray?

SK: Many go because they still want to be good Muslims, although sometimes people harass them, call them sinners, tell them that God will not accept their prayers, and exclude them. Many schools will not accept a prospective student if they believe the person is queer. Even if they don’t say anything, judgments will be made just based on body language and how they act. So they are forced to find their own way. I need more time for this project, because people face different troubles at different ages. Maybe they gain more freedom for a time in their early adulthood, but after forty, they are expected to go back and look after their parents. Many queer people end up in heteronormative marriages, because people will ask you every day, “Are you married? Are you married? Why not?” The societal and familial pressure is so immense that many of them eventually give in. So I will work on that in the future.


Samak Kosem lives and works in Chiang Mai, Thailand. His next exhibition will be Bordering on Desire, part of “Present Passing: South by Southeast”, curated by Patrick D. Flores and Natasha Becker at Osage Gallery, Hong Kong. March 24 – May 26, 2019.

David Willis lives and works in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. David is a critic, curator, and art advisor, and alum of the MFA Art Writing Program at the School of Visual Arts. He has been based in Vietnam and Thailand since 2015, developing a specialization in the contemporary art of Southeast Asia.