This October marked a quiet milestone for the Lao community in Minnesota, the 10th anniversary since the historic Legacies of War Refugee Nation Twin Cities exhibit in Minneapolis. The exhibition brought together teachers, artists, community builders, and families to understand Lao refugees’ experience, the poorly-understood Secret War in Laos, and the war’s long-term consequences.
This exhibit was a remarkable collaboration between the Lao community, Lao Assistance Center of Minnesota, local Lao artists, the Lao Student Association of Minnesota, Intermedia Arts, Pangea World Theater, TeAda Productions, and the advocacy organization Legacies of War. Many of the Lao community’s projects and successes over the last decade can be traced to lessons learned from this exhibit.
In the 20th century, Laos had more bombs dropped on it than any nation during World War 2. More than two million tons of unexploded ordnance were dropped on Laos from 1964-1973 in violation of the Geneva Accords. An estimated 30% of the ordnances did not explode on impact, thus contaminating over 30% of Laos’s entirety with deadly bombs, some as small as a tennis ball. To the surprise of many, even as Minnesota is home to many success stories for refugees with roots in Laos, this is also the state that manufactured many of the cluster bombs and munitions dropped during the war.
The Lao Government and United Nations Development Program (UNDP) report that UXO contaminates 41 out of the 46 poorest districts in Laos, impeding national development plans long after the conflict. Many of the victims of UXO are under 12 years old. Films like Bombies, Bomb Harvest, Origin Story: The Documentary, and the recent This Little Land of Mines have highlighted this issue, as have the poems and short stories of writers such as Outhine Bounyavong, Souvankham Thammavongsa, Catzie Vilayphonh, and Krysada Panusith Phounsiri.
August 2010 stands out for many as the year that the United Nations Convention on Cluster Munitions went into force, which included an international agreement to never under any circumstances use cluster munitions and to agree to prohibit the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, retention, or transfer of cluster munitions. The United States still has not signed on to this agreement.
Throughout October 2010, the Legacies of War Refugee Nation exhibit sought to raise awareness of these issues and encourage others to advocate for funds to support these weapons’ clearance. The majority of the exhibition was held at the famed Intermedia Arts space near Lake Street in Minneapolis.
Intermedia Arts had long had a reputation as a mainstay example of community arts in Minnesota. In its time, it billed itself as “Minnesota’s premier multidisciplinary, multicultural arts organization,” before shutting its doors in 2017 with a final sale of the building in 2018. During its time, Intermedia Arts sought to build “understanding among people by catalyzing and inspiring artists to make changes in their lives and communities.” Among their roles they saw for themselves was providing creative people of all ages with “the opportunities, tools, and support to come together across disciplines, sectors, and boundaries to connect, create, share, collaborate, innovate, and think big.”
The Legacies of War Refugee Nation Twin Cities project took place during the leadership of Intermedia Arts’ executive director Theresa Sweetland, who would later become the executive director of Forecast Public Arts in 2017. At Forecast Public Art, they focus on the idea of a future where all people feel a sense of belonging, realize their potential, and live healthy lives by embracing culture and creativity as drivers of equitable change. They hope to advance justice, health, and human dignity. Public art is an approach where function and meaning are created for the general public through a public process.
As with most Lao American art exhibits in Minnesota over the decades, there was considerable doubt there would be much interest in an exhibition, theater performances, workshops, film screenings, and community conversations centered on the Lao experience. The local media was initially reluctant to cover it. Still, by the time Legacies of War Refugee Nation Twin Cities was over, over 1,000 visitors attended, including guests from Australia, Sweden, France, and Canada. Almost every performance of the play was completely sold out.
Pangea World Theater was a key partner during this time, leveraging many of their resources to make this exhibit possible. Over the years, Pangea World Theater has sought to illuminate the human condition, celebrate cultural differences, and promote human rights. 2020 marks their 25th anniversary of creating and presenting international, multi-disciplinary theater.
Among their recent productions was another collaboration with TeAda Productions, this time looking at the journey of Micronesians at Mixed Blood Theater. Actors and artists Ova Saopeng and Leilani Chan returned to Minneapolis to present Masters of the Currents, a story that followed three Micronesian youth on their journey of identity growing up in Hawai’i, and the conflicts they must overcome to be accepted by their peers while still holding on to the history and rich cultural traditions of their ancestral islands of Micronesia. At the heart of the conversation was a question of “How do we uphold culture? How much do we have to give up to assimilate?” Pangea World Theater has also recently presented the Lake Street Story Circles and many other projects to engage social justice.
For Ova Saopeng and Leilani Chan, the Legacies of War Refugee Nation Twin Cities exhibit left a lasting impact on their creative efforts over the last decade. It also provided the needed vindication of their work to mount a production in their home city of Los Angeles after five years of touring. They presented the play as a co-production with the Latino Theater Company. The play looked at generations of Laotian refugees struggling to deal with their home country’s past troubles and life’s reality in their adopted land, with Armando Molina directing it. The year 2021 will be the 25th anniversary of TeAda Productions.
This exhibit was also notable for the support of the Lao Student Association at the University of Minnesota. The tradition continues, and many of those involved in this project have gone on to work on community projects across the state.
The exhibit had been a significant undertaking for the community, which had just recently hosted the groundbreaking national Lao American Writers Summit at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis two months earlier in August 2010. There had been considerable excitement because Oscar-nominated Lao American filmmaker Thavisouk Phrasavath had just won an Emmy for the documentary based on his life, The Betrayal. But could this exhibit succeed?
In May 2010, the Lao Assistance Center of Minnesota received news that it had received $5,000 in funds from the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council to make the Legacies of War Refugee Nation Twin Cities exhibit possible. It was a relief for many who were uncertain where else funds could come from without that initial support. Soon others donated as individuals and institutions and provided in-kind support by the time October arrived. The funding from the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council was made possible by the voters of Minnesota thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.
Founded in 1983, the Lao Assistance Center of Minnesota is one of the few remaining organizations in the country serving Lao refugees. The exhibit was an ambitious undertaking for this organization, with less than ten staff and few experienced in arts programming beyond traditional dance and music instruction. Since this project, the arts have become a much more significant part of their efforts, including a 2019 Joyce Award to present the Laomagination 45 exhibit reflecting on forty-five years of the Lao diaspora in Minnesota, the Midwest, and across the globe.
At the time, the Lao Assistance Center was in the initial stages of training under a unique program organized by Asian Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy as part of a national gender equity campaign that wanted to help non-profit service organizations, including social justice and movement building into their practices. The Lao Assistance Center of Minnesota was one of only 6 Asian American organizations from Minnesota chosen to be a part of this program.
“When we proposed this program, we did not know if we would get very much support,” said Sunny Chanthanouvong, the executive director of the Lao Assistance Center of Minnesota. “There were many people who did not know our history or our experience, why we were here in America for 35 years. They said we should focus on other issues such as health and employment, education, fighting addiction, and housing. But we wanted to make sure people understand the importance of arts and civic engagement in our lives, too. I am very proud of this project and the community leaders who emerged from it. Many of our best artists learned a lot from participating in this exhibit.”
After many years, the Lao Assistance Center of Minnesota recently left their offices in the Harrison Community Center, relocating to a new location at 1015 4th Ave North, Suite 202 in the Cora McCorvey YMCA in North Minneapolis, with five staff members presently focusing on women’s health, domestic abuse, housing, and problem gambling. They are actively working to assist get out the vote efforts and Census 2020 participation and provide accurate information and resources to address COVID-19 in a culturally appropriate context.
Minnesota is still one of the few states in the country to regularly present art exhibitions and performances that center on the Lao and Southeast Asian American perspectives. This fall, the Minnesota Museum of American Art has partnered with the SEAD Project to present a groundbreaking public art exhibit, “The 1.5 Generation: A Southeast Asian Diaspora Remix,” featuring the work of many acclaimed artists from across the country, including Aloun Phoulavan, Sisavanh Phouthavong Houghton, Xee Reiter, Chantala Kommanivanh, Kat Eng, Van Hai, Leyen Tran, and Christina Vang. The exhibit runs until January 3rd, 2020, and is recognized as one of the largest shows the community has presented in 45 years of the Southeast Asian Diaspora. For more information, you can visit: https://www.theseadproject.org/programs/storytelling/onepointfive/
Hopefully, there will be even more we can reflect on in the next ten years as we consider our legacies, what we remember, and what we dream of for the next generation.