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Indepth Arts News:

"The Ghost and the Beauty Queen: Festivals of Northeast Thailand"
2001-10-14 until 2001-11-16
Design Museum, at University of California, Davis
Davis, CA, USA United States of America

The former Design Gallery, now know as the Design Museum, at University of California, Davis, opens its fall exhibition schedule with a captivating look at two annual summer festivals from Northeastern Thailand, Phi Ta Khon, the Ghost Festival, and Khao Phansa, popularly known as the Wax Candle Festival.

Every July at the full moon, the sleepy northeastern Thai city of Ubon Ratchathani comes alive with a spectacular two-day citywide parade called Khao Phansa. The event celebrates the beginning of the Buddhist Rains Retreat, the period when monks do not travel, but stay in their compounds to meditate. The Khao Phansa procession is a visual extravaganza, where troupes of costumed dancers are interspersed with flatbed trailers bearing intricately carved scenes from the life of Buddha -- rather resembling a Rose Parade in golden wax. The King of Thailand sends a special float with a symbolic candle on it to indicate his spiritual support.

Wax artists and designers compete for prizes in the float competition and beautiful Miss Candle contestants ride on each float. Yet the floats are conceived as offerings to Buddhist wats (temple compounds) and dozens of volunteer lay workers spend thousands of hours working on the wax creations as a way of earning religious merit.

The other event, Phi Ta Khon or the Ghost Festival, is unique not only for its masks and costumes, but also because it happens in a village of 2,000 people near the town of Loei, close to the Laotian border. The village spirit medium decides on an auspicious date for the festival. Then villagers don ghostly masks, colorful outfits and clanging bells to dance along the main street in a raucous, jubilant parade. Literally, Phi Ta Khon means Ghosts Following People, and the three-day festival commemorates an event during Buddha's last incarnation before Enlightenment. He was then the beloved Prince Vessandorn, who left the village and was gone for so long that his people thought he was dead. When he returned, the people were overjoyed and welcomed him back with a celebration so loud that it even woke the dead, who joined in the merriment.

Today revelers hold the festival not only to remember Prince Vessandorn, but also as a fertility festival for crops and humans. Festival judges decide which groups of dancers and costumes win the annual contests. On the final day of the event, the people gather at the wat to hear the monks recite the thirteen sermons of the Lord Buddha.

The Ghost and the Beauty Queen exhibition will display these fascinating festivals through costumed mannequins, masks, wax carving tools and materials, wax photographs, examples, and video. Information ranges from the cultural context of the festivals to detailed images of the wax carving, mask making and other festival preparations.

Curator Cynthia LeCount Samaké is fascinated by the juxtaposition of religious imagery with secular revelry--the fact that elegantly-coifed girls in glittery silken outfits ride on the floats next to sculptures of the holy Buddha at Khao Phansa--and that wildly overt fertility images amuse the monks and enlivens the Buddhist wats during the Ghost Festival.

Le Count, a UC Davis alumna, has led two University Research Expedition Programs to Thailand. She has researched many other international festivals, including Carnival in Bolivia. She is the author of the award-winning book, Andean Folk Knitting: Traditions and Techniques from Peru and Bolivia, and leads art adventure and textile tours through her company, Behind the Scenes Adventures.

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