In November, the 41st UOB Painting of the Year was held and its most prestigious prize, the 2022 UOB Southeast Asian Painting of the Year, went to 28-year-old Thai artist Mr Chomrawi Suksom for his incredibly detailed, undeniably compelling work, Dystopia. It rose above works from four Southeast Asian nations, namely Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and his native Thailand, including works by Lester Lee, whose arresting A Painting About Nothing and Everything won the Painting of the Year for Singapore, Farhan Siki, whose breathtaking, delightfully discomforting stencil Build, Destroy, Rebuild (The Modern Sisyphus) was one of our favourites from this year’s awards and was rightfully crowned 2022 UOB Painting of the Year (Indonesia) and Malaysian Seah Ze Lin’s hauntingly beautiful 地皮 (Skin of Land).
Chomrawi’s painting is the kind that immediately captures attention. This mesmerising work very easily stood out from the others. It was chaotic, a manic dance of colours and subjects clamouring to be the centre of attention. Where was its focus? Depending on where you stand and squint, it had multiple focal points.
And where do you even begin when taking in Dystopia? The yellow and red map of blood vessels in the human body? The words ‘Doomsday’? The neon outlines of young women? The many ladders that crisscross Dystopia? The Arab lettering? Or the red face of ‘The God’ at the top of it all staring impassively at the viewer, neither benevolent nor cruel, simply indifferent?
Dystopia speaks to the chaos of the world we live in today, capturing current affairs such as the war in Ukraine, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, commentaries on social media and the news cycle. Dystopia studies the machinations of the world, a world at once organic and at once gleaming in gunmetal.
Dystopia clearly invites multiple viewings. You cannot take in everything it has to say with a cursory glance. At the very least, it was the most engaging entry to this year’s awards. Needless to say, we had so many questions about the work, so when we had the chance to speak to Chomrawi, we jumped on the chance to better understand this year’s UOB Southeast Asia Painting of the Year.
Augustman: Congratulations on winning the 41st UOB Southeast Asian Painting of the Year, Chomrawi! How does it feel?
Chomrawi: Thank you. This is one of the greatest opportunities of my life. It’s a great honour.
How long have you been an artist?
I’ve been painting for over ten years, since high school. This winning piece is the culmination of over ten years of work, both in my study and the paintings I do outside of work, in my leisure.
Who are your artistic influences?
It changes over time. When I was a student, I was studying Thai art, so my role model was (Thai contemporary artist) Prasong Luemuang. But when I grew up, I had more visibility of the art world at large, and my role model became Pablo Picasso.
Let’s talk a bit about Dystopia. What was the intention and motivation behind the work?
It all began with my need to improve my work. In the past couple of years, my work has been focussed on humanity and materialism. I wanted to go bigger than that, so I started getting inspired by society and happenings around the world. It led me to discover topics that impact us, such as global politics and the environmental crisis, the war, the pandemic. I see especially the prevalence of inequality around the world. We are forced to constantly learn and adapt to keep up with life, due to issues such as global conflicts, pandemics and natural disasters, and I wanted Dystopia to capture that loss, chaos, and tension felt by the people.
Can you tell us a but about the journey of creating this painting?
I took one full year to create Dystopia. It was challenging in two main ways. Firstly there’s the content. As you can see from the painting, there are many stories happening in it. There are many stories in my head as well. It’s challenging to reflect the many stories in my head onto the painting. The other challenge is in the technique. I wanted to show my spirit as a Thai artist, and my background in mural painting. It’s a very fine technique in painting murals. I used the smallest brush to carefully draw every element in the work. These two things – the content and the technique – took up most of my time.
Dystopia is, to be fair, a rather dark, chaotic painting. Is this a reflection of your own worldview?
I don’t look at the world in a negative way. I believe that in this world, there is a balance between good and bad. The happenings around the world might be negative, but if you look closely in the painting, there is also good. I don’t think of the world as dark and chaotic. The painting is really all about balance.
There’s an effort to make Dystopia reflect our world, such as the use of Arabic words, English words, even Mandarin. How were you able to do all this, considering you don’t speak some of these languages?
I used Google translate! (laughs) Then I painstakingly follow what appears on the screen even though I’m not trained in the calligraphy of these languages. Early in the conception of Dystopia, I thought about what words I want associated with the work, and I wrote them in my diary. Then, as I began painting, I would translate some of these key words and replicate them in the work. For Arabic, I had a friend who was familiar the language and helped proofread the translation.
Why put in so many languages?
I believe that the alphabet is one of the most fundamental expressions of art in our world. It’s a combination of dots and lines, right? That’s a form of art. I want to use words and sentences to connect to everyone to my art. People from anywhere can understand my art. I used gold leaf for these words so they stand out from the rest of the painting, so people around the world can notice the messages I want to communicate in my work.
Did you have a target audience in mind when creating this?
Dystopia is for everyone, every human being. It’s a mirror. I want the audience to bring in their own personal experiences when they view Dystopia. If they’ve had bad experiences in life, they might see the bad or negative symbols. If things are good, they might only see the good. My art work is successful when someone experiences something new when they discover new details in the painting.
These details are indeed incredible. Are there any specifically that you feel are central or definitive of Dystopia?
You may see the two figures embedded into the structure of the work – one red and one blue. They symbolise a king (red) and queen (blue). In the red one, I’ve included very masculine symbolism, such as soldiers and certain typically male athletes. On the blue side, there are feminine symbols such as girls in skirts and dolls. But if you look closely, there is also a womb-like structure there. Woman is the originator of all things. All things begin there.
So balance – masculine and feminine. Light and dark. Thank you Chomwari. This has been illuminating and we hope to speak to you again.
The 2022 winning artworks, including Dystopia, will also be exhibited at the UOB Art Gallery at UOB Plaza 1, Ground Floor from 5 November 2022 to 19 February 2023, as well as on UOBandArt.com.