One of Thailand’s top artists has come to the defense of a senior university art student who was forced to apologize for depicting the Buddha as a Japanese superhero.
After the unidentified student’s works were removed from a show during the weekend due to complaints, National Artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, creator of Chiang Rai’s famed White Temple, pleaded with Thais to be more open-minded.
“When I read the comments from people criticizing the student, I get so sad. Society, please don’t be like this. The student has creativity and imagination… that’s what we need. That’s what the generation is like. They’re brave,” Chalermchai said in a video response posted online Sunday.
Chalermchai, who also created a statue memorial of the retired Thai SEAL team member killed during last year’s cave rescue, was among those to come to the defense of the young artist after her paintings drew complaints from a monk and a firebrand conservative politician who complained last night about the unidentified student’s work.
The paintings had gone on display last week at a Terminal 21 mall in the northeastern city of Korat. They included the Buddha shown as Japanese superhero Ultraman before a Louis Vuitton-pattern background. In another, seven figures with Buddha heads strike action-star poses while dressed as “beings of light” from the Ultraman world.
“I really don’t agree with this. … When I see it, it makes me uncomfortable because I am a devout Buddhist,” Parina Kraikup, an MP for the pro-establishment Palang Pracharath Party party, wrote online last night.
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Discussion of the art spread after a popular monk complained and posted images of them online Friday.
That led to Nakhon Ratchasima Gov. Wichien Chantharanothai, the vice-rector of Nakhon Ratchasima Rajabhat University and local religious officials flanking the student artist as she tearfully apologized Saturday to province’s top monk.
She said she did not mean to undermine Buddhism or cause controversy but rather wanted to convey her belief that the Buddha is a superhero much like Ultraman – who has been a hero to Thai youths for decades.
“I’ve seen Buddha statues watch over me ever since I was young. As I grew up, I saw Ultraman as a hero that helps protect the world,” she said. “… Both are able to stay calm against temptations surrounding them and also protect the world from evil to keep us at peace.”
As for the criticized Louis Vuitton references, she said they were meant to represent those worldly temptations.
“I’m really sorry,” she said.
That didn’t stop Parina the MP, who’s become something of a parliamentary troll to her opponents, to link the student’s art with current events and call for her to be disciplined.
“These days strange things are seeping into our society. They’re entering our traditions, our courts, and now they’re beginning to enter Buddhism,” she wrote, asking that the responsible artist be lectured. “Help us, na ka.”
Attitudes have hardened over the years to how the Buddha is represented, with frequent outbursts of anger over perceived misappropriations. Such episodes have included Line stickers, tattoos, Japanese musicians and, most recently, a series of Instagram filters.
National Artist Chalermchai said shutting down youth expression has a corrosive effect on the nation’s future.
“[W]hen we chastise them like this, kids all over the nation get scared and can’t do anything. They’re scared to think outside the box and innovate. This is the problem with our society today. All we see are copycats, people don’t have original ideas,” he said, adding that drawing the Buddha is not difficult, but finding new ways to incorporate religion into art, as she did, is.
“How can our country thrive [without innovation] like this?” he added.
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