Chinnawong blends Thai, Christian art



Sawai Chinnawong’s English is muddled, but his artwork is perfectly clear. With brightly-colored paint on canvas, he fuses traditional Christian elements with Thai culture.

Chinnawong, of Payap University in Chiang Mai, Thailand, was selected as this year’s Paul T. Lauby Artist in Residence at the Overseas Ministries Study Center. Every year the OMSC brings in a resident artist from a foreign country who resides at the center for one year and whose art is put up on display. In the past, artists have been invited from such places as India and Sri Lanka.

The Institute of Sacred Music, in conjunction with the Yale Divinity School, will be exhibiting Chinnawong’s art through Oct. 31. A reception for him was held Thursday, complete with food, drink and traditional Thai music and dancing.

The dancers performed the customary Buddhist dances of Thailand, including Thai classical dance called Khon and the Bamboo Stick dance. They wore intricate costumes decorated with gold, ornate paper-mache masks and sparkling jewels. At the end they invited participation from the audience.

Chinnawong’s art was on display for OMSC members, Yale students and faculty, clergy, church groups, neighbors and all members of the community.

“The goal here was to bring people together to celebrate all the arts in this beautiful place. There are not very many places with good art, dance, food and drink. We like to be able to offer that to the community,” said Melissa Maier, manager of projects and publications.

Over the course of the two-hour reception, Maier estimated that several hundred people moved through.

“The show was well attended by the community, probably the best in terms of actual attendance,” Maier said.

Chinnawong said the goal of his art was to “bring Christianity into [his] own culture.” All biblical characters are portrayed as native people of Thailand. Their clothes are traditional of Thailand, as are the plants and foods that are present in each scene.

Chinnawong portrays Christianity and Thai culture in harmony. In the caption under one painting he writes, “Buddha is never seen suffering in our iconography, but as a Christian I have to depict the suffering of Christ, which is the hardest spiritual concept for us to understand or accept. Christ is not a Westerner, however. He is Thai.”

Many viewers recognized and appreciated this interesting combination of Christianity and Thai tradition.

“I love the many layers of his art where you can just keep seeing symbolism and images,” said Lois Baker, wife of Dwight Baker, OMSC’s program director.

“The greatest thing about the art is its inculturation. It is important to make Christianity connect with other cultures. The faith is artificial without interaction with different cultures,” Matthew Kustenbauder DIV ’05 said.

One did not have to be an expert on Christianity or art to enjoy the event. Baker said the reception in general was “wonderful and full of joy.”

Not only was Chinnawong well received by Yale and New Haven, selling all 27 of his works, he also is appreciated in Thailand: a Thai newspaper attended the event, scheduling Chinnawong to be front-page news tomorrow.

“It has been a nice evening. The art constitutes an important interchange between the Eastern and Western Christian experience,” Josh Probert GRD ’05 said.

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