Sunday, November 17, 2013

Contemporary Lao Art: Vongduane Manivong's "The Sacred Scriptures"

"The Sacred Scriptures," The original was done in pastel as a limited edition. Its dimensions were 32" x 24" inches in a limited edition of 15 framed copies printed on canvas and archival paper, with authentic versions signed and numbered by the artist.

The two monks are reading a traditional palm-leaf manuscript by lantern in a wat, so we understand the time is presumably at night or in a dimly lit library or reading room in the compound. We can establish that it is likely in Laos because abroad, many wat Lao have electric lighting in their rooms. However, as a painting it raises some interesting questions of how do we create focus on the subjects, and how do we visually encode the imagery to understand where we are geographically, if we did not know who the artist was, or their background.

Culturally speaking, 60% of the Lao population considers itself Buddhist, particularly within the Theravada tradition. But elements of animism and folk spirituality pervade many ways this is observed practically in daily life.

Historically, it was a time-consuming process to make a palm-leaf manuscript in the past. They were created by inscribing a leaf them using a needle-like tool to scratch nearly invisible cuts in the surface. The leaves are then typically rubbed with soot or other pigments to improve the clarity of the text. Certain oils might also be added to the process. The excess is wiped off, and a dark residue remains in what had been etched. They're bound together with cords to form a book, and often kept in a protective set of panels fashioned from hardwood or ivory. It is possible but rare to find a manuscript that is illustrated or gilt. These are often quite fragile and must be handled delicately.

Vongduane Manivong was born in Vientiane, the capital city of Laos, and spent part of her childhood there. In the late ‘80s she came to America with her parents when they fled the troubled country, finally settling in Dallas, Texas. The Laotian diaspora in the wake of the Vietnam War is a subtle yet poignant subtext running through much of her work.

Her depictions of the daily lives of her people around the world form a body of work essential to understanding contemporary Laotian culture. Her work encompasses a variety of artistic influences, from classical to pop, but it is the emotional core of the work that resonates most powerfully. Vongduane’s art has been exhibited in galleries across country, as well as at many national events, including the Symposium of Lao History at the University of California-Berkley, the National Youth Leadership Council’s Urban Institute, and the Cultural Heritage Exhibition at the Laotian Community Center of Rhode Island.

These exhibitions have allowed her to bring wider attention to the diversity of the Laotian experience around the world.  "The Sacred Scriptures" served as an inspiration for my story, "What Hides, What Returns," in the Innsmouth Free Press anthology, Historical Lovecraft. She is also the artist for my new book of poetry, DEMONSTRA.

You can visit her online at

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