The Art of Not Being Governed by Akha in Chiangrai – The Possibility of Zomia Arts – Part 2

Yuto Yabumoto

Amamata the first Mom, 2023, 200 x 200 cm, Acrylic on canvas
Image: Busui Ajaw nca | nichido contemporary art

4. The Akha and Busui Ajaw ‘Art of Not Being Governed’

Busui is known for her expressive style of painting, which uses bright colours and dramatic textures created by her brushstrokes. Her work was introduced at the 2019 Singapore Biennale, where she quickly garnered international attention (fig.5). As stated by Busui, she was born in Myanmar where, as a child, she and her family moved to Chiang Rai in Thailand to escape political unrest. Busui’s Sad Day (2023, Fig.6), a retrospective of Busui’s life as a stateless woman in her childhood, is said to express the fact that ‘there is no equality in the human world’. Although Busui did not attend art school, she grew up around ‘art’ as her father was a craftsman and sculptor. Now, Busui has left her home village, where the influence of Christianity is stronger. She married  her spouse who was from the Shan ethnic group, which is unusual for an Akha woman, and she became a mother a few years ago when she gave birth to her first child. Based on her birthing experience, Busui’s first solo exhibition in Japan, ‘Mother/Amamata’, was held at Nichido Contemporary Art in Roppongi, Tokyo, from 16 June to 29 July 2023.[19]

[19] Exhibition website ( last viewed 30 August 2023

  • Figure 5 (left): Busui Ajaw, explaining her work in the studio, Photo: taken by the writer

  • F(right): "Ayaw Jaw Bah" exhibited at the Singapore Biennale 2019, Photo: taken by the writer

The mother spirit, which Busui refers to as ‘Amamata’, is a mother figure who gave birth to both humans and spirits, and that the exhibition depicts images of ‘Amamata’ that were passed down by word of mouth from  ancestors. Kammerer states that the role of women is important in maintaining the genealogical link between ancestors and descendants, and argues that for the Akha, the concept of gender is not fixed, but always remains dynamic and complementary to each other, due to the frequent reversal of the male-female relationship in Akha rituals.[20] Related to this point, Busui made a meaningful statement on the occasion of this exhibition.
There is a reason why humans and spirits lived together in the time of Amamata. The human mind is easily swayed and tends to deny our own characteristics. Thus, humans create their own counterparts in the darkness. In that counterpart spirit, we discover our weakness that keeps us repeating the cycle of discrimination and exploitation. [21]
Namely, Busui feels anxious about the current state of discrimination and exploitation by the human/male-centered rule of the plains states. Thus, she suggests that in order to sever the discriminatory and exploitative ruling, it may be necessary to restore the mutually supportive and mutually beneficial relationship between human beings and spiritual beings, and to recover the original worldview in which dialogue between the two was possible. 

[20] Cornelia Kammerer, Gateway to the Akha World: Kinship, Ritual, and Community Among the Highlanders of Thailand, University of Chicago (1986),p.358[19]
[21] Quoted by the interview transcript by Thai curator Vipash Purichanont.

  • Figure 6: "Sad Day", Collection of AURA Contemporary Art Foundation, 2023, 150 x 150 cm,
    Acrylic on canvas Photo: Busui Ajaw Courtesy of nca | nichido contemporary art

(1) The art of the Akha people’s time-consciousness

When the writer asked Busui what was most important to the Akha for the purpose of deepening their understanding of ‘the Akha Art of Not Being Governed’, she responded with the Akha's (i) names, (ii) myths, and (iii) coffins. In Akha rituals, the practice is often mediated by some object, while closely relating (i) names and (ii) myths. For example, in Akha funerary rites, Akha men produce a coffin from a special tree designated by the priests. Then, in front of the coffined dead, the priest performs animal sacrifices and recites dozens of generations of ancestors’ names from mythical ancestral spirits, adding the deceased’s name at the end. These ritual practices have the function of creating a ‘time- consciousness’ to maintain an autonomous social structure.
The Akha’s time- consciousness is dynamic and spiraling, such that the dates of rituals are not based on the passage of time, but rather time moves according to the dates determined by the priests. For instance, the Akha’s well-known Swing Festival was not always fixed in its timing, and its implementation varied across the three villages. Thus, Akha rituals and festivals do not have fixed timings so that they do not return to their original place in a circular manner, and there is a built-in mechanism to give them a ‘time-consciousness’ so that they can escape whenever the time comes to avoid ‘being governed’. The image of the ‘moon’ in Busui’s  Amamata (2023, fig.7, fig.8) conveys this ‘time-consciousness’vividly. Originally, the Akha held monthly rituals, but it is said that there is no regularity in the designation of the ‘moon’.[22] In Busui’s Amamata,the black moon and white crescent moon are symbolically depicted, but their shape and colour are unstable, and they seem to share an image of a spiral, not circular, ‘time-consciousness’.

[22] Tsutomu Inamura, Ethnography of Ancestry and Resources: The Anthropology of the Hani-Akha People with Special Reference to Yunnan Province, China, Mekong, (2016), pp.184-193.

  • Figure 7: Amamata the first Mom, 2023, 200 x 200 cm, Acrylic on canvas, Photo: Busui Ajaw nca | nichido contemporary art

(2) Art related to the Akha name

Interestingly, when staying in an Akha village, one is often asked for one’s name. This may be proof that the ‘father-son joint naming system’ is still alive today. The patrilineal naming system refers to the custom, as in other Yunnan Hani, Tibetan, and Burmese mountain communities, of appropriating the last syllable of the father’s name to the first syllable of the descendant’s name, and reciting the names of all ancestors in the male lineage back to one ‘primordial’ ancestor. Through this process, the Akha, if not all mountain people, confirm their connection to self, others, ancestors, and mythological generations.

As far as the writer has been able to find, no literary record of the indigenous name ‘Amamata’ has been identified, but in the Hani-Akha language of Yunnan, ‘Ama’ is the word for “mother” or “source”, and in some cases means “goddess”.[23]  According to Akha researcher Paul Lewis, in Akha mythology, ‘A poe mi yeh’ created the sky, from which ‘Sumio’, the 12th generation of spiritual beings, was created as the ‘first human’ who also possessed spirit qualities,[24] and the ‘Sumio’ is often regarded as the founder of the Akha people.

[23]Ibid, p.290.
[24]Paul Lewis, Peoples of the Golden Triangle: Six Tribes in Thailand, Thames&Hudson (1988), p.24

  • Figure 8: Exhibition view of the 'Mother/Amamata' exhibition, Photo: taken by the writer

In this fieldwork, several Akha elders were able to imagine a mythical figure from the proper name ‘Amamata’ [25] (fig.9). The image of ‘Amamata’ shared by these elders was that of a being with many breasts, a woman in between human and spirit. According to Takako Kanomi, a researcher on the culture of the Thai mountain people, the pre-Sumio ‘A poe mi yeh’ has two breasts for humans on the front of the body and seven breasts for spirits on the back. The myth surrounding the mother spirit tells that both humans and spirits lived together on the basis of this one mother, but one day, over the loss of a cucumber (egg)[26] and the death of the mother spirit, a gap was created between the human and spirit worlds, and as a result of the humans outwitting the spirits, humans were cursed by the spirits for a long time.[27]  In Lewis’s research, a similar myth revolves around a mother spirit called ‘Dzoe tah pah’ or ‘Tah pah a ma’, a generation after Sumio.[28]  According to Inamura, ‘Tanqpangqma’, an exceptional female spirit ancestor of the Hani-Akha people, who is also said to have nine breasts for humans on the chest of her body and nine breasts for spirits on her back, similar to the myth of  ‘A poe mi yeh , and stories about the separation of humans and spirits are stories that  have been collected.[29] Furthermore, similar myths (the proper name of the mother spirit is unknown) have been identified in the research by Akha house researcher Ikuro Shimizu (1966-).[30] Thus, the proper names of the ‘mother spirit beings’ such as A poe mi yeh ,Tanqpangqma, Dzoe tah pah, Tah pah a ma, and Amamata, transcends the dimensions of time, place, and species, before and after the separation of spirits and humans, and is constantly being rewritten, changing their names. Based on the aforementioned myth creation and animistic embroidery skills, the Aka people continue to invoke ‘the Art of Not Being Governed’ whilst reproducing  their own identity and polity, which differs from the anthropocentric national ideology through contemporary artistic expressions such as Busui’s ‘Amamata’.

[25] In the interviews, young people in their 20-40s were mostly unaware of the myths, and in many cases, they became aware of the existence of sumio , A poe mi yeh, and other myths through interviews with elders.
[26] In the myths collected by Inamura, they are rewritten as eggs, not cucumbers. Tsutomu Inamura, Ethnography of Ancestry and ResourcesThe Anthropology of the Hani-Akha People with Special Reference to Yunnan Province, China, Mekong, (2016), p.171.
[27] Kanomi Takako, People of Myth: Textiles and Crafts of the Golden Triangle, Shikosha, (1991), pp.254-255.
[28] Ikuro Shimizu,  Ethnography of Houses and People: Mutual Construction of the North Thai Mountain Folk Akha and Dwellings, Fukyosha, (2005), p.275.
[29] Tsutomu Inamura, Ethnography of Ancestry and Resources: Anthropology of the Hani-Akha People with Special Reference to Yunnan Province, China,Mekong, (2016), p.149, p.171.
[30] Shimizu, Ikuro, Ethnography of Houses and People: Mutual Construction of the North Thai Mountains Min Akha and Dwellings, Fukyosha, (2005), pp.212-220.

  • Figure 9 (left): Shaman from Abay village

  • (right): Paka village elder discussing Akha myths

(3) Art related to Akha mythology

Thus, (i) names and (ii) myths are closely related between the Akha. Akha mythology is like symbolic trichotomy, as described above, spirit/human/beings between those two, and while based on binary structures such as plain/mountain, male/female, village/forest, mountain/valley, inside/outside, etc., Akha mythology emphasises the importance of capturing the intervening things between each binary.[31]  The third of Busui’s ‘Amamata’  may be an implicit reference to this. What is also meant by the ‘black snake’ that accompanies the ‘Amamata’ in the mythological dimension, and the ‘red snake’ that coils around the lower body of the ‘Amamata’ depicted in Choose What We Have (2023, fig.10)

According to Busui, for the Akha, snakes, dogs, and birds are symbolic of their choice of life partners, with the image of “dogs as honest”, “birds as flying away” and “snakes as untrustworthy”. Dragons and snakes (Naga) are generally considered to symbolise the plains states and powerful authorities, but dragon god belief is almost non-existent among the Akha, as evidenced by the absence of the dragon in the Akha’s Oriental zodiac.[32] On the other hand, Busui also states that birds were symbols of souls and spirits in the beliefs of older Akha cultures, and that the ‘black snake’ was originally the Akha guardian deity. In the mythology of the Hani -Akha, there are stories in which snakes and dragons are depicted as polysemous entities, with a mixture of positive images of the black dragon bringing blessings, negative images of the dragon destroying the village, and so on. As Inamura states, “While ambivalently positioning the dragon itself and reproducing its energy, the Zomian people place the dragon in a position where it can be eliminated at any time on a practical level while pretending to accept it on a symbolic level”[33]. It is leaning towards ‘Amamata’ in both a positive and negative sense. In the negative sense, the ambivalent presence of multiple ‘serpents’ coiling from underfoot is an apt expression of the very complexity between state power and Zomian non-power. In Busui’s Amamata, the ‘Art of Not Being Governed’ that transcends the ambivalence of this dichotomy is visualised and transmitted as a truly contemporary visual medium.

Furthermore,  (iii) the coffin, which Busui described as important, is omitted for reasons of paper limitation, but as mentioned above, the ‘coffin’ is essential in the ancestral beliefs and funerary rites of the Akha people. Busui has been selected as an invited artist for the Thailand Biennale, Chiang Rai 2023 (TBC2023)[34] and is planning to create a new work based on the motif of  ‘coffins’. For the Akha people, ‘coffins’ are not something to be shown to the outside world, and matters related to the dead are considered a kind of taboo, but what kind of ‘Art of Not Being Governed’ does Busui practice through ‘coffins’ and what kind of discussion will it bring to the contemporary state and Zomia? As a member of ‘the Zomia Pavilion’, which presents the complex and mutually supportive ‘Zomia-ness’ described above, the writer plans to discuss these activities at TBC2023 in due course, while keeping a close eye on Busui’s artistic expression.

[31] Alting von Gesau, Dialectics of Akhazan: The Internationalisation of a Perennial Minority Group. Hignlanders of Thailand, Oxford University Press (1983), pp. 242-277
[32] Tsutomu Inamura, Ethnography of Ancestry and Resources: The Anthropology of the Hani-Akha People with Special Reference to Yunnan Province, China, Mekong, (2016), p.174.
[33] Ibid, p.178.
[34] Thailand Biennale Chiang Rai 2023 official website URL: (last viewed 30 August 2023)

  • Figure 10: Choose what we have, AURA Contemporary Art Foundation, 150 x 150 cm Acrylic on canvas, Photo: Busui Ajaw Courtesy of nca | nichido contemporary art

5. Conclusion – Possibility of ‘Zomia Arts’

This paper has sought to build on Scott’s concept of ‘Zomia’ and explore ‘Zomia-ness’ as distinct from its contemporary neoliberal connotations. As Scott states, “The place of Zomia may not exist in the present day”. That is to say, ‘Zomia’ may be an imaginary utopia’, coined from the Greek words ‘ou’ (not) and ‘topos’ (place).
However, even if this were the case, as we have seen in the artistic practices of the Akha and Busui, the ‘Art of Not Being Governed’, which allows life forms with different characteristics and conditions of existence to construct a space of compatible co-existence without abandoning their own heterogeneity, is not limited to the Akha, but is probably also essential in our everyday lives. Can we not call ‘Zomia art’- a transdisciplinary and figurative artistic practice that is not pulled only by the image of ‘anarchism’, but is based on a mutually supportive ‘Zomia-ness’ and  gives a spiral and higher- order operation  to materials such as myths, names, and objects?

Through this artistic practice, may there be a ‘Zomia’ (utopia) in your life.