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Southeast Asia: Sex Workers' Art Exhibition

Sex Workers' Art Portrays Violence, Oral Sex and Islamic Repression

By Richard S. Ehrlich | Bangkok, Thailand
May 7, 2013

Southeast Asian sex workers, supported by the United Nations, exhibited their paintings, photographs and multimedia depicting violence, oral sex, repression under Islamic sharia law and other personal experiences.

"Here in the corner, you see a scene of a blowjob," Vanessa Ho said in an interview, pointing at a complex painting created by a sex worker named Dhivithra in Singapore.

"In the second scene, you see someone negotiating money as well as safe sex," said Ms. Ho, program coordinator of Project X, which she described as a "human rights-based organization for sex workers in Singapore."

The painting also displays "handcuffs on a pair of arms, symbolizing how the sex workers are constantly being criminalized," she said.

"You see some sex workers who just focus on money, and other sex workers keen to find love in their life. And in the bigger story here, on the [painting's] right-hand side, is of the wedding."

The solo Singaporean entry at the art exhibition was painted by a sex worker "inspired" by an older prostitute's true story.

The older woman "managed to find love in her life from a man who doesn't mind that she's a sex worker, and they got married," Ms. Ho said.

The exhibition was displayed for 10 days in April at the Bangkok Art and Culture Center, which is a modern, multi-story gallery and shopping mall for edgy creations by Thais and others.

The show was supported by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), which also provided brief "media training" to the exhibitors, so they could practice responding to possible questions by reporters.

Several UNDP officials attended the opening, which was presided over by Clifton Cortez, UNDP's Bangkok-based HIV/AIDS Health and Development Regional Practice Leader.

Empower Foundation, a Thai organization founded in 1985 and led by sex workers, staged the exhibition under Mr. Cortez's UNDP portfolio, the show's officials said.

The show was headlined: "Yet Still We Dance! Sex Workers of ASEAN Art Exhibition."

ASEAN refers to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and includes Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. The exhibition also included East Timor.

A Thai National Human Rights Commission member and former senator, Jon Ungphakorn, introduced the show with a speech about human rights and legal problems for Southeast Asia's sex workers.

The exhibition described discrimination against sex workers, and their struggle for equal rights.

Prostitution is common, but illegal, in most Southeast Asian countries, although legal in Singapore, Ms. Ho said.

At the exhibition, sex workers from Muslim-majority Malaysia displayed clever photographs satirizing the country's Islamic sharia law.

A Muslim woman who identified herself in an interview as Selvi, said her sex workers' advocacy organization PAMT Malaysia hired a photographer to portray prostitutes acting out their daily problems.

Asked if she was a sex worker, Selvi declined to answer, but said she helped manage PAMT's financial support from The Global Fund.

In one dramatic photo, a Muslim female official wearing a traditional Islamic headscarf, approaches a transgender sex worker dressed as a woman in a restaurant.

"Female? TG?" the sharia official asks in the photo's voice caption, demanding to know if the sex worker is a woman or a transgender person.

"Shit! The religious people are here!" the distraught Malaysian transgender sex worker says in another voice caption.

Selvi, giggling, said she donned the blue headscarf and acted as the sharia official in the photo, while other sex workers also appeared in the restaurant scene.

"A transgender cannot wear a dress," in many Malaysian states, because sharia law forbids a person who was born as a male from appearing as a female in public, Selvi said.

"We put the picture up like that, so people can see what is going on," she said.

In Malaysia's capital Kuala Lumpur, however, sharia law is not enforced, Selvi said.

The Philippine Sex Worker Collective also exhibited photographs.

"In the Philippines, some feminists claim to save us from being exploited by men, the [Catholic] church wants to save our souls, and the [Philippines] government wants to project an image that the U.S. government approves of," the group's statement said.

The exhibition's entry by sex workers from communist Laos included naive paintings of faces on mirrors.

"We have painted our image on these mirrors because we want to be really seen, not just looked at," the Sao Lao group of artists said in their statement.

The Alliance Myanmar AIDS group displayed paintings which sex workers had designed and then commissioned professional artists to complete.

A female prostitute from Myanmar, a country also known as Burma, said in an interview the paintings show "the feeling of the fear and the violence that sex workers are facing right now in Myanmar."

Thailand's Empower organization contributed a fun and popular collection of head-sized paper bags, illustrated with hand-painted comical faces.

Visitors can select a bag, put it on their own head, and have their photograph taken by a professional cameraman who instantly prints the photo and pastes it on a wall alongside other people's bag-headed portraits.

Empower said it was "hurt" when sex workers covered their faces, "as if we were criminal," when spotlighted by the media.

Empower hoped the bags would change that behavior and perception.

"I think other people may want to join us inside these beautiful bags," Empower said.

The Vietnamese Network of Sex Workers exhibited an "effigy" as a demonstration "against discrimination."

"Condoms, sticking on the hat, means the sex workers consider condoms as our protection weapon," their statement said.

"There are three, colored, smiling condoms...expressing connection among sex workers in three regions -- north, middle and south -- of Vietnam," they said.

The exhibit by the Cambodian Women's Network for Unity noted it was "ignored by rescuers, donors and law makers."

East Timor's Scarlet Timor Collective offered a "life-size representation of a human body that represents all sex workers being woman, man and transgender."


Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California, reporting news from Asia since 1978, and recipient of Columbia University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He is a co-author of three non-fiction books about Thailand, including "Hello My Big Big Honey!" Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews; 60 Stories of Royal Lineage; and Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News Since 1946. Mr. Ehrlich also contributed to the final chapter, Ceremonies and Regalia, in a new book titled King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in Perspective.

His websites are:

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