Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Recognizing Bounxou Chanthraphone this Friday

This Friday in Minnesota, we're honoring Madame Bounxou Chanthraphone for a lifetime achievement award in the arts as part of the State Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans' annual Heritage Dinner.

Out of 21,000 Asian Pacific Minnesotans in the state, she is just 1 of only 3 people being recognized, including Dr. Adisack Nhouyvanisvong for his leadership in education. These awards are given only once in a person's lifetime and reflect a decision made by the State of Minnesota, among over 60 Asian American communities who could have been reflected this year.

It was my pleasure and an honor to nominate her for this award for many reasons, not the least being my conviction that when we have living treasures among us, we should recognize them and honor those achievements.

As the undisputed master weaver in our community of 200,000+ in the US, she has the distinction of being an National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellow and a recipient of the prestigious Bush Artist Fellowship and a Bush Enduring Vision Fellowship.

As part of its efforts to honor and preserve our nation's diverse cultural heritage, the National Endowment for the Arts annually awards one-time-only National Heritage Fellowships for master folk and traditional artists. These fellowships are intended to recognize the recipients' artistic excellence and support their continuing contributions to our nation's traditional arts heritage. This is one of the highest recognitions an artist can receive from the US government.

More importantly, she paved the way for many Laotians to see not just the craft but the art that our textile traditions can embody, and the significance of handcrafted work.

Madame Chanthraphone was born in 1947 in the town of Savannakhet, in central Laos. She learned Lao weaving techniques from her mother and grandmother, and soon studied more formally, learning the weaving techniques and designs of her native central region and of the northern and southern regions. She also learned the detailed ikot tie dying technique.

Her expertise allows her to weave single strands of linen, cotton, silk, and other materials into the traditional patterns, including the intricate symbols and geometric designs. She uses pigments derived from natural substances including berries, roots, and tree bark. These skills are then used to weave traditional Lao skirts, dancing costumes, wall hangings and other textiles.

She came to the US in 1982 with her daughter, Ladda, who has also begun to follow in her mother's footsteps. As a child, Madame Chanthraphone attended Savannah Elementary School and continued the study of weaving while she was training as a teacher in the city of Vientiane, Laos. In the 1960s she became an elementary teacher, and went back to the city of Savannakhet and taught in Immaculee School for eight years. Ultimately, in 1975 with the end of the war, she and her family fled and spent time in the Ubon refugee camp in Thailand. In Thailand, she was able to support her family through her weaving.

In the US she continued to teach her skills formally to many through programs with the Lao PTA and CAPI, the Center for Asian and Pacific Islanders.

One of the significant things I respect about her work is that she has consistently insisted not just on preserving the traditional patterns and motifs but engaging them dynamically, so that with her best pieces, we are looking at actual objects of art that connect us back not only to our heritage of the last six hundred years in Laos but something we can consider and present to future generations.

She is currently working on a new book and other efforts to document her life's work and I'm looking forward to seeing her family and others continue these traditions. I hope it won't be too long before we see a new exhibit of hers

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