Monday, November 03, 2014

Are we ready for the Lao American Renaissance?

Over at Sahtu Press this week we're asking the question: Are we ready for a Lao American Renaissance? We've spoken about the concept in the past and it is no longer a hypothetical question but a profound reality.

In many ways, we could argue the Lao American Renaissance began 20 years ago as the first generation of Lao artists and writers began to collect ten years after the aftermath of the Lao Diaspora, the end of the Lao civil war. Many of those writers and artists are still practicing or active within the community, and we can see many institutions that emerged such as the Lao Heritage Foundation, the Kinnaly Dance Troupe, the Royal Lao Classical Dancers of Tennessee, and the Center for Lao Studies as a product of those early years.

The 2000s were essentially the second phase, with many of the first Lao American magazines going out of print or being incredibly short-lived, and the SatJaDham Lao Literary Project going functionally dormant. Exhibitions increased in some regions, but not in others, although I think it is safe to say that the Lao artists in California, Washington and Minnesota have been among the most successful in attaining national recognition and consistent exhibition and performances outside of their own states.

The Lao community has had a number of publishing houses come and go, with varying levels of success. But we still really have less than 40 books in 40 years that we've written with a wide or effective circulation. Music is doing a little better, and fashion has been stable. Architecture and three dimensional art in our community has often been prohibitively expensive for many of us to engage in. The culinary arts seem to be experiencing a particular popularity, however, depending on where you look. You can find many restaurants now opening in New York, which is somewhat surprising given the small population of Lao there, historically.

Decades from now, I think we'll be having an interesting conversation on how often Lao artists were invited to show their work, and whether or not works with Lao themes were belittled, and if Lao were presented in caricature to non-Lao. There's a lot in our artistic output that's been imperfect. How will we view the relationship of the Lao American Renaissance artists to their patrons, for example?

How many high school and college literature and art courses will know how to incorporate and embrace the contribution of the Lao American Renaissance artists? How will our next generation find ways to spot the artists in our community who will inspire them the most, and then conduct further research on them? Are we at risk that any time there is only one reporter, one documentary, it will become the last word on that artist's output?

As we move towards creating a space for our artists we see the persistent struggle for them as we must ask if they should present Lao themes or non-racialized ones. They will often question whether they should turn to Laos for inspiration or not. Our artists must resist the urge to produce stereotypical images that are easily apprehend. But how does one encourage that?

There will often be a temptation to portray a culturally "idealized" Lao society, one that panders to the wealthy among us. There will also be the proper question: how are the more diverse aspects of the Lao experience going to be celebrated within the Lao American Renaissance? Will future historians take care to include the art of men and women, the GLBT and other diverse aspects such as religious or non-religious orientation, different classes, or the various journeys of the Laotian minorities such as the Tai Dam, Khmu, Mien, and others?

I don't think these questions can be answered in one sitting, nor should we attempt to. But what other ways should we be thinking about it, if we are to do the concept justice?

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