Place-Making: The Institute of Islamic Art Thailand as a creative hub

Teak Sowaprux

Since the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997, Thailand has restructured its economy through numerous policy regimes aimed at increasing private sector competitiveness domestically and abroad (Sermcheep 2015). The shift towards developing a creative economy[1] in Thailand arose out of a desire to escape the middle-income trap—to be a country that could extract value from its culturally rich history through cultivating creative industries (Sermcheep 2015). 

As the initiator of the creative economy policy in Thailand, the National Economic and Social Development Council (NESDB), has followed the UNCTAD model by delineating four major groups and fifteen subgroups within the economy namely, cultural heritage, art, media and functional creation. That is, an industry is creative if it is one that “uses Thainess, culture, heritage, local wisdom and technology for economic development” (Sermcheep 2015).  While many creative industries in Thailand are ‘categorically clear and germane’ to Thainess, it can be argued that minority cultures like that of Thai Muslims  cultural heritage

The case of Islamic Art in Thailand (and as an example vector, the Institute of Islamic Art) is exigent because the Muslim community occupies a sociopolitical space in Thailand, but yet to share ethnopsychological territory in the public imagination of Thainess

The Muslim community is an “otherness within” the territory of a nation (Ardrugsa 2014) that has both assimilationist and resistant forces to Thainess.

This paper will explore how one institution, the Institute of Islamic Art in Thailand, seeks to become a creative hub.  How can Islamic art in Thailand integrate within the creative class in Thailand and place-make?  What is Thai Islamic Art such that it falls within a spectrum of “uniqueness” and “commercial potential” such that it is able to be “incubated, built, cultivated or differentiated” as a creative industry? 

Through qualitative interviews with Worrapoj Waiyaveta, executive director of the Institute of Islamic Art, this paper discusses the British Council’s framework of creative industries to explore how the Institute of Islamic Art Thailand is a creative hub that is building a domestic and international network for its creative output.  The paper’s reflections through conversations with Worrapoj Waiyaveta aim to discuss the trajectory of Thai Islamic Art as a creative industry.

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Diversity as a determinant for economic development: The history of Thai Muslims

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Florida’s championing of tolerance (as one of three determinants for economic development) assumes that diversity in society’s demographics assimilationist, and not as otherness.

The implication is that if we are to harness diversity for economic development (i.e. Floridian tolerance), then we must take seriously the national imagination of Thai Muslims by the majority.  The cultural imagination of Thai Muslims as Thai by the broader majority determines the claim to Thainess for Thai Muslims.  The investigation seeks to find the role for the creative production of Thai cultural heritage that is categorically both Islamic Art and Thai simultaneously.

            According to the 2015 CIA Factbook, Muslims make up 4.3% of the total population compared to that of Buddhists at 94.6%.  Scholars and government officials in Thailand categorize the Thai Muslim population into two categories: Malays and non-Malays (Haemindra 1964).  Those of Malay descent were historically part of the tributary Malay states of the former Pattani Kingdom.  The non-Malay Thai Muslims are those Indians, Pakistanis, Iranians, and Chams who have migrated over the centuries, particularly during the reigns of King Rama IV and King Rama V (Scupin 1980). 

Migration of non-Malay Thai Muslims (Muslims from present-day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) was significant during the signing of the Bowring Treaty, when international commerce allowed for extraterritorial legal protection by the British Raj (Adrugsa 2014).  Over the centuries, the term khaek(แขก) was used by the Thai majority to refer to Muslims as the other, while simultaneously having the literal meaning denote guest, positioning Thai Muslims in a liminal space.  This suggests not only a social status, but also a spatial condition (Adrugsa 2014). 

Institute of Islamic Art 2019

The concept of Thainess was not concretized until the ideology of nationalism took strong hold under King Rama VI, when he emphasized the nation of Chat Thai(ชาติไทย) as the country where the Thai race and Thai culture were supreme, ultimately foiling non-Thais as others (Adrugsa 2014).  It was due to the 1913 Nationality Act, which stated that all who were born in Siam were of Thai nationality—that Muslim groups in Siam were conceived as Thais (Adrugsa 2014). 

The idea that Thainess must be homogenous was further pushed in 1939 and 1942 by Marshal Phibunsongkhram’s cultural mandate of ratthaniyom (รัฐนิยม) (Phibunsongkhram 1939).  It was culturally harsh for Thai Muslims whom had pressures for behavior and dress in public places and streets (Kasetsiri 2005).  The attempt to change the Muslim position from khaek (แขก) to Thai was unsuccessful since the singular concept of Thainess prevailed: the relationship between the terms Thai and Islam carries a sense of foreignness (Adrugsa 2014).  In other words, “the inclusive exclusion of the other” (Tangseefa 2008).

            While the aforementioned chronicles the majority’s social imagination of Thainess for Thai Muslims, the geography of Thai Muslims essentializes[2] identities that have implications for the cultural production of Thai Islamic Art.  Since the 1930s, due to the urban-rural development, the Muslim community saw two ideologies rise: the modern khana mai (คณะใหม่) and the conservative khana kao (คณะเก่า) (Ardrugsa 2014). 

While both represent the Sunni Islam tradition in Thailand, khana mai (คณะใหม่) as the new group attempts to reconcile the basic beliefs of Islam with certain modern socio-economic transformations in Thailand (Scupin 1980).  For example, the khana mai (คณะใหม่) will provide sermons in Thai rather than Arabic, while khana kao (คณะเก่า) do not support the translation on theological grounds (Scupin 1980).  Additionally, many folk practices and beliefs have been eliminated by the khana mai (คณะใหม่)for the sake of adapting to the broader Thai context.

Institute of Islamic Art 2019

Geographically the khana kao (คณะเก่า) is located in rural areas of Thailand, while the movement of the khana kao (คณะเก่า) has “attracted an urban based social clientele or intelligentsia rather than a rural constituency” (Scupin 1980).  Ardrugsa describes two mosques central to the urban Muslim group: the Ansorisunnah and the Al-Atik. 

The first is located in Thonburi’s Bangkok Noi, while the second mosque, Al-Atik, is located in Charoen Krung, the commercial district along the river.  The Islamic Art produced by the urban Muslim groups, like that of in Charoen Krung, could arguably be said to have “been made Thai” by virtue of expressing khana mai(คณะใหม่) ideological beliefs and forms.  Such Islamic Art as Thai cultural heritage production is then different from that of places like Indonesia or the Middle East because the iconography, calligraphy, and archetypes embody Thai cultural signatures. 

            The more the Thai majority and the State see Thai Muslims as diversity and not otherness, such tolerance could economic development.  The more that Islamic Art produced by communities like that of khana mai (คณะใหม่) are seen as Thai cultural heritage, the greater inertia there could be by the State to create policies supporting ‘incubation’ or ‘building’ Thai Islamic art products.  Domestic consumers and exporters alike would then see unique value of Thai Islamic art as worthy of consumption and holding monetary value.

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The distinctiveness of Thai Islamic art as ‘unique’ and having ‘commercial potential’

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         Although Islamic Thai art is based on the Islamic faith, its producers are not always Muslim (Waiyaveta 2019).  In networks abroad, in countries like Saudi Arabia and Turkey, there is a large demand for artistic skills. Thai artists (many are non-Muslim) who have artistic expertise in intricate work in religious buildings like Buddhist temples are sought after to work in mosques (Waiyaveta 2019).  Muslim and non-Muslim artists alike in Thailand could benefit from the domestic and foreign markets demanding artistic talent.

Types of Islamic art include calligraphy (of Qur’anic verses), ornament (geometry and arabesque floral designs), carvings (wooden, stucco and metal carvings), water marbling (i.e. Ebru from Turkey and Persia), and mosaic and ceramic work (Foundation for Islamic Art Institute 2018).  There are various signatures such as Thai fruits and Thai geometric shapes (i.e. geometry of Buddhist temple designs) that make Thai Islamic art distinctive from other Islamic art (Waiyaveta 2019).  

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The framework of British Council’s creative hub

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         The British Council first adopted the term creative economy in 2001, and since then, has taken initiatives to support creative hubs in various Southeast Asian countries with the hope to drive creativity, innovation, social inclusion and community engagement (British Council Creative Cities 2019).  They define a creative hub as a place “either physical or virtual, which brings creative people together as a convener, providing space and support for networking, business development and community engagement within the creative, cultural and tech sectors” (British Council Creative HubKit 2017). For this end, they have established that creative hubs have these purposes as framework:

a.       To provide support by way of services and/or facilities to the ideas, projects, organizations and businesses it hosts, whether on a long-term or short-term basis, including events, skills training, capacity building and global opportunities.

b.     To facilitate collaboration and networking among its community

c.      To reach out to research and development centers, institutions, creative and non-creative industries

d.     To communicate and engage with a wider audience, developing an active communication strategy.

e.      To champion and celebrate emerging talents; exploring the boundaries of contemporary practice and taking risks toward innovation.

(British Council Creative HubKit 2017)       

  Through extensive interviews with the founder and executive director of the Institute of Islamic Art, Worrapoj Waiyaveta, this paper argues that the Institute of Islamic Art in Thailand encapsulates the model of a creative hub with aspirations to operate as a network model.  Each purpose aforementioned will be explored in turn to illustrate how the Institute of Islamic Art achieves each objective, with a solid foundation to be a creative hub.

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Place-making: The Institute of Islamic Art as a creative hub

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Place-making is a “multi-faceted approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces by capitalizing on a local community’s assets, inspiration, and potential, with the intention of creating public spaces that promote people’s health, happiness, and well-being” (Jacobs 2011).

As the first institution of its kind in Thailand, the Institute of Islamic Art has been carving a space for Muslim and non-Muslim artists alike interested in the production of Islamic Art since its inception. It is unique in its position as a thought leader and resource center for scholars and students pursuing work and interest in the Thai Islamic Arts (Rithdee 2018).

  Founded in 2017 as a private non-profit by a group of Muslim artists and non-Muslim scholars, the center is dedicated to promoting Islamic aesthetics through hosting workshops, exhibitions and lectures wholly or partially based on the Islamic faith (Rithdee 2018).

Examples of classes include Arabic calligraphy, manuscript ornamentation, the history of Islamic art, and arabesque on lai rod nam (ลายรดน้ำ or Thai gold-lacquer pattern) with participants Muslim and non-Muslim alike (Rithdee 2018).  The Institute of Islamic Art is located at Charoen Krung 36 in the historic Green House, serving as a center (large scale building which has various assets like maker and exhibition space (British Council Creative HubKit 2017)) for artists, enthusiasts, and scholars.

lai rod nam (ลายรดน้ำ)
Institute of Islamic Art 2019

         While the Institute of Islamic Art may not be recognized as a creative hub by the British Council, or associated with ‘creativity’ by the general public, in its core, the functions of Institute of Islamic Art corresponds to the purposes of British Council’s creative hubs. It facilitates collaboration, networking and skills development (Waiyaveta 2019).

Waiyaveta explains that his founding of the institution was based on the absence of a place where seasoned artists or aspiring students of Islamic aesthetics could come together to refine or produce their craft.  In particular, Waiyaveta offers opportunities for artists and students to connect with resources in his network (i.e. job opportunities, collaborative opportunities, market opportunities).

More uniquely, he offers apprenticeships to young artists by providing mentorship on how to make a living as an artist in the Islamic arts and to instill confidence. He champions and celebrates emerging talent by providing not only education, but also by matching market opportunities to relevant talent.

         Over the years, Waiyaveta has collaborated with research and development centers and institutions in the Islamic world spanning from Pattani (e.g. Prince of Songkla University) in Thailand to Turkey and Malaysia.  He consistently engages in communication to a wider audience by connecting Muslim and non-Muslim communities in Thailand with such communities internationally. In the first three years of the organization, Waiyaveta had been focused on educating the Thai public on what the Thai Islamic Arts entails through many series of lectures and workshops.  In its current fourth year, the Institute of Islamic Art is focusing on more apprenticeships and skills exchange.

         Waiyaveta explains that the creativity and synergy of Islamic Art comes from majority of art produced in jama’ah [3]  (جامعة or gathering).  By convention, we see most art produced by a singular artist, and its authorship is signed and promoted.  In Thai Islamic Art, however, Waiyaveta describes much artistic production as a team effort, through the principle of jama’ah, wherein a group of artists (of the same or of different disciplines) come together to produce a piece of work. 

The philosophy of Islam teaches to dissolve the self, and thus through such teamwork, they harness different synergies, with the ultimate product sometimes not having the authors’ names signed. 

The Institute of Islamic Art operates as a creative hub, by helping to connect artists to its network domestically and abroad for the production of Thai Islamic art through virtue of jama’ah in its highest form (Waiyaveta 2019). As social attitudes change in more assimilating ways, Thai Islamic Art would be more integrated into conversations about its place within Thai heritage.   


[1] The Office of the National Economic and Social Development Council (NESDB) defines a creative economy as an economic system that mixes cultural assets, local wisdom, and the uniqueness of Thailand with proper knowledge and technology in order to produce unique and diverse products and services (Sermcheep, 2015). Under this definition, creative economies add intrinsic economic value and, as a result, will create jobs, generate revenue, and boost competitiveness and enhance the quality of life. 

[2] Essentialism is the view that every entity has a set of attributes that are necessary to its identity and function. Gove, Philip Babcock. “Essentialism.” Essentialism, 2019. www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/essentialism.

[3] “Jama’ah.” Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition Related Publications. Brill, 2007.  http://referenceworks.brillonline.com/browse/encyclopaedia-of-islam-2.


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