Ralf Tooten in Ratchaburi
In Thailand, the sight of completely covered up construction workers, male or female, young or adult, Thai or foreign, is a familiar sight. Yet these unfortunates – badly paid, often exploited, sometimes abused – are virtually invisible to ordinary Thais. They toil on skyscrapers and along roadsides. They clean out drains and climb rickety, scary-looking bamboo scaffolding. In their lunch-breaks, they sit by the side of other people’s dreams they have been recruited to build, and laugh and eat and smoke, sometimes without removing their protective clothing. Ordinary Thais barely take note of their struggle.
And herein rests the genius of Ralf Tooten’s series of portraits of these workers currently on show in public spaces around Ratchaburi, a typical small town in central Thailand. His work celebrates a section of Thai society that has hardly any voice or recognition.
Thailand is a hierarchical society and one that values the display of wealth. To be anyone in the kingdom, one has to have money. And to be shown respect, one has to have light skin. As a rule, the men and women Ralf Tooten documents and captures so vividly have neither. For these rather distressing reasons, Tooten’s project perfectly encapsulates an unseen side of a country that hardly suffers from lack of exposure – some 20 million tourists visit the kingdom every year- and they are not aware of the workers’ daily struggle either. His work lends respect and identity to people who enjoy too little of either in their daily lives.
And it’s just as important that Ralf Tooten has found a way to take his poignant images of Thailand’s working class out of the stuffy context of the art galleries of the perpetually privileged. He has transported his visual stories, quite literally, back to the street where they originated: an extremely rare, wonderfully stimulating tour de force of expression virtually unheard of in the kingdom.
To paraphrase a famous quote by the Urdu poet Kabir in relation to Tooten’s current project: “He is putting up mirrors in the city of the blind.” And that, quite simply, is what artists do.