Some people find it a necessity to define what separates us from the animals, but are we really so different? Thai painter Unchalika Kaewja certainly doesn’t think so. Her work revolves around the violence and struggles of the animal kingdom as parallel to the path of mankind. Her paintings feature tigers and monkeys in mortal combat, bearing their fanged teeth and tearing at each other’s flesh. They writhe and tumble in a contest for survival.
“I want to show the state of the human mind expressed in the form of different animal species,” she explains. It’s the state of the world, a reality since the beginning of life on Earth. The actions of humans fall in line with this pattern, we desperately thrash at anything and anyone that threatens our or our family’s health and safety.
All things are not equal, however, and to flatten these acts is to ignore free will and progress. “Violence is the survival instinct of all living beings,” Kaewja says. “Most of the time, the strongest and best-equipped survive while the weak will be defeated.” But religion, morality, ethics, and law affect what we’ll do to win or live, moderating the length we’re willing to go.
To that end, a lot of Kaewja’s paintings embrace a more enlightened philosophy. In one piece, painted in fiery oranges and smokey umbers, wild-eyed tigers devour each other. But the predicament is the fault of one, and one alone: “Too much ego will ultimately come back to hurt you,” she says. Greed and survival are not the same.
Kaewja also draws on stories from Thai culture. Her paintings, which are tempera mixed with rubber glue sourced from trees on calico canvas, are done in a style that veers more toward East Asian ink-wash paintings. But her subject matter is closer to home. “I incorporate narratives and literature from traditional Thai paintings and temple (or church) murals, reinterpreted in my own style.” One painting depicts Vaishnavism, an avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu, in battle with Hiranyaksha. And a triptych details the monkey army from the ancient Hindu epic Ramayana, one of which is combined with the three wise monkeys.
Kaewja’s work is also an expression of beauty. For all the horrors that follow a wild cat hunting and devouring its prey, there’s a grace and awe to be found in it as well: “The power of movement that these animals display—their gestures and posture—are crystal clear and pure.”