“Hand gestures carry a lot of nuanced meaning and associations within various aspects of Thai culture and art,” says Perth-based artist Nathan Beard, who grew up in Australia with a Thai mother, “and I wanted to playfully lean into these with this work.”
Beard’s striking image of hands adorned with long nails cradling the stem of an orchid, Thailand’s national flower, references the traditional Thai fingernail dance Fon Lep, which uses brass nail extensions. Although Beard’s nails are acrylic, embellished with a particular shade of Swarovski crystal called Siam Shimmer, he still admits that they “weigh down my hands”, making the performance of the floral gesture in this work awkward.
Floral Arrangement 2 is directly influenced by Beard’s childhood memories. Specifically, he remembers cultural expectations during his formative years. “This work comes from a series called White Gilt,” Beard explains, “which was informed by the gesture of the wai, the traditional greeting in Thailand where you clasp your hands together in front of you and tilt your head with a slight bow.”
“I have really vivid memories of being told I would have made a good Thai dancer if I was born a girl because of how flexible my hands were”
Beard remembers feeling “uncomfortable and awkward” when he had to wai. “It never felt second nature to me, and always made me feel like I was performing,” he explains. Female relatives have since told Beard that they used to stretch his fingers back when he was very young. “I have really vivid memories of being told I would have made a good Thai dancer if I was born a girl because of how flexible my hands were,” he says.
Beard’s wider artistic practice further scrutinises his Australian Thai heritage, “unpacking broader ideas about the slippery nature of culture, memory and authenticity”. He examines his nuanced relationship to Thai culture, aiming to present “a uniquely personal take on the complexities surrounding diasporic identity”. Beard uses a range of media, including sculpture and photography—and what he terms “visually extravagant materials”—to construct “slippages of identity” that appear seductive or idiosyncratic.
“This work comes from a series called White Gilt which was informed by the gesture of the wai, the traditional greeting in Thailand”
Beard is currently based in London, undertaking a six-month residency at Acme Fire Station and also researching items of Thai provenance held in the English capital. He is preparing for a solo exhibition at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts this autumn.
This print is available in a strictly limited edition of 50. A series of Beard’s photographs, Tender Ruin, marking the funeral of his mother, appears in the Spring Summer 2022 print issue of Elephant.