In the tranquil highlands of Southeast Asia lives the nomadic Akha ethnic community. Unfortunately, they are often treated unequally and disparagingly. In Laos, Tai speakers colloquially use the term "kho" to describe the Akha, often preceding it with "kha," a term that translates to "slave." 

The Akha are also now encountering growing challenges to preserve their traditional way of life due to swift social and economic transformations in their regions, notably the influence of Western capitalism, which is forcing them to stray further away from their cultural identity.

In the face of these obstacles, Busui Ajaw, an Akha artist, aims to confront societal issues that encapsulate the struggles of her people as they navigate the delicate balance of maintaining their identity while embracing the complexities of modern existence. Her promotion and dedication to preserving Akha's identity, an identity of marginalized peoples, reflect the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of Reduced Inequalities.

Artist Busui Ajaw at work. Image courtesy of Singapore Art Museum/Facebook.

Born in a remote village in Myanmar, Ajaw’s journey as a self-taught artist serves as both an individual expression and a collective endeavour to preserve Akha customs. Her artistic odyssey began at the age of 15, when she started to sketch her experiences as an Akha woman. However, she was forced to flee her homeland in Myanmar due to the invasion of the United Wa State Army. Hence, Ajaw’s self-portraits later encapsulate the dichotomies of her life that she has had to make peace with—pleasure and pain, joy and suffering, life and death. Her series of untitled self-portraits serves as a visual diary, narrating her journey as an Akha woman, wearing traditional garments and accessories, as she navigates a world that often fails to comprehend the intricacies of her cultural heritage.

Untitled by Busui Ajaw. Image courtesy of Elevations: contemporary art projects in Laos.

Ajaw also shares her unique upbringing as an Akha. Her works tend to transcend the canvas and delve into the rich tapestry of Akha folklore and traditions. For example, her 2020 exhibition, Ayaw Jaw Bah at the Singapore Art Museum, masterfully wove a series of paintings and installations that depict the tragic tales of an Akha prince, his son, and Amamata, the first mother in the Akha tradition. At the centre of the room stood a traditional spirit gate, symbolizing the boundary of the Akha village and inviting the audience into their mythical world, preserving and sharing it as an idea with those who are unfamiliar.

Ayaw Jaw Bah, an exhibition by Busui Ajaw. Image courtesy of Google Arts & Culture.

Busui Ajaw works with expressive brushwork and elongated figures, reminiscent of German expressionists, that have been crafted as a visual language uniquely her own. They are so impactful that she was chosen to participate in the Thailand Art Biennale. Biennales are large-scale international contemporary art exhibitions, often regarded as that country’s premiere non-profit art event, which showcase some of the nation’s or the surrounding region’s most esteemed artists. Hence, Ajaw’s participation in the Thailand Art Biennale marks not just a personal milestone but also a milestone for the Akha people, who have been marginalized in the country.milestone

Amamata the first Mom by Busui Ajaw. Image courtesy of Nichido Contemporary Art Gallery.

For the occasion, Busui Ajaw is presenting an installation titled Mor Doom and Ya Be E Long. The installation consists of a carved wooden coffin resting on a bed of rice, again the centrepiece is surrounded by eight large paintings made not on canvas, but on buffalo hide. The piece reflects items used during the burial ceremonies of the Akha people, in which buffalos are sacrificed and rice is provided for the deceased to use in the afterlife.

Busui Ajaw and her Thailand Art Biennal installation, Mor Doom and Ya Be E Long. Image courtesy of @16albermarleprojectspace/Instagram

All of her pieces become a subtle instrument in dismantling the barriers that separate cultures and communities. By preserving Akha's identity through her art, Busui contributes to a more inclusive narrative, where diversity is celebrated, and inequalities are reduced through understanding and appreciation.

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