Retold-Untold Stories: An interview with Phaptawan Suwannakudt


Exhibited at Sydney College of the Arts, 2016
Curated by: Yvonne Low and Clare Veal
Interview: Clare Veal
Camera and editing: Marcus De Giorgio

This interview was undertaken with the artist Phaptawan Suwannakudt, in her Sydney studio prior to her exhibition Retold-Untold Stories, held at Sydney College of the Arts in March 2016. Retold-Untold Stories was produced as part of an Asialink Arts Residency programme funded by Arts NSW, that Phaptawan undertook from October–December 2014, at Ne’-Na Contemporary Art Space, Chiang Mai. The works were first exhibited at Chiang Mai University Arts Centre during three weeks in December 2014, before they were restructured and reexhibited in Sydney, eighteen months later.

Retold-Untold Stories explores Lanna (Northern Thai) social history through oral poetry and the personal experiences of women. The work connects the artist with her mother who was born in Northern Thailand and then relocated to Bangkok to settle her family. When Phaptawan moved to Sydney and gave birth to her daughter, she recalled that her mother became a nun after giving birth to her last child (a daughter), the same age as when Phaptawan gave birth to her first.

Retold-Untold Stories retells unrecorded stories heard (or unheard), told (or untold) in Lanna culture. The exhibition consists of three groups of works:

Let Me Tell You Child is based on a poem by the late Ms Chantieng, a Lanna village scholar. The poem was recounted by her daughter to Phaptawan and became real to the artist only as a sound bite. To retell the story Phaptawan refashioned fabric herb vessels into the shape of letters and filled them with produce from her local environment. The reverse side of the letters are only partially readable in the mirror reflection at the far end of the room. The poem in Lanna dialect is written phonetically with Thai consonants, but can only be fully understood by those with knowledge of Lanna language and culture.

There, there is created in memory of Phaptawan’s mother who began speaking the Lanna dialect during the years when she suffered from memory loss as a result of dementia. Phaptawan sculpted the head from a memory of when her mother was a nun and, as she made the sculpture, she felt her mother from afar. The scattered fabric masks are placed together and made into containers that are filled with produce.

Broken the Spell imitates the act of tattooing—a practice, together with the performance of spells, that is restricted to male members of the Lanna community. As part of the production process, Phaptawan rhythmically pierced paper overwritten with Lanna poems in tea and coffee. Through this meditative act she pays homage to women who had, for generations, sought ways to empower themselves in spite of gendered limitations imposed by their societies.

A catalogue from the exhibition may be purchased at:

Artist’s profile:

Phaptawan Suwannakudt trained with her father as a mural painter. She led a team of painters who extensively produced work in Buddhist temples and public spaces in Thailand during the 1980s, and in the 1990s and was involved in Womanifesto, a women artists’ group in Thailand. Phaptawan relocated to Sydney in 1996, where she lives and works as an independent artist. Phaptawan has exhibited extensively both domestically and internationally during the last eighteen years including at ARC One, Melbourne; Biennale of Sydney; 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney; 100 Tonson Gallery, Bangkok and Sundaram Tagore Gallery, New York. In 2018, she exhibited as part of the inaugural Bangkok Art Biennale, and in 2020 her work was shown as part of Asia TOPA at the Arts Centre, Melbourne. For other works and biography go to

Image credits:

Phaptawan Suwannakudt, Retold-Untold Stories, 2014, installation view, Sydney College of the Arts, Sydney. Photograph by Marcus De Giorgio.

Phaptawan Suwannakudt, There, There, 2014, mixed media and organic matter, dimensions variable. Figure cast: fabric and resin, 30 x 30 cm. Photograph by Marcus De Giorgio.

Phaptawan Suwannakudt, Broken the Spell, 2014, handmade paper, tea, coffee, hand-dyed thread, 90 x 30 cm. Photograph by Marcus De Giorgio.

Phaptawan Suwannakudt, Nariphon III b, 1996, acrylic on silk, 90 x 90 cm. Photograph by John Clark.

Phaptawan Suwannakudt, Let Me Tell You Child, 2014, mixed media and organic matter, dimensions variable. Alphabet cast: fabric and resin. Photograph by Marcus De Giorgio.