Sawai Chinawong reminded his friends this week that his painting “The Finding of Moses” was one of four Asian works of art on display in 2007 in the Museum of Biblical Art, housed in the American Bible Society building in New York City. This museum closed in June 2015 when the Bible Society moved to Philadelphia. Sawai’s reminder has prompted me to reminisce about 40 years of acquaintance with him.
Sawai is the most accomplished Thai Christian contemporary artist, and probably the most prolific in the 400 year history of Christians in Siam / Thailand. He is best known for (and in my opinion best at) rendering Biblical and theological concepts in classical Thai media.
The comments below are in reference to the pictures attached above.
1. “The Finding of Moses” is one of Sawai’s signature works, utilizing classical Thai temple fresco style to tell a religious story. He made scores of paintings in this style. [See a blog essay about Sawai’s biblical paintings: www.kendobson.asia/blog/jesus-is-thai. The painting of the nativity in that blog is found in Christ For All People: Celebrating a World of Christian Art, edited by Ron O’Grady, 2001 co-published by Pace Publishing, Orbis Books, Novalis, and WCC Publications, p. 43.]
2. Sawai at work a year ago: this is a photo from his Facebook pages, as are most of the pictures in this photo essay.
3. Sawai attended the Thailand Theological Seminary in the 1970s and 80s after he escaped from the cult of the “Moonies”. Before coming to the seminary he had finished a course of study in commercial art. Seminary was a place of safety and also intellectual liberation and stimulation for him. The seminary became part of Payap College during that time. His classmates are now prominent pastors and church leaders.
4. Sawai is standing beside one of his paintings on display during a Christian conference at the Phukham Hotel in Chiang Mai the week after Christmas, 2017. His pictures have been exhibited at many conferences and assemblies. One major exhibit, however, at a General Assembly of the Church of Christ in Thailand in the 1990s was cancelled when the organizers reverted to type and became afraid that the Crown Princess might, possibly, somehow frown on Christian appropriation of Thai art forms when she attended the opening of the assembly.
5. “Day and Night” is one of his Days of Creation series. It is unmistakably Thai, through the use of elaborate, elongated S shapes and other traditional design forms. Sawai also produced numerous complex abstract designs incorporating Christian symbols in brilliant acrylic colors.
6. For several years Sawai was employed as artist in residence by Payap University and had an office in the McGilvary College of Divinity. Toward the end of that time he designed a number of sculptures made of terra-cotta, recycled material, metal letters and tubing. In the center of the Mae Kao Campus is his dove of peace that students and faculty on the main campus see every day. It is right across the street from the university’s International Peace Park which contains another of Sawai’s works.
7. For more than a decade Sawai labored to produce biblical illustrations using Thai design techniques and symbolism. Most of the Gospel stories were rendered, along with popular stories from the Old Testament. The Rev. Marcy Punnett was a sponsor of several of these paintings (as were the Rev. William J. Yoder and I). Marcy’s idea was to collect them and donate his collection to the university, but when he died without having officially done that the ones he had stored in his house were stolen.
8. His “Madonna and Child” is a mosaic hanging in the Church of the Assumption in Israel. It is one of many that were purchased or commissioned for churches and religious institutions. Understandably, his paintings tend to be found overseas in collections where the theme is Christian art from around the world.
9. When the new seminary building was constructed [see blog: www.kendobson.asia/blog/thailand-theological-seminary] in 1990, Bill Yoder was both dean of the (then called) McGilvary Faculty of Theology of Payap University and the coordinator of construction. He commissioned Sawai to provide art and designs for the Hamlin Chapel and the main lobby. Sawai designed 3 floor-to-ceiling stained glass windows, and a band of symbolic fresco paintings, as well as interior and side windows. This established him as a professional artist and led to the main period of his artistic career. This picture of a recent ceremony honoring elders related to the seminary (Bill Yoder is 7th from the left in a white shirt) is the best I can find to show Sawai’s windows.
Sawai Chinnawong is, even now, considered one of the minor characters in Thai Christianity. He has been under-appreciated by one generation of leaders after another, but it is a demonstrable fact that history remembers its best artists better than most of the religious and political personalities who were their contemporaries. I predict that Sawai’s art is what will be remembered from these four decades while all the sermons and speeches of the same time will be quite forgotten. It will be Sawai’s art, in fact, that will be analyzed 200 years from now to see what the Thai church was about.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.