A business graduate from Chulalongkorn University, Bangkokian Somrak Sila did a Master’s in art administration and cultural policy at Goldsmith’s College in London before returning to Bangkok to set up WTF (Wonderful Thai Friendship, though another name is just as popular) Bar in Thong Lo, one of the Thai capital’s most unusual art galleries and funkiest cocktail bars.
“When I first returned to Thailand, I took a bunch of corporate jobs involving art, such as the Dislocated Oriental exhibition by Elmgreen & Dragset in Hualampong railway station in 2008. A whisky company recreated a part of the Oriental Hotel right in the middle of the station.”
Sila noticed that art curators were still virtually unknown in Thailand. As part of a Silparkorn University initiative, she managed a Mekong subregion cultural project that spanned Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
“I selected young curators and showed them how to curate a show that would travel through four countries. They then selected the artists. It was a real eye opener to see how life changed, in a positive way, for the people I trained.”
Somrak dreamed of opening her own art gallery, but she knew neither investors nor collectors with pockets deep enough.
“I wanted to set something up that could sustain itself financially. One day I was walking around Thong Lo and discovered the WTF Bar’s present location.”
Together with American photographer Christopher Wise and a couple of other investors, they opened WTF in 2010.
“The idea was to find a way to subsidize the art. That way we would not have commercial pressure and we would retain control over artistic issues. Also, by organizing exhibitions in a bar space we tried to make ourselves more accessible. Back then, art was not accessible for all and usually reached only a small wealthy audience. I wanted to change that.”
Concerts and cultural events followed and within a year, the shows Sila put on featured political artists.
“I was trained to convey that art is a tool to deliver a message and to criticize society. I don’t believe in art for art’s sake. Politics became part of our identity very quickly. At that time there was no other platform for artists to express opinions about society and politics.”
The first socio-political artist Sila promoted was Som Suthirat. “Som was showing video installations that documented the 2010 riots. It was all very subtle and tame back then. The sounds of bullets inserted into video art, that kind of thing.”
Despite these burgeoning subversive activities, the WTF Bar stayed under the radar for a long time.
“We did practice self-censorship, like everyone else. But then we worked with an artist group called Proxy. They had found broken film reels at the Siam Cinema which had burnt down in 2010. Those reels featured the national anthem. They mixed this with footage of hostess girls they’d shot. We showed those reels in a small room, over and over. That was scary for me. Our audience was really impressed, but of course there was no press coverage. I couldn’t sleep for a months, but the cops never showed up.
That all changed after the military coup in 2014.
“We hosted a talk by an academic cum political activist who was also a former 112 (Lèse majesté) prisoner. They showed up for that and filmed it. Since then, they come, take photos, look confused and leave. They don’t identify themselves. We don’t know if they are police or military.”
The more the government took note, the more Sila found support from foreign embassies. “European ambassadors come and see the shows. This year especially, they have been very present.”
Prior to Covid 19 and the current pro-democracy demonstrations that have shaken Thailand since July 2020, around 70% of shows the WTF Bar curated had some political or social elements. Now it’s virtually all of them.
“I am excited because I push the barriers. I feel that this is a time I can do a lot because public morale is shifting. In ancient Greek, Covid conveys the apocalypse, which means ’uncovering’. The virus has certainly uncovered racism, injustice and the widening of income gaps in our society. Suddenly all the issues that have been forever marginalized – LGBT, sexual assault, it’s all out in public now.”
Sila admits that this has created a conundrum for her gallery.
“It’s become a little tricky to work because it is hard to keep up with the politics on the street. You don’t need to be sophisticated anymore. These demonstrators are way ahead of us.”
For all her engagement with progressive issues, Sila has also tried to build bridges between Thailand’s warring artists factions.
“Just before the coup in 2014, we curated an exhibition called Conflict Vision – a look at the polarization in Thailand’s art world. The artists leaning towards the PDRC (yellow shirts/establishment) threatened to pull out and then didn’t come to the opening. They call us the red gallery. But curiously, when we exhibited, people didn’t always get which side of the divide a particular piece of art was from.”
In July 2020, Sila organized a reprise – Conflict Vision Again.
“This time they came, from both sides of the divide. But they didn’t talk to each other. But just to have them all under the same roof was a big deal.”
Sila brings in outside curators to offer more diversity and attract different audiences but, as for most artistic endeavors, 2020 has been a huge challenge.
“Covid has been hard. We survive through grants from international organizations and NGOS. But this business model is not working any more. Our regular punters, the people we grew with for the past decade are having children and don’t come out longer. The economy is in shambles We have to reinvent ourselves.”
But Sila is generally optimistic.
“I believe that art is an early warning system, and tells us what culture is about to become. Artists in Thailand have more work to do than ever.”