One year ago, we observed the very first Lao Minnesotan Artists Heritage Month, which was recognized by Governor Dayton and the State of Minnesota as a celebration of the outstanding international, national, and local contributions of Lao Minnesotan artists. It was hoped by the organizers that this would encourage future generations of emerging artists. Further, it was hoped the community would recognize the role the arts have in our lives, especially to positively transform our society.
In the time since, we continue to see our artists making wonderful strides and continuing to advance as artists. Saymoukda Vongsay, for example, is recognizing the 6th anniversary since the publication of her chapbook ‘No Regrets,’ but also the production of her first full-length play, “Kung Fu Zombies vs. Cannibals,” presented by Mu Performing Arts. Her work was also included in the recent 2012 Winter Book of the Minnesota Center for Book Arts.
Lao writers like Chanida Phaengdara Potter at Little Laos on the Prairie continue to create a vital space for our voices to be heard, and to bring our persepective to many of the pressing issues of our day. We saw the very first Lao Minnesotan Storytelling Festival at the Harrison Community Center in North Minneapolis, gathering Lao traditional storytellers and community members from across the state to preserve our oral traditions that embody over 600 years of dialogue. Chay Douangphouxay released her debut chapbook of poetry, Remission: Finding Light in the Midst of Social Darkness thanks to the support of the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans (CAPM) and the Minnesota Humanities Center.
Mali Kouanchao was one of the last Bush Artist Fellows, and one of only two Lao Minnesotans to ever hold that distinction. She is currently undertaking a collaborative project with the Lao Assistance Center to create art that reflects on the 30-year journey of the organization and how we have rebuilt our lives in Minnesota.
We enjoy celebrating this month because it reminds us how over the last three decades, Lao Minnesotan artists have consistently made an effort to convene exhibits and performances of contemporary Lao American art, such as the Lao Voices Festival or exhibits at the Hennepin County Library, or science fiction conventions such as CONvergence, Marscon, Arcana and Diversicon, and even the London Olympics. It has been our persistent hope to encourage diversity and genuine, constructive plurality to build stronger communities to live, work, learn and grow in.
For us, Lao arts embody almost a millenia of intergenerational dialogues on peace, harmony, the pursuit of wisdom, diversity and the rejection of violence. At our best, Lao arts encourage unique voices and approaches to living as a people. With over 160 ethnic groups living in the borders of Laos, it was vital to embrace these many diverse stories and to see them as strengths. When we do, we can see our world not only in terms of what has been, but what it can be.
Mali Kouanchao has often remarked in her artist statements “During the war for my homeland, over 400,000 Lao were killed, maimed and displaced as refugees, constantly forced on the move by the conflict. As I and my family rebuild in this country, I am obligated to remember, but how do I and others navigate that healing through the arts?” This is an enduring question of our collective legacy for those of us who understand how Minnesota is fully intertwined with our journey.
As refugees, we had to adapt quickly to new ideas. We had to re-establish a sense of stability and grow in the aftermath of displacement. That has been a key of the modern Lao experience- to move beyond pain and learn what we can in life from others. We learned to live with disruptive uncertainty but not be paralyzed by it.