A new art scene in Laos

Anna Koshcheeva investigates the platforms on which contemporary Laotian artists are making their mark

By Anna Koshcheeva

Souliya Phoumivong, Flow (production image), 2018, stop-motion animation, colour, sound. Courtesy Singapore Art Museum Bounpaul Phothyzan, Lie of the Land, 2017, aluminium, wood, soil, seeds, 2 parts: 80 × 400 × 80 cm (each). Courtesy Singapore Art Museum Tcheu Siong at work, 2010. Photo: Yves Bernard. Courtesy the artist and Project Space, Luang Prabang

This autumn presents Laotian artists with long-awaited opportunities to reach new audiences at home and abroad. Three will be included in the 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT9) when it opens at the Queensland Art Gallery & Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA), Brisbane, in late November: Tcheu Siong will present her largescale textile applications, inspired by dreams and Hmong folk patterns; Bounpaul Phothyzan is, literally, showing a bombshell – a relic of the ‘Secret War’ bombings of Laos by US forces during the Vietnam War – planted with flowers and titled Lie of the Land (2017); and Souliya Phoumivong is assembling an installation featuring his signature clay buffaloes, an animal seen to embody the notion of a ‘country bumpkin’ and by extension to represent all Laotians.

Back in Laos, two contemporary art events will kick off in Vientiane almost simultaneously with APT9. The first is the inaugural edition of Elevations Laos, an exhibition of contemporary Southeast Asian art and art prize funded by Spellbrook Foundation and organised by Erin Gleeson, a well-known curator in the region. The second is Lao Art Season, curated by the Laotian Misouda Heuangsoukkhoun. Where the former seeks to foster exchange between Laotian artists and those elsewhere in Southeast Asia, the latter facilitates connections with the Isaan region of Northern Thailand. Both are highly anticipated events for the Laotian art community, providing much-needed opportunities for international dialogue and exchange, and for local audiences to see the domestically produced, socially engaged contemporary art which is more often showcased elsewhere.

An authoritarian state’s tight control over communication, together with its dominance of the country’s meagre cultural infrastructure, explains why artists in Laos operate simultaneously on two circuits

The ‘official’ art exhibited in Laos’s state-run cultural institutions, by contrast, serves one purpose: the glorification of Laotian culture. It features portraits of Lao beauties and ethnic minorities, highlights the elegance of traditional dance and the authenticity of ritual celebrations, and pleases the eye with endless vistas, elephants and mythical Nagas. These paintings are produced in oil and occasionally watercolour, extending traditions of French modernism and a gentle mode of socialist realism. Retrospective and introspective, this neotraditional art satisfies authorities by driving the public’s gaze towards a distant ‘golden age of Lao culture’ and away from the pressing issues of today.

An authoritarian state’s tight control over communication, together with its dominance of the country’s meagre cultural infrastructure, explains why artists in Laos operate simultaneously on two circuits. To be recognised as artists domestically they produce works that meet the state’s demands; to express themselves creatively and critically, they produce contemporary art that diverges from those demands, but keep it out of public view, only occasionally shipping pieces to a biennale abroad. In these ‘unofficial’ artworks are reflected the dissenting views and innovative strategies of contemporary Laotian art.

Social change in Laos, which might seem slow to an outsider, nevertheless affects every family there

At home, for example, Hongsa Khotsouvanh is regarded as a leading watercolourist whose work is full of sweet nostalgia for Lao rural beauty and innocence, yet international curators seek out his more critical collage works because they address the vulnerability of the country’s cultures and values at a time of rapid social change. The daily news of that change is literally an artistic medium for Hongsa, who shreds newspapers into strips to produce collages that record the ruptures between past and present in Laos. The commercialisation of heritage and the preservation of high courtly and Buddhist artistic traditions are also close to the heart of Tiao David (Nith) Somsanith, who lives in Luang Prabang in Northen Laos. Trained in royal gold-and-silver-thread embroidery, Tiao David’s works contemplate the link between cultural traditions and personal values. “Each of us will perish, leaves are like human bodies – fragile and temporal,” he tells me, by way of introduction to his ongoing Leaves series, “it is our ancestral beliefs and traditions, the values we absorb and practise, that give us a strength. The preciousness of gold is an embodiment of the culture we inherited, this is what gives us structure and will remain after us.” His ongoing embroidery series Humility: From Nature to Nature (2016–), featuring classical Sangha motifs, is made from natural fibres grown in the vicinity of Luang Prabang. Upon completion, these artworks are donated to temples in Laos and Isaan.

Social change in Laos, which might seem slow to an outsider, nevertheless affects every family there. In Vientiane, Mick Saylom examines taboos surrounding body politics, the growing puritanism of ‘official’ art and an increasing divorce rate that he attributes to the financial pressures on partners. “I made two children on this bed,” Saylom tells me, introducing Love (2017), a never-exhibited piece constructed out of the bedframe and its wires that deals directly with the private life – an anomaly in Laos, where discussions pertaining to sexuality are not encouraged. Even nudity has barely been seen at public exhibitions in recent years, less because of any official diktat than because artists know how the wind is blowing. In his private work, Saylom bypasses the taboo on the exposed body, rendering his silhouettes in wire to celebrate the sensuality of a couple’s embrace. He believes that silence about social issues does not help to solve them.

Social change in Laos is being driven by the economic boom of recent years. The dark underbelly of this growth is land concessions to foreign companies and the threat of debt dependency to China. The intricacies of striking a balance between welcoming foreign investment and suffering financial occupation are hot topics in Laos, and these as well as broader considerations around the responsible use of land and sustainable coexistence with nature underpin the artistic production of Bounpaul Phothyzan. His mixed-media installation We Live (2013), a giant fish skeleton assembled from dead trees and presented at the 4th Singapore Biennale, reflected on the damage to local landscapes caused by the construction of dams in Laos, while the planted bombshell he will show at APT9 presents the landscape as simultaneously dangerous and healing. With millions of tons of unexploded ordnance remaining in Lao fields since the war, the natural environment is at once a daily threat to life and a force for regeneration and new life.

The horrors of the ‘Secret War’ are generally unknown to the outside world. The stereotypical image of the country is of rural romance, sleepy backwaters populated by a cheerful and simple people, and many buffaloes. Souliya Phoumivong adopts that animal as representative of an agrarian lifestyle to challenge preconceptions. In his installations small buffaloes, deprived of eyes and ears, follow compliantly behind mighty buffaloes leading the herd in what can easily be read as a commentary on the social order in Laos. Hidden in his innocent-looking clay figures are messages about the struggle for power, control of information and social conformity.

Unlike the country’s ‘official’ art, which strives to define Laotian identity through its past and in the process pacify social concerns, these collages, embroideries, installations and performances are innovative in their use of different media and critical in their address to the issues facing Lao society. Until now, Laotian contemporary art was accessible mainly to international audiences and failed to attract attention. In Brisbane and in Vientiane, the country’s artists have the chance to change that.

ATP9 is on view from 24 November to 28 April at QAGOMA, Brisbane; Elevations Laos runs from 9 November to 1 January at i:an Gallery, Vientiane; Lao Art Season takes place from 18 October to 8 December across multiple venues in Vientiane

From the Winter 2018 issue of ArtReview Asia