Monday, November 7, 2016

Art and community meet at the cinema

The ravages of time have been gentle to Songkhla City. The centuries old seaport has largely been spared the mass reconfiguration of its built environment that have done so much to strip the charm out of countless Thai urban areas. Road widening, demolition of historic buildings and the accompanying paving over of history have only slightly altered the fabric of Songkhla. 

That's the good part. 

The less than good part - but by no means bad - is that the town has suffered the gradual effects of disinvestment. As economic opportunities moved to Songkhla's much larger sister city Had Yai and further afield, so departed much of the town's youthful vitality. Buildings that once housed thriving businesses and workshops were shuttered, while others lingered on thanks to the help of capital accumulated during more prosperous times. The city slowed down, but it didn't die. Not enough to cause it to crumble.

The Saha Cinema - built in 1930.

Of all the pieces of vintage architecture that make up the streets of old town Songkhla, there's perhaps none more interesting than the long dormant Saha Cinema - at least from a social stand-point. To the average passerby, the structure would hardly register as a movie theater. Its lack of architectural elements common to the structural type, combined with the fact that it is mostly made of wood (a material hardly common for the building type) places it under the radar of all but the most discerning observers. But to long-time residents, the Saha Cinema is a well known, if not legendary piece of the town's recent past.

That sentiment didn't elude world renown artist Navin Rawanchaikul. In recent years, the Chiang Mai native has turned his focus to using art as a way to create community dialogue, particularly those with a long past and deep heritage. Songkhla fits nicely with that criteria.   

After visiting Songkhla earlier this year at the invitation of a friend, Navin took note of the beautiful if understated townscape snugly situated along a narrow peninsula between The Gulf of Thailand and Songkhla Lake. The town's historic value was instantaneously clear to him.  

Having grown up in Chiang Mai, beside what was once that city's largest movie theater, Navin's artistic style was deeply influenced by cinema art. As a matter of necessity,  he took in the work of the theater's in-house billboard painter en route to school on a near daily basis. The larger than life movie cut-outs created to advertise films were forever etched in his mind, and would find utility in the decades to follow. 

The Saha Cinema covered in Navin's mural installation, dedicated to Songkhla and its denizens. 

Making use of those artistic machinations by employing some of Chiang Mai's former movie billboard painters, Navin sketched out a plan to reinvigorate Songkhla with art. Actually, it's a little more complex than that, but in a nutshell that's exactly what happened.

The logic behind this project was to weave the town's social history together into a billboard sized visual narrative that could be hoisted up onto the town's erstwhile central gathering point - The Saha Cinema. New color to an old building, reflecting the town's various personalities in a painting style once reserved for the movies.

In true anthropological form, Navin and his team collected oral histories and photographs from Songkhla's residents, using the two to cobble together a multi-paneled billboard depicting local people and locations. For the old cinema, the result was night and day. Instead of the usual indistinct look brought on by years of neglect, The Saha Cinema had regained some of its old flair. 

As for the town itself, the feeling of renewed pride and regeneration is afoot. With the aid of Navin's project, perhaps all the more so. 

Navin Rawanchaikul (wearing sunglasses, standing to the right of the framed picture) and members of the Songkhla community, post in front of Navin's Songkhla townscape collage on the last day of his exhibition. 

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