OLE VIRAVONG-SCOVILL, Future Memories 1, 2015, acrylic, ink and watercolor on paper, 58.4 × 43.2 cm. Courtesy the artist.


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One of the few remaining one-party communist states, Laos lags behind its regional neighbors in infrastructure. Its largely rural population lacks access to basic services. The government’s economic-development plans include constructing a series of Mekong River dams to produce electricity—mostly for export to Thailand—although communities living downstream in neighboring Cambodia and Vietnam have raised environmental concerns. 

The government controls the media and legislation bans online criticism of its policies. The majority of cultural funding is devoted to the preservation of the nation’s Buddhist heritage, but support for living artists is increasing. The Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism’s five-year development plan promotes traditional culture and new artistic trends. 

The National Institute of Fine Arts (NIFA), previously the Faculty of Fine Arts, runs art schools in Luang Prabang, Savannakhet and Vientiane, the capital. In 2015, the institute opened a new, modern art school in Vientiane equipped to support growth of the creative industries. In the capital, NIFA also houses the Lao Fine Artists’ Association (LFAA), run by the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism, and LFAA’s two exhibition halls.

Institut Français, which promotes cultural exchanges in the visual and performing arts, hosted “Partitions Animales” (6/10–26), a show of graphic, color lacquer on wood paintings celebrating Laos’s wildlife, created by resident French artist Marie-Do Hyman-Boneu.

M Gallery, the main commercial gallery in Vientiane, promotes local contemporary artists and occasionally hosts exhibitions.

At the artist-run Mask Gallery, also known as the Ban Naxay Culture House, “The Colors of Laos” (2/12–3/12) featured watercolor scenes of everyday life by Thai artist Somboon Phoungdorkmai and her husband, French photographer Andre Lurde. A one-night exhibition on June 10 marked the end of the Laos Arts Incubator, a socially inclusive multimedia and mural arts project facilitated by the US-sponsored arts program American Arts Incubator. The event included a performance by theater group Khao Niew Lao, using puppets made from recycled plastic, and an extensive wall mural addressing environmental issues. T’shop Lai and Treasures of Asia sell traditional crafts and occasionally hold contemporary shows. 

Also in the capital, artist-run I:cat Gallery organized “Return: Back to the Roots” (3/13–25) showcasing new works on canvas and paper by six local artists, including Mick Saylom and Ole Viravong-Scovill, coinciding with the Vientianale International Film Festival (3/12–15). Artists explored their personal interpretations of “return” inspired by the Hmong philosophical concern for the individual’s spiritual journey home. A joint installation exhibition by Japanese artist Yuki Tachi and German-based Kimino Hanya (3/31–4/6) comprised wall- and floor-based works made from wood and paper inspired by Lao weaving.

In France, painter Marisa Darasavath, known for her images of women and traditional Laotian life, participated in “Open Sea” (4/17–7/12), a survey show of 31 artists from 11 Southeast Asian countries at the Musée d’Art Contemporain in Lyon. In the United Kingdom, Laotian-British artist Vong Phaophanit and collaborator Claire Oboussier showcased their new installations using film and sculpture to explore the human body and surgery as metaphors for landscape, conflict and memory in Laos, in “It Is As If” (5/2–6/26) at artist-run space Block 336 in South London. 

In downtown Toronto in February, Phaophanit and Oboussier installed the public artwork, Dream House. The massive sculpture consists of a brilliant yellow house form perched atop a tall stilt-like foundation, alluding to universal notions of home and belonging. In the United States, “Laos in the House: Voices from Four Decades of the Lao Diaspora” (3/6–5/1) at the Asian Arts Initiative in Philadelphia included an exhibition of contemporary Lao-American art, such as street-art-inspired mixed-media works by Chantala Kommanivanh.