Women workers in the spotlight at exhibition for International Women’s Day

For Women Historical Month and International Women’s Day, and to celebrate a global women rights movement, Studio 88 Artist Residency in partnership with Siamaya Chocolate Factory and Weave Artisan Society, is organising “The Backs of Women” exhibition by American artist Ruth Cohen, until 26 March 2023.

The exhibition opening reception and talk on women empowerment will be on Wednesday 8 March 2023, 17:00–19:00 at Siamaya Chocolate Factory Flagship Store, Weave Artisan Society.

We sat down with Ruth Cohen, the Siamaya Chocolate Factory and Weave Artisan Society to talk about why this exhibition is important for women’s rights.

“The Backs of Women” is centred around a series of drawings, painting and original prints that honour working women in Chiang Mai and Bangkok – their determination, their strength and important labour – shedding light on their contributions, individually and collectively, to their communities.

The series was first started by Ruth in Bangkok, while she observed the early morning workers, although she was also connected to the topic of women’s working rights through her work as a lawyer. As she explains, “As a feminist as a lawyer, one of the important issues that I put time and energy into was women’s work and increasing women’s opportunities in the workplace.” This included getting women into work that was typically dominated by men, which in turn gave them access to training, higher pay and better working conditions.

Ruth continued the series in Chiang Mai, while she was an artist in residence at Studio 88 Artist Residency in Doi Saket from December 2022 to January 2023. Commenting on the differences between working on the series in the two places, she observes that while in Bangkok “the environment feels and looks gritty; the air is not particularly good to breathe because of the noise and the cars and the pollution, there’s a lot of noise”, Doi Saket was filled with more colour and seemed less worn.

While at Studio 88, working on the series, she had the chance to meet the teams at Weave Artisan Society and Siamaya Chocolate Factory and they were immediately drawn to her work. Siamaya Chocolate Factory in particular saw the connection between Ruth’s work and their emphasis on being an employment-heavy business that creates local, fairly paid jobs. Team member Chanyapak Mongkon (Chanya), for example, emphasises the company’s trust in its workers, equality between team members and its fair conditions as contributing to the pride and happiness the workers feel.

Siamaya Chocolate Factory (a name that merges “Siam”, the historical name for Thailand with “Maya”, the origin of chocolate) is focused on making chocolate in a responsible, compassionate and eco-friendly way; from responsibly sourced cacao and environmentally sustainable practices to direct trade and equitable employment practices. And keeping it local is a big part of the vision. As CEO and co-founder Neil Ransom explains,

“What we have decided to do is not make any European flavoured, or American flavoured chocolate. We’re a Southeast Asian company, and so our focus is going to be on tropical ingredients. And we’re in Thailand, which is famous for its cuisine, so this is where we’re going to seek inspiration for all of our flavours.”

These flavours include Lemongrass and Perilla Seeds, Khao Soi Northern Curry or Durian. But how do they develop such unique flavours? As Neil explains, it can be trial and error. For example, when they were stuck on flavours for the Lemongrass and Perilla Seeds bar, they turned to local knowledge.

“For whatever reason the poppy seed just weren’t working and just didn’t taste right and our head chocolate maker suggested, ‘Why don’t we try this little seed that I used to eat as a kid from up in the mountains?’, which they would cook with sticky rice as kind of a snack before school, and which was…perilla. So she found some of this perilla seed and we added it and it just went really well together.”

This focus on the local is also supported by their commitment to supporting the local chocolate-making industry. As Neil explains, they “open up our factory to anyone who wants to come and visit we have because part of the mission when I started this chocolate company was to be involved in the development of the chocolate industry in Thailand.” They often explain their process, share their knowledge and have even helped producers obtain equipment and diversify, contributing to the development of the sector as a whole.

In addition to hosting the exhibition in their space, Siamaya Chocolate Factory is producing a limited run of 400 bars of single source chocolate from a woman-run cacao farm in Thailand, with Ruth’s artwork on the wrappers.

Creative collaborations are not new to Siamaya Chocolate Factory, they have always worked with local illustrators to develop their packaging, for example, although this is the first time the are adapting original artwork.

These kinds of creative collaborations are a core part of what Weave Artisan Society is trying to create in their space. As Sunadda Huang (Nok) explains, they chose the name weave as, just like weaving together fabric, the organisation “aims to create a community for bringing people together which is not solely a cafe, not a bar, or an event space.”

Based in Chiang Mai, the space brings together creatives and visitors, raising the visibility of artists and artisans, who often work outside the city centre. A frequent collaborator with Studio 88, Weave conducts workshops, holds exhibitions and creates a space for sharing.

They are especially excited to have “The Backs of Women” exhibition as, even though there appears to be equality between men and women in Thailand there is still traditional thinking that can hold people back, according to Nok. Chanya from Siamaya Chocolate Factory also observed this, commenting that sometimes there is low expectations for where women can work, whereas Chaya believes that if women build their confidence they can work towards more financial independence. Nok has a similar message when she explains that while there are some who don’t trust or let women take the lead, “women just need to trust and respect to herself that she can do it.”

“The Backs of Women” is a project managed by Studio 88 as part of its cultural management services. Take a look at our services page for more information. If you have a creative project to make a reality, get in touch with us today!

Images: All images are installation images from the exhibition “The Backs of Women” by American artist Ruth Cohen, at Siamaya Chocolate Factory Flagship Store, Weave Artisan Society until 26 March 2023.