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Turmeric & Charcoal by Ong Siraphisut

Updated: Oct 13, 2021

Immigrating from Northern Thailand to Rochester, NY with my wife and our baby was one of the biggest transitions in my life. We moved to our house at the beginning of the city's shutdown in March 2020. I began to draw portraits of my baby with the simple art materials I had, charcoal and paper. Observing the Birth of my baby, the drawings became my personal therapy to cope with the pandemic and social distancing. But everyday, I couldn't resist reading the news. From drawing Birth, I began to draw its reflection - Death. I couldn't easily find any traditional paints as every art supply store was closed. So, I had to invent it. I discovered that turmeric powder in my kitchen was the perfect recipe for my work. Turmeric has very rich color and contains powerful medical and spiritual properties. Together with charcoal the two mediums create a powerful visual aesthetic reminiscent of ashes and death, healing and medicine. I had personal conversations with the art and cultural professionals who passed away from COVID-19 through drawing their portraits. This routine became a memorial of the global pain and loss of the pandemic, but also allowed me to dream of a new beginning - O.S. @ongobongoo

Tocsin: What inspired the Turmeric & Charcoal project?

Ong: The overwhelming situation of migrating to the new country and immediately facing the pandemic, social distancing, and being confined at home with the constant news inspired Turmeric & Charcoal. My son is the biggest inspiration. I began to draw again because we were trying to make art together at home and I enjoyed making his portrait. Being at home with him pushed me to create works that don't require big space. It also forced me to use the limited materials I had in the house to create art. I created what I felt necessary to honor so much life that was lost.

Tocsin: How long did it take to complete the Turmeric & Charcoal project?

Ong: After more than 3 months of drawing the death almost every day. I was too overwhelmed by the stories of the people I drew. I hung the finished drawings on my living room/studio wall until there was no space to hang more. So I decided to stop after 4 months.

Tocsin: Is there a message behind the artwork?

Ong: The Tibetan Book of Living And Dying says "Death is a mirror in which the entire meaning of life is reflected". Turmeric & Charcoal is a reflection of our difficult time during this global pandemic. We are losing so many lives, but I hope healing will come soon. In this way the materials charcoal--ashes and death, and Tumeric--medicine and healing are placed together symbolically.

Tocsin: What would you like people to know about Turmeric & Charcoal artwork?

Ong: We feel indifferent to the suffering of massive numbers of people during this pandemic. I hope Turmeric & Charcoal would make us pause to think and feel, not only about the pandemic but also about human beings suffering this together in the world.

Tocsin: If you could add something additional to the artwork what would it be and why?

Ong: The project itself was also part of my personal therapy. I felt accomplished and now move on. I don't feel I need to add anything else.

Tocsin: Are you working on anything new?

Ong: I've been working on idea sketches and started a few new works. But I still couldn't make any concrete projects yet. Staying home with my son takes so much time and energy. Also, being under the uncertainty of not being able to plans ahead in terms of applying for an exhibition is very frustrating.

Tocsin: How would fans stay updated on upcoming artwork? (IG, Facebook, Twitter)

Ong: Please find me in IG: @ongobongoo or visit my website at

(Available for viewing at the Rochester Contemporary Art Center, 137 East Avenue until May 8th.)

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