Story by Lena Desmond, Photos by John Price | for Outpost
The Black House in Chiang Rai is at once a museum and a work of art, a studio and artist’s lair—and Thawan Duchanee both lived and created here.
The renowned Thai painter, sculptor, engraver and designer—whose Black House’s style and décor reminds one of a Buddhist version of the wild west—was once quoted as saying: “What has a man got to leave behind except his wisdom brought out through his work? If I don’t leave something behind when I’m dead, I shall be outdone by a buffalo.” (For a biographical rendering of Duchanee see Russell Marcus’s 2013 book Thawan Duchanee: Modern Buddhist Artist.)
While Baan Dam, Thai for Black House, is hard to categorize, it’s not a temple, though it’s commonly mistaken for one. In its entirety—it’s not one house but a complex of 40 uniquely designed structures within a sort of extended courtyard—it’s a Buddhist-inspired work by the Chiang Rai-born artist, who passed away in 2014.
While the exterior of the main building is more or less architecturally in line with northern Thai buildings, its interior rests somewhere between an elegant barn and vaulted-ceiling saloon—it’s almost a wonder we didn’t bare witness to a crocodile or snake wrangling, as the animal skins that adorn the tabletops would suggest! Teak wood timber and exquisitely carved totem poles abound, along with wooden shed rafters and panelled siding.
Today, Thawan is remembered as one of Thailand’s most celebrated artists, despite that early in his career his interpretations were not widely accepted. As he emerged on the Thai art scene, his unconventional pieces offended many and prompted some to destroy them as sacrilegious. Yet it proved to be a superficial misconception of his complex ideas. According to the Sombat Permpoon Gallery in Bangkok, where his work is on display, Thawan “developed a unique style of artistry using black and red tones, based on the styles of traditional Buddhist art, to explore the darkness lurking within humanity.”
It wasn’t until the Thai elite stood behind him that widespread perception changed and he became nationally and internationally recognized—in the late1970s he was commissioned to paint the interior of Germany’s Gottorf castle, which took three years to complete.
As we wandered among totem poles and passed long refectory tables, we followed the sounds of a long-haired Thai man with a wiry beard playing 50s rock in front of a large oil painting. After listening to songs he sung with a thousand-mile stare, I was compelled to put a few baht in his tip jar. I’m glad I did. The man with the tinny guitar, who we’d come to know as Cherd Semdusit, would end up being the closest thing we would get to the spirit of Thawan. He was his student.
Cherd beckoned Sue and I to sit with him as he serenaded us with “Susie Q” (ironically, he had no way of knowing Sue’s name), followed by Bob Dylan and The Beatles. Then, after placing his guitar aside, he pointed out the large canvas mounted on the wall behind us. The magnificent piece was his! He explained its representations of heaven and hell and temptation, and the various planes of existence the piece was exploring.
He told us that Thawan had taught him how to tell visual stories, and examining his art you could see the master in the colours and the theme. And I could imagine Cherd plucking away, as he and his teacher mulled over symbolism and how to best reinterpret Buddha’s teachings.
It turned out Cherd had been given his position to play his music and to showcase his art in the Black House by Thawan himself. I could envision Thawan teaching our raspy-voiced friend how to use a ballpoint pen to create intricate engravings, or how to coat a Zen brush, or explaining why he should use colour sparingly, as black and white is more expressive of our inner feelings.
Such stylistic beliefs can be found in much of Thawan’s work, and thus his students’ as well. We weren’t fortunate to have ever met Thawan, but we did encounter his spirit—dare I say, ghost! In Cherd, visitors and upcoming artists studying his work, the artist lives on.