For two Southeast Asian artists, art is a means of preserving a cultural or spiritual heritage.
In the fourth and final post in our series on Primo Marella Gallery’s “DEEP S.E.A.” exhibition, we delve into the works of Nithakhong Somsanith and La Huy and explore the different attempts at preservation that their works embody.
Other posts in this four-part series:
Part of an ongoing series of shows dedicated to Southeast Asian contemporary art by Primo Marella Gallery in Milan, “DEEP S.E.A.” featured work in different media by eleven artists from the region, including
- Aditya Novali (Indonesia)
- Ruben Pang and Donna Ong (Singapore)
- La Huy and Nguyễn Thái Tuấn (Vietnam)
- Isabel & Alfredo Aquilizan (Philippines)
- Aung Ko (Myanmar)
- Sopheap Pich and Khvay Samnang (Cambodia)
- Nithakhong Somsanith (Laos)
- Natee Utarit (Thailand)
An art form in decline
In Nithakhong Somsanith’s embroidered fabrics and gold threads link to the past splendour of his family.
A descendant of the last viceroy of Laos, Prince Tiao Nithakhong Somsanith is now one of the last practitioners of the ancient art of gold and silver-thread embroidery, a skill he learned during the time he spent as a child with his grandmother in Luang Prabang, the former royal capital of Laos.
Indeed, for Somsanith, the idea of safeguarding and reviving the tradition of embroidery is a way of remembering his family’s legacy and is deeply embedded in his identity as an expatriate. Born in 1959 in Luang Prabang, Somsanith became a doctor in a rural area in the south of Laos when the Pathet Lao came to power in 1975. By 1985, the conditions in Laos had deteriorated so much that he sought political asylum in France. Somsanith found in his artistic heritage a powerful outlet for the pain caused by uprooting, says curator Catherine Choron-Baix in the exhibition catalogue.
Sewing as spiritual, cathartic practice
An important element of Laotian cultural heritage, embroidery is not only a decorative element, but also a coded language passed on through generations, which was used to embed spiritual and political meanings in the elaborate costumes worn during ceremonies and Buddhist rituals. Most of the courtly artistic heritage was banished after the revolution in 1975, including embroidery, leading to the decline of the practice.
In his recent pieces, Somsanith asked the chief monk of Luang Prabang for holy texts that he could reproduce in embroidery, and was given a book called Pattimok, used in a ritual that takes place in Buddhist monasteries every two weeks during which time monks recite the 227 obligations they must follow and confess their shortcomings.
In a piece entitled Extrait du Pattimok, le règlement des moines bouddhistes Theravadni (2012), the rules of this monastic code are embroidered in gold on a purple silk banner. The tiny hieroglyphic-like characters of Pali, an ancient Buddhist liturgical language that has almost disappeared, are painstakingly stitched into the fabric with rigid gold thread, and speak of the artist’s cathartic attempt to pass on a culture that is fading away in the face of commercialisation in modern Laos.
For this reason, upon his return to Laos, Somsanith founded The House of Puang Champa, an organisation devoted to educating Lao youth in traditional crafts, and developed a collaborative artistic project with Vietnamese artist Dinh Q. Lê aimed at investing embroidery with contemporary relevance.
More on Nithakhong Somsanith
Prince Somsanith graduated from the National School of Medicine in Vientiane. He left Laos to move to Paris in 1985. He received his Master’s degree from the Institute of Visual Arts at L’Universite d’Orleans and his PhD in Psychology from L’Universite de Sorbonne, thereafter working and pursuing a career in mental health counselling in Orleans until the summer of 2003. He now lives between Laos and France and predominantly devotes his time to his art.
Sculptures born in wax
A similar wish to protect past culture and forms of spirituality takes shape in the ethereal wax sculptures of Saigon-based artist La Huy.
Wax has a personal significance for the Vietnamese artist. Born into a Catholic family in 1982, as a child La Huy used to mould the remnants of funeral mass candles into various animal shapes. Today, he uses layers of the substance to coat lyrical musical stanzas, written Buddhist texts and items of clothing, thereby transforming them into sculptures. As explained in the catalogue for the exhibition,
La Huy recalls the first book he immersed in wax, a handmade Buddhist bible he found in an old bookstore, whose fonts mimicked those of a typewriter. It reminded him of when he lived with Buddhist monks as a boy in the 1990s, at a time when bibles were banned by the government.
Glowing through layers of wax, La Huy’s coated sacred pages become transparent with oil and exude a faint scent. Besides their religious, symbolic charge, wax has deeper historical resonances in La Huy’s art practice. In an email interview with Art Radar, curator Zoe Butt, who was commissioned by Primo Marella Gallery as a “Contributor” on the exhibition project, said,
La Huy does not specify his desire to preserve the past and its culture along any lines of particular geography, though the memories of sacred Buddhist texts he does recall from his own childhood in Vietnam. In my opinion, this artist’s use and symbolic reference to the past is triggered by his own urban landscape and the rapid changes taking place on a social level that could be said to mirror similar contexts across Southeast Asia that equally continues to suffer the residual effects of foreign occupation and cultural/political government restriction.
Other posts in this four-part series:
More on La Huy
La Huy was born in 1979 in Bien Hoa, Vietnam. In 2004, he graduated from Ho Chi Minh City University of the Arts. He held solo shows at Himiko Visual Café and Ho Chi Minh City Association of Fine Arts in 2008 and 2009. In 2011, he took part in the collective exhibition entitled “Drifting into Nothingness“ and a solo show, “Remains“, both held at Himiko Visual Café in Ho Chi Minh.
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