Nov 12 2012
Whereas most Western art is presently an avenue for transgressing social customs, art forms in Laos are practiced in order to maintain them. As travellers may notice, passing the paintings sold on the street, certain themes in Buddhist art are repeated by almost every artist; these are the images of classical Lao paintings that students spend years studying and replicating at art school. Traditions within Lao theatre are similarly cherished, and actors learn the scenes and archetypes of the epic “Ramayana” as it has been performed for centuries too. The traditional Lao dance, the lam vong, is a well-established pillar of Lao tradition and taught at every school.
While these traditions are replicated, at the same time Lao culture is evolving at an unprecedented rate and the newer generations are enthusiastically embracing Thai TV and Korean boy bands. Popular culture from abroad is part of the face of modern Lao, while traditional Lao art forms still maintain a central function in ceremonies and traditions. A tenuous bridge connects the two.
There is something in the air though– a new sub-culture with a uniquely Lao face is budding and peeping out in various places. One of the venues to witness this is the Lao French Institute, or L’Institut Francais du Laos. The institute was established in 1993 and was initially focused on promoting the French language. The centre has since become a hub for cultural exchange, with its primary focus on France and Laos but other cultures represented as well. The centre features a French media centre, a theatre that’s also used as a cinema, and a cafe. The cafe serves mid-range Lao and French food, drinks and tasty French desserts. It also serves delicious artisan ice cream ‘Parad-Ice’ made in Vientiane from seasonal Lao ingredients like passionfruit, pomelo and cashew. At 6,000 kip for a little scoop it’s a bit pricey, but it’s worth trying a flavour or two.
The centre is an airy and lushly gardened compound that lends itself well to outdoor performances and exhibitions. It’s grassy courtyard and outside corridors frequently feature collections of Lao-centered art or photography. Most weeks, French films are shown with English subtitles, providing a nice taste of familiarity for travelling film-lovers missing the cinema. The centre occasionally organises festivals with local and international musicians, artists and food, which are a far stretch from Lao traditions, but a great deal of fun.
The institute hosts a number of projects with local organisations promoting contemporary Lao art and performance, often through international collaborations. This brings a new flavour to the Lao art forms that, while steeped in Lao traditions, are skillfully fused with poignant themes of identity and modern Laos.
One such event is their annual dance festival, Fang Mae Khong, which features performances in both Vientiane and Luang Prabang, at 20,000 kip per show. At one performance in 2012, four different pieces were featured, showcasing choreography and collaborations with Lao, French and African dancers. In one piece, a local Lao group had combined the grace and fluidity of traditional Lao dance with awesome break-dance moves and expressive modern choreography. Each dancer emanated a style deeply rooted in Lao culture, yet uniquely individual, all the while possessing the cool confidence of someone being completely true to themselves.
In the West, we’ve excelled beyond the structures of traditional culture for decades and these displays of personal expression are an inherent part of our society. Yet in Laos, this phenomenon is a seedling just starting to sprout and witnessing its growth with an outsider’s eye can be a fascinating experience. If you’re visiting Vientiane for a few days, hopefully your visit will coordinate with an interesting event or exhibition at the French Institute.
Lao-French Institute (L’Institut Francais du Laos)
Lang Xane Avenue (diagonally opposite Lao-Viet Bank, halfway between Patu Xay and the Royal Palace)
T: (021) 215 764
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