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Lives of the Buddha



Phaptawan Suwannakudt

Thailand, Australia

1959 -


Phaptawan Suwannakudt was born in Thailand in 1959, the daughter of one of the leading Buddhist mural painters in Thailand, the late Paiboon Suwannakudt (1925-1982), also known as Tan Kudt. Phaptawan was trained in mural painting by her father (a skill that was traditionally only passed on to male painters) and she was an apprentice in his workshop for twelve years from 1970-1981. In 1980 she graduated from Silpakorn University majoring in English and German languages.

From 1984–1996 she has worked as an artist and also led a group of mural painters, the Tan Kudt Group, working on large mural projects for temples and hotels in Thailand. Julie Ewington recognised the significance of Phaptawan as a woman artist and mural painter in Thailand during the period:

In becoming a renowned temple painter, leading her late father’s team to fresh achievements and new audiences through the 1980s and 1990s, Phaptawan Suwannakudt became a Thai anomaly: an independent woman responsible for the interpretation of the sacred texts in public places, including liaising with clients from the community of monks and businessmen, and directing the work of men. (1)

Phaptawan made the decision to move to Australia in 1996, married and had two children. In 2006 she graduated with a Master of Visual Arts from the Sydney College of Arts, University of Sydney. She has exhibited in a number of solo and group exhibitions both here and internationally including the Sherman Galleries; Arc One Gallery, Melbourne; Roslyn Oxley Gallery; Gallery 4A, Sydney; Campbelltown Arts Centre; Sundaram Tagore Gallery, New York and Museum of Contemporary Art of Castello, Spain. Recently she was included in the 18th Biennale of Sydney, 'All Our Relations', June-September 2012.

'Lives of the Buddha' was one of the earliest works Phaptawan Suwannakudt produced after she moved to Australia. Unable to paint in Buddhist temples and centres in Sydney (due to regulations or the temporary nature of the buildings), and with no evident commissions forthcoming, Phaptawan subsequently chose to do the painting on six manageable canvas panels. Hence the practicalities of the size of this work (having to downsize) and getting used to the new materials, reflected her move to a new cultural space both physically owing to change in medium, and mentally due to her mission to be able to paint it after facing so many obstacles. Producing the work was a way to try and settle down in her new country, especially because she was pregnant with her first child when she painted it. She felt that ‘In retrospect it was like obsessive compulsive mission that I needed to complete to mark my existence here.’ (2) By painting this work on canvas, the work in Australia has been available to a wider audience from many different backgrounds.

Traditionally Thai mural paintings decorated temple walls and provided moral narratives and mythological stories of the Bodhisattvas who entered the higher plains of the universe until they became the Buddha and entered final Nirvana. 'Lives of the Buddha' embodies the story of the previous lives of the Buddha based on the Jataka Tales - some of the earliest Buddhist literature dating back to the 4th century BCE, originating in India. The purpose of Buddhist murals in temples was primarily didactic, in order to pictorially explain the stories of the Buddha. Characters depicted are either celestial beings or nobles (who are generally shown as calm and are painted with gold leaf), demons or everyday people. Those figures which are everyday people are more realistically and roughly portrayed. Scenes are stylised with landscapes, individuals, temples, animals and mythological creatures, and the design is rather flat, lacking any depth. Each scene is separated by either architecture element such as a temple, or landscape in a zig-zag type configuration. The works are painted from a perspective which is high, as the viewer looks onto the scene.

The fourteen Jataka Tales represented in this work take place in mythical kingdoms or forests, advancing the principles of courage, patience, filial piety, devotion, duty, honour etc until the Buddha reaches enlightenment. The stories that are portrayed are as follows, reading the panels from left to right:

Panel One
Theme One: Temiya, the Mute Prince.
Theme Two: Mahajanaka, the lost prince

Panel Two
Theme Three: Sama, the devoted son
Theme Four: Nimi, the noble king

Panel Three
Theme Five: Mahosaddha, the clever sage
Theme Six: Bhuridatta, the naga prince

Panel Four:
Theme Seven: Canda-Kumara, the honourable prince
Theme Eight: Narada the Great Brahma

Panel Five
Theme Nine: Vidhura-Pandita, the eloquent sage.
Theme Ten: Vessantara, the Charitable Prince

Panel Six
Theme Eleven: Birth of the Buddha and his seven steps
Theme Twelve: The Great departure
Theme Thirteen: The temptation by Mara
Theme Fourteen: The Parinirvana

(1) Chaitanya Sambrani, ‘Phaptawan Suwannakudt,’ cited in in Fuyubi Nakamura (ed.), 'Ephemeral but Eternal Words: Traces of Asia', ANU, 2010, p. 24.
(2) Email correspondence between Phaptawan Suwannakudt and Natalie Seiz, 14 February 2013.

Asian Art Department, AGNSW, April 2013.


Place where the work was made

New South Wales Australia



Media category


Materials used

6 panels; acrylic and gold leaf on canvas


180.0 x 432.0 cm :

a - panel - Theme One: Temiya, the Mute Prince; Theme Two: Mahajanaka, the lost prince, 180 x 72 cm

b - panel - Theme Three: Sama, the devoted son; Theme Four: Nimi, the noble king, 180 x 72 cm

c - panel - Theme Five: Mahosaddha, the clever sage; Theme Six: Bhuridatta, the naga prince, 180 x 72 cm

d - panel - Theme Seven, Canda-Kumara, the honourable prince; Theme Eight, Narada the Great Brahma, 180 x 72 cm

e - panel - Theme Nine: Vidhura-Pandita, the eloquent sage; Theme Ten: Vessantara, the Charitable Prince, 180 x 72 cm

f - panel - Theme Eleven: Birth of the Buddha and his seven steps; Theme Twelve: The Great departure; Theme Thirteen: The temptation by Mara; Theme Fourteen: The Parinirvana, 180 x 72 cm


Roger Pietri Fund 2013


Not on display

Accession number


Artist information

Phaptawan Suwannakudt

Works in the collection



Where the work was made
New South Wales

Shown in 1 exhibition

Exhibition history

Referenced in 1 publication


Lisa-Marie Murphy, Look, "Future Perspective", Sydney, Aug 2013, 32.