Sisavanh Phouthavong is one of the first professional Lao American visual artists of her generation and a professor at MTSU. Characterized by bold colors and dynamic lines, her work in our show Legacies of War pays tribute to her Laotian roots.
Her current pieces are inspired by Legacies of War, an organization that endeavors to raise awareness about the Vietnam War-era bombings and advocates for the clearance of unexploded bombs in Laos. For Phouthavong, art has always been about exploring and understanding identity. Over 5,400 Lao refugees resettled in Kansas in the aftermath of the Laotian Civil War that ended in 1975. Phouthavong was a child when her family resettled in the U.S., and her current work not only addresses the cultural and socioeconomic challenges of being a refugee but also the feelings of displacement, confusion, and struggle to understand identity.
Phouthavong’s feelings of chaos are paralleled in both her process and final image. Her works start with an image of the Vietnam War and destruction using india ink and alcohol to achieve visual texture and effects. The images are often manipulated and photoshopped together and are then used as a reference but changes as she works. Phouthavong starts with spray paint and then goes into it with acrylic and adapts as she goes. Her process parallels her experiences as a refugee because she connects with photographic images to break them apart and reconstruct them, just as memories are fragmented and experiences are fleeting. Furthermore, the unpredictable painting process demands adaptability from the artist, reflecting assimilation into another culture. Thus, Phouthavong’s pieces both convey her experiences throughout the process and reflect her feelings of those personal memories through strong contrasting colors, dynamic lines, and disorienting composition.
It is important for Phouthavong as an artist to advocate for a cause and to open up a dialogue. “It is important for me to contribute as an artist, but more importantly to have a conversation about what is going on in the word – to not be ignorant, but open to all ideas.” Moreover, what Phouthavong loves most is when she is lost for hours just creating and being in the moment just making. She says, “I don’t ever want to completely figure it out technically or conceptually. The beauty of making is the seeking. I enjoy the challenge.”