This month at the Gordon Parks Gallery, master weaver Bounxou Chanthraphone (Daoheuang) and Laddavanh Insixiengmay opened a special exhibit, Weaving to Survive. The Gordon Parks Gallery is located in the new Library and Learning Center at 645 East Seventh Street in St. Paul.
Weaving to Survive had their opening reception on Thursday, April 19, and now runs from April 20 – July 26, 2012. They are giving demonstrations of traditional weaving on April 23, 1-3 pm and April 28, 2-4 pm. I’ve written about Bounxou Chanthraphone in the past, and as a matter of full disclosure nominated her for a Lifetime Achievement Award in the Arts from the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans, which she received in 2011.
Madame Bounxou is the first Lao American woman to receive a Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and also a prestigious Bush Artist Fellowship and a Bush Enduring Vision Fellowship. She and her family really have an amazing story, one that speaks to all refugees and their friends and families. It is a story of challenges, but also unique fortunes and opportunities. Minnesota has been her home for decades as she rebuilt her life and passed her skills on to her daughter.
As one of our elder voices, she’s inspired many of us to reach beyond just day-to-day survival.
Artist to artist, I appreciate the way she reminds us all that preserving our artistic traditions isn’t just about repeating the patterns and techniques of the past. An artist works with these forms to let them speak to our present generation and circumstances. When we truly speak through our art, it is not to create some wooden documenation of a moment, but to breathe life into that story and speak of both our inner histories and our hopes for the future.
We must never take it for granted when Lao Minnesotan elders passed their skills on to the younger generation. This does not always happen in a community.
This exhibit is important because despite the international acclaim for her work, a Lao artist sharing her story through her art on her own terms, it has been many years since we’ve seen a formal exhibition of her art. When we witness it, I hope people consider how they resisted their critics, because they are also trying to innovate while staying true to the spirit of Lao weaving. This is not to say we must love every piece we see, but we should appreciate the journey and the courage it takes to present them to the public.
Many of our youth have a disconnect with our heritage and traditions, but with work like Madame Bounxou’s we can be reminded of our six centuries as a culture. And we can see so clearly that much of Lao art has always encouraged individual voice and personal innovation. If you were to make a study of authentic Buddha statues from Laos from the 13th century to the present, you would be struck by the startling energy and individuality in each piece. Lao culture has often celebrated harmony over uniformity. That’s a part of our tradition I hope we never lose.
A Lao skirt, known as a sinh, is symbolic of Lao culture because it represents many lives, many threads, many stories interwoven to create a stronger vision of who we are and can be. There are many other motifs and symbols which have deep historic meaning, drawn from our myths and memories that you can look for. From the traditional nak, also known as nagas or dragons in other cultures, to the crabs who symbolize bountfiul harvests, or butterflies which represent fleeting beauty, there are many stories and traditions connected to the patterns you see.
Yet abroad, many artists fear we are losing this tradition as many Lao turn away from traditional Lao textiles as a symbol of outmoded fashion. Others are concerned that artisans are rushing their work to meet demand from tourists. This undermines the efforts of those who would have our traditional weavers appreciated for their art. It’s particularly ironic as Lao fashion designers such as Andy South from Project Runway, Nary Manivong, Kevin Vong, Bee Inthavong and others pave the way nationally for modern Lao American fashion. And here in Minnesota, we have one of our living treasures doing her part to keep our traditions and heritage alive.
So, be sure to stop by the Gordon Parks Gallery when you get a chance. It’s a rare opportunity to see where traditional Lao American art has been and where it is going.