Thursday, 14 October 2010

Chiang Mai -- Art and Soul.

It's a charming little enclave of shop-houses and Lanna-style houses which I've driven through countless times, and always thought 'I should stop here and take a look one day'. That one day was yesterday.

Charoenrat Road on the eastern bank of the Ping River that runs through Chiang Mai is probably better known as the place where you'll find restaurant/bars like the Riverside and Good View. But it's also home to a dizzying array of art galleries. So it's perfect for a potter around.

Many of the shops are in historically restored Lanna-style wooden buildings, with high ceilings and teak floors, adding an evocative mien to the artsy experience. At one end of the street is a colonial mansion going back around 70 years. And in the middle is a really jazzy temple, small but worth a look for its amazing coloured facade, as though the art of the area has been infused into the building itself.

The more upmarket craft galleries include Sop Moei Arts, which presents wonderful silken fashion and fabric offerings from the remote village of Sop Moei on the Thai/Burma border.

It is run by Kent Gregory, the quietly spoken son of missionaries, who has devoted around 30 years of his life to bettering the health and life of this village, which is a 3-day elephant ride from the nearest supplies. Jing jing!

La Luna Gallery is a revelation. It opens into a deep, deep two storied space, in which -- once you get past the funky multi-coloured elephants up front -- technicolours jump from every wall of this converted pump house. 'We have three directors -- a Dane, a Thai, and me, and a policy that we don't sell anything that at least one of us wouldn't want in our homes,' says Kiwi director, Joanna. The result is an eclectic mix of Thai, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Korean. 'So there's something for everyone,' says the Kiwi whose personal favourite includes a Burmese artist who does vivid landscapes with a scraper rather than a brush (see photo). A big piece of his work hangs up in her home.

Speaking of Burmese, the owner of Suvannabhumi Art Gallery is a delightful Burmese lady, Mar Mar (pictured). She beams goodness from within, and eyes sparkle with the vitality of an artist although she claims to be 'not very good' at painting herself.

She has every reason to smile: a 30-piece exhibition of Bagan images by Pe Nyunt Way has sold out -- snapped up by a Burmese collector and the exhibition hasn't even opened yet. At US$500 per piece, that's a good day's work for both artist and gallery.

Mar Mar also tells me she has another exhibition on at the Chiang Mai University Art Museum at the moment. And she also runs the Ida Art Gallery on Ratchadamnoen Road. She is one busy lady.

This trawl of galleries highlights Chiang Mai's central position in the Greater Mekong Subregion, with such diverse cultures within a few short kilometres: Burma is only 100 or so kilometres to the west, Laos perhaps 250 km to the north west, China (with its ethnic minority-rich southern Yunnan province) is less than 500 kilometres away.

But with all this art, you can save yourself the trouble and expense of travelling there. Just soak in the people and the places through their pictures.

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