As many of you know, there isn't a lot of material available on Lao arts in the 20th and 21st century. The Rockefeller Foundation shut down their interesting Cultural Profiles site a few years back, but you can still find some interesting information scattered around the Internet. Today, I'm including some of the key notes they gathered on contemporary Lao visual artists so that we can have a baseline understanding. Please note that some of this information may be outdated or incorrect, but it reflects our understanding from 2005:
Western-style oil and water-colour painting arrived in Laos during the French colonial period, however in contrast to the situation in neighbouring Việt Nam and Cambodia, the first western art school was opened not by the government but by a private individual, French painter Marc Leguay (1910-2001).
Having arrived in Indochina in 1936, Leguay subsequently travelled extensively throughout the country before deciding to settle down and open an applied art school at Sala on Khong Island in Champassak Province. Here he taught traditional drawing, metalwork and graphic art from 1940 to 1945, when he was briefly imprisoned by the Japanese. Two years later he decided to move his school to Vientiane, but in 1949 the school was closed due to lack of funds and Leguay found employment as an art teacher at the Lycée de Vientiane, a job which he held until he left Laos for Thailand in 1975.
Often called 'the Gauguin of Laos', Marc Leguay portrayed scenes of Lao life in vibrant colours and is chiefly remembered for the postage stamp designs he produced on commission to the Royal Lao Government during the 1950s. One of his greatest pieces was a large untitled work of 1967 depicting a local religious festival; commissioned for an international stamp exhibition in Sri Lanka and painted on 15 square metres of plywood panels, the painting was recently restored in France and is now on permanent display in one of the Lao Fine Artists’ Association's Exhibition Halls at Ban Anou in Vientiane.
Leguay was also involved in the founding of the National School of Fine Arts (now the National Faculty of Fine Arts) under the Ministry of Education, Sport and Religious Affairs, which opened in 1962 together with the National School of Music and Dance at Ban Anou in central Vientiane, offering secondary and intermediate or higher secondary programmes of study.
After 1975 two provincial secondary schools of arts were established in Luang Prabang and Savannakhet respectively. A National Arts Teacher Training School was also opened in 1982 under the Department of Teacher Training of the Ministry of Education to train primary and secondary school teachers of art and music.
From the outset the National Faculty of Fine Arts and its two provincial satellite schools taught modern painting and sculpture alongside traditional drawing, graphic arts, metalwork, ceramics and woodcarving, yet the syllabus has always focused mainly on copying classical or early modern western masters, providing comparatively little stimulus for the development of individual technique or original creativity. Meanwhile the Lao fine arts sector has remained relatively insulated from contemporary international art trends and developments, with the result that a distinctive Lao style of contemporary art has yet to develop.
As in neighbouring Cambodia, established Lao painters and sculptors are obliged (in their own words) to 'chase the market', supporting themselves by creating realistic reproductions of famous Lao monuments or idealised rural landscapes aimed primarily at the tourist market. The few Lao artists who have been fortunate enough to participate in international exhibitions and workshops and thereby gain exposure to new creative ideas have little incentive to put these ideas into practice back home, where there is as yet no market for their work.
Perhaps the best-known artist working in Laos is Khamsouk Keomingmuang (b 1942), a retired officer of the Ministry of Information and Culture who sells his work in the cloisters of Phra That Luang. While occasionally venturing into more abstract territory, Khamsouk paints mainly rural scenes involving women in traditional costume. His work has appeared in a number of regional exhibitions, including the ASEAN exhibition 15 Tracks - Contemporary South East Asian Art 2003 and several joint programmes organised in collaboration with the Isaan and Lao Arts Association of Thailand.
On his return from studying Graphic Art at the National Academy of Fine Arts in Sofia, Bulgaria in 1988, Kongphat Luangrath (b 1950) found employment within the Ministry of Education. Since 2003 he has taught printmaking at the National Faculty of Fine Arts in Vientiane. Although his primary passion is printmaking, Kongphat has become known internationally for his oil paintings, which have been exhibited in the Netherlands, Germany, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Japan and Germany.
Kongphat Luangrath is one of a small group of teachers from the National Faculty of Fine Arts who set up Mask Gallery in Vientiane as an outlet for their work. His colleagues May Chandavong (b 1943), Anoulom Souvandouane (b 1948) and Sorasinh Bannavong (b 1949) produce mainly realistic representations of traditional rural life.
Mask Gallery also sells work by other staff members of the Faculty, including Sengchanh Soukaseum and Chaleunphonh Phommabut.
Kanha Sikounnavong 2Mention should also be made of Kanha Sikounnavong (b 1957), another alumnus of the National Academy of Fine Arts in Sofia, Bulgaria who currently works as Head of Art and Handicraft Research at the Institute of Cultural Research (ICR). Kanha's work has appeared in numerous group exhibitions, including the 6th and 8th Asian Art Bienniales in Bangladesh (1993, 1998), the 4th Asian Art Show, Fukuoka (1994) and several exhibitions organised by the Isaan and Lao Artists Group.
In recent years Vientiane's T’Shop Laϊ Gallery has offered a regular platform for the work of local artists who are seeking to achieve something new in Lao art. In early 2005 the gallery presented a highly successful exhibition of work by Nirad Chounramany (b 1962) and at the time of going to press it is providing a small studio space for younger artists such as Sakhone Sonsuphape (b 1979).
Overseas, a native of Savannakhet, Vong Phaophanit (b 1961) was educated in France at the École des Beaux-arts in Aix-en-Provence (1980-1985) before moving to Britain. Known for his interest in disturbing preconceived notions of language, Phaophanit's art uses indigenous materials such as rice, rubber, and bamboo, which he combines with a striking use of neon light. In 1993 he was shortlisted for the Turner Prize for his installation Neon Rice Field.