Mali Kouanchao receives the CAPM Leadership Award in part for her multidisciplinary work in the visual arts and interactive design that has appeared as cover art for university books and everything from museum special collections to restaurants and community centers.
However, for nearly three decades, Kouanchao has also worked to bring the story of her people to the public eye, often with little thanks or recognition, ignored and discouraged when the Lao American voice is excluded from the discussion. She perseveres to continue an exploration on the relationship between art, transformation, and communal healing.
Described as a rare “artist’s artist” be supporters who say she clearly loves the pursuit of art, knowledge and the advance of culture, Kouanchao is known as an uncompromising artist who displays intensity, depth and risk – and as much for her exceptional generosity to artists of all cultures.
As a refugee from Laos, Kouanchao’s art reflects a vibrant life within the context of disruptive uncertainty. Since a young girl she has known her aesthetic is informed by her life in a community of constant change, said Bryan Thao Worra. Her art reflects the rise and fall of fortunes, transforming culture and the struggle to maintain traditions.
“She is part of the first generation of Lao artists whose practice of art is deeply individual and personal expression is possible and encouraged,” said Thao Worra. “Her work often explores what it truly means to have an identity. She prefers documenting the truth of everyday people, and those whose stories are untold.”
Kouanchao’s 1995 mural, “The Faces of Our Future Reflect Our Past” mural, a 1995 Neighborhood Safe Art Project is one of many well-known public works in Minneapolis that she helped create.
She also serves on the steering committee for Legacies of War, a national project established to raise awareness of the Secret War in Laos, as well as to advocate for further U.S. support toward the removal of cluster bombs and increased aid for bomb survivors. Her “Peace Dove” work on the traveling exhibits, specifically the UXO displays highlight the history of the US and Laos, and the unexploded bombs that continue to kill to this day.
Kouanchao represents a turning point in Lao art, with expatriate artists that are in position with a new perspective on the old world, but also a changing perspective with understanding a new experience. It is pain and memory mixed with hope and all with a critical eye from the perspective of two or more cultures.
That Kouanchao is relatively unknown outside of her circles makes this award especially important for the Lao community. She creates cross-cultural bridges that allow truly meaningful exchanges and perspectives which expand the visual and expressive vocabulary of the community.
This work has made Kouanchao the subject of the forthcoming children’s book, Mali Under the Night Sky by artist and author Youme Landowne.
Ketmani Kouanchao, her older sister who now works for the Mt. San Jacinto Community College District in California, said Mali traveled to South America and Cuba to participate in mural projects for orphanages. She said this passion and commitment sheds light on her activism and social consciousness.
“Other artists sought out Mali for her direction and for her leadership,” she added.Youme Landowne, a Chicago area author, supported the award by saying Kouanchao has an local, and international impact on the art and social justice. She was inspired by her life and wrote and illustrated a children’s picture book “Mali Under the Night Sky”, that was published in March, 2010 from Cinco Puntos Press.
The two met in Santiago de Cuba, a city that invites international artists to participate in mural design and production addressing social themes.
“Mali and I were both the children of war,” said Landowne. “What we experienced became the energy that drew us together as friends.
“We are not only bound by the atrocities of our war experience, but also because living in exile as landless people inspired us to be the kind of artists we are today,” she added. “We transform our life experience, our cultural heritage, to create awareness and a tool for better understanding our histories.”