Savanhdary Vongpoothorn

There is a revolutionary mood in Savanhdary Vongpoothorn’s new paintings. This Lao-Australian artist returned to the Mekong River to learn from its histories and sacred beliefs. With her growing knowledge and experience of the Mekong, she is exploring the effect on the people and culture of profound ecological change. Artist Profile spoke to Savanhdary in her Canberra studio about her new series of Mekong-inspired paintings.

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Savanhdary, can you reflect on your migration to Australia?
I was eight years old when my mother one morning got up at dawn, packed all the children, left the dog, and took us down to the Mekong River and locked us in a dark room. All day long we weren’t allowed to make any sound or go outside. When it was night time, what the current Australian government would call “people smugglers” took us onto a little boat and crossed us over to the other side of the Mekong River. It was a big risk that my mother took. She did that because my father was going to be taken to a re-education camp which was notorious, as people opposed to the Communist party never returned from it. He was smuggled out first to Thailand, and we then had to do the same.

Why Australia?
We stayed for nine months in a Thai refugee camp. My mother had a brother in France and a sister in Australia, my father’s relatives are in America. My aunt from Australia sponsored us over first and that’s how we ended up here.

What does it mean for your mother and father to be in Australia?
Australia for them is home, the grandchildren are born here, compared to Laos they know Australia is a lucky country. They are very much involved in the Lao Buddhist community. We don’t see ourselves as refugees any more, that is in the past, and we have been here for such a long time. I see myself as a Lao-Australian. The way I relate to the country of my birth is through my parents, similarly the way my parents relate to Australia is through their children and grandchildren.

Your time at the Nepean College of the Arts, University of Western Sydney, was a crucial period?
Luckily for me, I failed everything at school except for English and Art. My mother wanted me to do nursing because that was what she had wanted to do. I had no choice, I wanted to go to art school, so I went to Nepean for an interview. Although my Higher School Certificate was low, they accepted me on the basis of my portfolio. At Nepean my teachers encouraged me to essentially “play”. Noelene Lucas inspired me to look at my cultural heritage. I began to look at my culture in a different way, reflecting on my traditional textile heritage.

Your new work, ‘Ramayana on the Mekong’ is devoid of the Australian landscape: it appears to have completely shifted to the landscape of Laos.
During art school I was trying to find my voice, my identity. My family and I, we were still settling in as migrants, as refugees. It was around this time that I began to make many visits to Wedderburn, in western Sydney and later as I lived and worked there for eight years my exposure to the bushland environment as well as the artists who were living and working there was very inspiring.

In a symbolic way, living in Wedderburn was my way of planting my feet in the Australian soil – this is home, I am trying to fit in, trying to make sense of where I am. For several years my work was a synthesis of the Australian landscape and Lao traditional textiles.

The shifting point started when I became a mother. My children are Australian, I feel more at home here now than I ever did before. Feeling at home in Australia is an anchor, it allows me the freedom to go back to the place of my birth in my mother’s village in Champassak and research for my current work. I guess the reason why the Australian landscape is not present in my current work is because I am home.

There’s a new connection, a more social-political commitment to communities along the Mekong, as if you’re gathering the memories of other people’s experiences into the new work?
Yes, perhaps. This feeling of connection with Vietnam, in particular, happened over a long period of time. My husband Ashley and I are committed to spending at least three months a year there. The first time I went to Vietnam, 17 years ago for Ashley’s work, I intensely disliked the country and the people. That view was the political baggage I have carried with me. For the majority of Lao people see not only the Vietnamese but also the Thais as invaders. The lack of Vietnamese language also created a barrier and Ashley was always the translator.

Only recently we discovered Hoi An, a town we both love. The people there are beautiful and we have good friends. I am learning the language and my two children go to school. Now Vietnam has become a second home. With this new openness to Vietnamese culture, I am enriched and inspired by the crafts of their artisans. These new experiences have fed into my work.

Is the Rama Jataka the Lao version of the Ramayana?
Yes, it is the Lao retelling of the Hindu epic, the Ramayana. There are many versions of the Ramayana in India, depending on the region you are from. I am referring to the Lao retelling of the Valmiki version. Ramanujan, the Indian poet, emphasises that the Ramayana is a “telling” and not a “retelling”. A “retelling” refers to an original text, but there is no one original text of the Ramayana. There are many “tellings” by many different cultures, including Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia. For example, the Valmiki version occupies only a small portion of the Rama Jataka, while the rest dwells more on Lao Buddhist customs, birth and marriage rites, love poems and explaining the symbolic meaning of local flora and fauna.

In the ‘Rama was a Migrant’ series why have you chosen to weave Vietnamese paper?
In 2013 and 2014 I lived and worked in Hoi An, Vietnam for eight months. Over this time my most profound relationship was with locally renowned bamboo craftsman – the charismatic Uncle Muòi. He is a bona fide war hero who designed bamboo man-traps for the National Liberation Front during the American War. Nowadays he still works with bamboo, but in a much more peaceful and meditative mode, as if to banish the ghosts from the past. I spent many days with Uncle Muòi. learning the intricate woven patterns he uses to make platters, fish traps and other beautiful bamboo objects. I have taken these techniques and applied them when weaving strips of mulberry bark paper from northern Vietnam. The companion pieces ‘Rama was a Migrant (I)’ and ‘Rama was a Migrant (II)’ are made up of woven strips of mulberry bark paper.

Why in ‘Rama was a Migrant I’ and ‘Rama was a Migrant II’ have you refined your images and converted them into symbols?
The most exciting aspect while making these series when I discover corresponding references between the images of the mythical flying horse in the 14th-century sacred text, the Rama Jataka to an image of a Siho – a flying mythical horse depicted in contemporary Lao traditional textiles. The Siho in traditional weaving is always accompanied by a spirit figure riding the flying horse.

In ‘Rama was a Migrant (I)’ and ‘Rama was a Migrant (II)’, the painted image of Rama and Lakshmana sitting on their flying horse, Manikap appears repeatedly on the woven pieces of paper. This image depicts the journey of the two brothers along the axis of the Mekong River, from Vientiane in the north to Cambodia in the south, to rescue their sister Santa, who was kidnapped by their cousin Ravana. This eventful tale is from the epic Rama Jataka. I framed the spiritual figures and the mythical horses in the symbolic water of the Naga, which refers to the Laotian stretch of the Mekong River.

Why have you chosen an equilibrium composition for both ‘Rama was a Migrant’ works?
It is a mirroring device: In the Hindu tradition Lakshmana is often depicted as the protector of Rama. The title of the Rama Jataka is sometimes called Phra Lak Phra Lam. Lak is Lao for Lakshmana and Lam is Rama. Rama and Lakshmana are believed to be twins or the “solid mandala”, so Lakshmana is Rama’s subconscious in the Lao culture. Lakshmana comes first in the order of the Lao title of this epic poem, to protect the first born from the evil eye.

Are all the materials and techniques with ‘Rama was a Migrant’ works new?
Yes, it is a shift in my work. In 2014, through the Australian Council grant I took a 10-day intensive course with British-Indian artist Desmond Lazaro in Pondicherry, India. I was eager to learn the core techniques and geometric principles of the Rajasthani miniature painting. I was learning how to mix natural pigments with gum Arabic, as well as how to hold a fine paintbrush properly! I have used and extended these methods and materials in my current work. I first met Desmond at an artist’s retreat in Jaipur, India, via an invitation from Chaitanya Sambrani and an initiative of the Australia India Institute, University of Melbourne. At this retreat I was engaging with the curator Chaitanya, 10 of India’s leading contemporary artists, including Desmond Lazaro, Gulammohammed Sheikh and Manisha Parekh, and with 10 Australian artists also invited, including Lyndal Brown, Fiona Hall and Jon Cattapan. This engagement in Jaipur had a life-changing effect and sparked my research into the connection to Indian culture through Lao literature, the Rama Jataka.

The new works have a restorative, a healing quality to them …
The more knowledge you have the more healing power you have, and understanding of your past, your history, the people in your life. Their memories become your memories, personal histories and connection with other people. So I guess it’s an expansive gesture as well. When you say a healing quality … my way of saying is I am learning all the time. That process is healing.

The painting ‘Damming the Naga’ seems to be confronting the incomprehensible.
For the Lao people, the Mekong River is more than just a body of water: it is a life force and home to the Naga, the river dragon or serpent that protects the Naga Cities of Luang Prabang and Vientiane. Upstream damming of the Mekong has in recent years led to a decline in the fishing catch and lower water levels in the lower Mekong basin are affecting communities all along the Thai-Lao border.

Over the eight months in Hoi An in (2013 and 2014) I also went back to my mother’s village in Champassak, Laos, to primarily talk to family members of my mother’s generation about their recollection of the Rama Jataka, since they all grew up reading this literature on palm leaf manuscript, scribed by my great grandfather. I also spent a few days in the temple library looking for the Rama Jataka amongst thousands of palm leaf manuscripts, some of which are ancient. While in my mother’s village, it occurred to me that we are dealing with loss daily, from culture to nature, in particular the erosion of the road along the banks of the Mekong River and depopulation as young men move to Thailand. ‘Damming the Naga’ speaks of my concerns for the Mekong River, and its spiritual and mythical qualities. Through the colour of monks’ robes used in this painting I hope to evoke the spirit of the Mekong River, where sightings of the mythical Naga which is believed to dwell in its dark murky depth, still occur.

Why is there a pressing movement to the traditional in your new work?
No one else in my family has yet shown any interest in continuing with the past or acquiring knowledge about our past history. My mother and father are experienced and knowledgeable elders. Watching the way they live their lives, how devotional they are, I don’t want to lose that sense of devotion and faith. Also I am not a Lao person living in Laos, I am this other. When you are living outside your place of origin you tend to feel more intense about the need to have and to acquire knowledge about your place of origin. I don’t want my parents to die not knowing who is going to continue with our tradition; I will be the one to continue with our culture and religious tradition.

What about the painting’s direct reference to damming the Mekong?
More cause for alarm is The Mekong River Commission proposes to build 12 hydropower dams on the lower Mekong mainstream. This commission is comprised of four countries: Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Permission has already been given to Chinese, Russian, Thai, Malaysian and Australian companies to actively investigate these dam projects. China’s dam construction on the upper Mekong already is having unthinkable consequences including the depletion of migratory fish species and people’s livelihood, increased river pollution, low levels of fresh water and increased salinity. These dams are also changing the course of the Mekong, forcing relocation of communities, infrastructure and temples further inland.
Are the paintings also about your commitment to Laos?

Yes, I feel obligated as a Lao person to speak out about the ecological destruction of the Mekong mainstream and its tributaries from dam constructions. “Me” in Lao is mother, “Kong” is ruler, and the river is the mother ruler, mother protector. We forget, the location for the Naga Cities of Laos: Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Champassak were selected for the spiritual connection to the mythical Naga, the same mythical Naga revered in the sacred text of the Rama Jataka. This sacred text is read to this day by monks along the Mekong River during Buddhist lent.

It appears your new work needs much research.
Yes, there will be many more visits to the wonderful Menzies Library at the Australian National University as well as many more trips to Laos and in particular more trips to my mother’s village. I am more concerned than ever before to investigate the changes to the banks of the Mekong River over time, especially the riverbank 100 metres directly from my mother’s village temple library where ancient tomes of palm leaf manuscript are “preserved”.

Are you reversing the change?
I don’t know if you can reverse change, I don’t think you can, but you can slow down change. I don’t feel I have the power to change the world doing what I am doing, every experience is for my own personal knowledge. My only hope is that my work could inspire other people to make social and ecological change.

What are you planning after your exhibition with Martin Browne Contemporary (which has just concluded in late October)?
I am planning for my next exhibition at Niagara Galleries in Melbourne for October 2017. This planning includes a three-month residency in Shiga, Japan, where I will be giving a talk at Shiga University. I will also be learning calligraphy from a renowned Tanka poet, Tanaka Noriko, and together Noriko and I will take lessons with a calligraphy master in Osaka Castle. Noriko and I also hope to collaborate for my exhibition in Melbourne. Another project is to stitch palm leaves that I had brought back from my mother’s village together like pages, and I will use the needle my great grandfather had used, to write or to make a mark, and then staining them with ink as past scribes have done.

Savanhdary Vongpoothorn is represented by Martin Browne Contemporary, Sydney and Niagara Galleries, Melbourne