AAP staff report
MINNEAPOLIS — The office of Governor Dayton presented Lao Minnesotan artists this August with a certificate recognizing their contributions to the community. This is the first time such a recognition has been formally given by the state.
Earlier this year, a grassroots coalition of Lao Minnesotan artists, activists and community builders and their allies across the country had expressed hope that such a month would be established that would inspire and energize Lao Minnesotans to continue creating and to remember their deep artistic and cultural heritage, and the infinite potential of the arts. They presented their request to the governor. Soon they received their answer.
The certificate was presented to “the Lao Minnesotan artists in recognition of their international, national, and local contributions to communities. As the third largest Lao populated state, Minnesota recognizes the significance of the dedication and performance of these artists. Therefore, with the appreciation and respect of the people of Minnesota, this certificate is presented to Lao Minnesotan Artists. Celebrated: August, 2012.”
The majority of Lao Minnesotans began arriving after 1975 with the end of the war for Laos. Today, over 12,000 Lao reside in Minnesota, including over 50 artists in a wide range of disciplines from traditional and contemporary music, to textile arts, literature, theater, painting, and illustration. After a number of conversations with many of the artists and their families, a simple letter was sent to the governor, asking him to recognize August as Lao Minnesotan Artist Heritage Month. Plans were in place to celebrate this occasion whether the Governor gave formal recognition or not, but the organizers were very grateful to see their request had been approved.
August was selected because of its historic significance to Lao Minnesotan artists as the anniversary of several key events such as the National Lao American Writers Summit, the Lao Artists Festival, and several of the artists’ birthdays, weddings, and other special occasions that hold meaning to them.
“To keep things in perspective, August is also “Panini Month” and “What Will Be Your Legacy Month,” but we wanted to take the time to recognize and appreciate the contributions Lao Minnesotan artists have made globally,” said Bryan Thao Worra, an award-winning Lao Minnesotan writer whose first book, On The Other Side Of The Eye is celebrating its 5th year since publication this month. “We also wanted our youth to emerge inspired and to look forward to the opportunities ahead of them.”
In 2010, Lao youth received an award from the University of Minnesota Human Rights Center for their work addressing racism through the arts. Many continue to perform and express themselves at Minnesota events such as Dragon Festival, the August Moon Festival, Lao New Years, or the Pan-Asian Dance Festival. The Lao Assistance Center of Minnesota recently received a grant to support apprentice traditional storytellers to work with a master storyteller to preserve their heritage.
In the letter, the organizers wrote “The Lao arts embody over 700 years of intergenerational dialogues on peace, harmony, the pursuit of wisdom, diversity and the rejection of violence. At their best, Lao arts encourage unique voices and approaches to living as a people. With over 160 ethnic groups living within the borders of Laos, it is important to see and hear these many diverse stories to remember not just what has been, but what can be.”
As a state, Minnesota hosted key events such as the National Lao American Writers Summit, Legacies of War: Refugee Nation Twin Cities, Lao’d and Clear, a SatJaDham Literary Conference and many others. Lao Minnesotan artists have been recognized by the State Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans for their arts leadership and lifetime achievements, and many other accolades across the country. Minnesota is also home to several popular Lao American blogs including Little Laos On The Prairie.
Among acclaimed Lao Minnesotan artists have been figures such as Bounxou Chanthraphone, who is the first NEA Heritage Fellow from Laos, celebrated for her preservation and advancement of Lao traditional weaving, and who also holds an Enduring Vision Fellowship from the Bush Foundation. Her daughter, Laddavanh Insixiengmay is following in her footsteps as an accomplished weaver and dancer.
Minnesota is also home to painter and entrepreneur Mali Kouanchao, a Bush Artist Fellow whose work has appeared across the country to address social justice issues, including unexploded ordnance in Laos. The award-winning Dr. Adisack Nhouyvanisvong was one of the founders of the SatJaDham Lao Literary Project in the early 1990s that sought to create a space and place for Lao voices in diaspora.
Lao Minnesotan writer Saymoukda Vongsay was the inaugural recipient of the Alfred C. Carey Prize in Spoken Word and has performed in Italy, Japan and across the US. This August she celebrated Lao Minnesotan Artist Heritage Month with performances at the Soap Factory as well as National Night Out. Her first chapbook, ‘No Regrets’ was the inspiration for a poem currently on display in London during the Cultural Olympiad.
“Hopefully, this recognition will continue to inspire and energize others to add their voices to the great American tapestry,” said Vongsay. “This was an important moment of civic engagement, and I’m looking forward to what happens next!”