Modern art is emerging from the most bombed country on earth


An young artist from Laos is showcasing his work in Australia - something, he says, wouldn't have been possible for the generation before him.

More than 40 years since Laos gained independence after a long and bloody war, the south-east Asian nation is finally opening itself up to the world.

One of the ways it is doing so is through art.

New media artist Souliya Phoumivong is regarded as an innovator in the country, due to the stride he has taken in claymation and stop-motion animation.

Laos artist hopes to inspire youth and motivate next generation
Artist Souliya Phoumivong, captured leading a claymation workshop at Queensland's Gallery of Modern Art, says the Laos art scene is slowly starting to thrive.
SBS News/Omar Dabbagh

In 2013 he was invited by UNICEF to create the first ever animated children’s show in Laos, and is set to create a new program for his nation with financial support from the Australian government.

He is one three artists from Laos showcasing their work at the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, as part of the APT9 exhibition.

Lessons of individuality

A strong advocate for independent thought, Phoumivong told SBS News that his art includes important life lessons for both young and old.

“It’s good for their future, for thinking another way,” he said.

“Everyone, especially for the kids, they have the strong power for the thinking. So they can show want they want. So I just want them to express what they want to say or they want to do,” he said.

“Around the world, the people they just follow each other. They follow the train, they follow everything that they think society think is good. But in fact, they even don’t know anything about that - they just follow … it’s not from their mind.”

An image from Souliya Phoumivong's stop-motion film 'Flow', which is on display at Queensland's Gallery of Modern Art. (Supplied)
Souliya Phoumivong

The APT9 exhibition is displaying pieces from 200 artists across the Asia Pacific.

“It’s really important that artists from countries like Laos, Myanmar and other places where there is a really thriving contemporary art scene are able to have their work shared and seen by other people,” said exhibition curator Zara Stanhope. 

“To have artists voices coming through their work, and telling us their stories about their place. They might be joyful stories, they might be political, they might be talking about bringing history into the present moment. But they give us insights in ways that we can’t get through other media as well.

Phoumivong describes the exhibition as an incredible achievement for Laos, which has remained isolated from the outside world for decades after it gained independence in 1975.

Boys Mathias and Ethan with their claymation figurines, after completing a workshop with Souliya. (SBS News/Omar Dabbagh)
SBS News/Omar Dabbagh

And while the country's modern art gains some international attention, it remains niche locally.

“It’s quite hard [to break into modern art],” Phoumivong said.

"I mean, if talking about the traditional art, or cultural art, it’s okay there. But talking about contemporary art, you don’t have the chance to appear.”

Most bombed country in history

During the civil war which began in 1959, Laos was bombed more than two million times by the United States - making it the most bombed country per capita in history.

Philanthropist Gary Stafford, whose fund, The Spellbrook Foundation, supports charities in Laos, said the bloody impact of the war was felt for generations - including in the art scene.

“During the post-war years, during the first years after independence, there was a very slow scene in relation to the art scene. So we saw that basically there was a missing generation of artists,” he explained.

“Souliya is one of only a handful of artists which have exhibited internationally, and unfortunately there aren’t many artists coming up behind that handful of artists. So really I’m quite keen to see if we can’t encourage students to follow in his footsteps.”

“This is our mission, to show the world that we are Lao, we are not part of other countries,” Souliya added.

"We are the country ourself. And we have our own culture, our own art, and our own way of thinking."

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