Between Two Worlds: Through the Eyes of the Lao Artist is a special installation on view now through Sunday, July 14 at the Johnson Museum. It was organized in cooperation with the Center for Lao Studies and coincided with the Sixth International Conference on Lao Studies at Cornell (June 13–15, 2019), which included talks by the artists.

By focusing on the traditional Lao art practice of Nithakhong Somsanith and the contemporary paintings of Chantala Kommanivanh, the display aims to show how traditional arts are being upheld in Laos while the Laotian-American experience is informing the art of a painter from Chicago.

A descendant of the last viceroy of Laos, Prince Tiao Nithakhong Somsanith (born 1959) practices an ancient tradition of gold- and silver-thread embroidery associated with the Laotian royal court. He learned the technique from his grandmother, whose work is also on display, along with that of his mother. Forced to flee Laos in 1975 after the government takeover by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP), Somsanith sought political asylum in France. At that time the LPRP banned many court-related art forms, including gold- and silver-thread embroidery.

Eventually Somsanith returned to Laos and founded a school for traditional arts in Luang Prabang, which aims to preserve Laotian cultural heritage, especially that associated with silk production, Buddhism, music, and dance.

A Laotian story quilt from the Museum’s collection and additional textiles by Malaysian-Australian artist David Cheah (born 1960) are also on view as part of the installation in the fifth-floor gallery for Southeast Asian art.

Chantala Kommanivanh (born 1982 in Thailand) is an artist, professor, and rap musician. His artwork has areas of overlap in meaning and content with the music he has produced as a cofounder of the rap duo Maintenance Crew, and he is interested in creating new memories by “sampling” from past events. Through painting, his works are a reinterpretation of memories documenting his personal history.

Raised with traditional Lao customs at home in Chicago but active in hip-hop culture, Kommanivanh’s work investigates cultural hybridity and tensions of identity, as he and his family were refugees from the unfortunate outcomes of the 1964–75 Secret War in Laos. His collection of paintings derives from personal and found photographs representing pivotal times in his life. His visual works have been displayed in five major solo exhibitions in the Chicago area and at midwestern art galleries, and have been included in numerous group and invitational exhibitions across the United States. He teaches art at Northeastern Illinois University.

Recent works by Kommanivanh are on view in the the Younghee M. Kim and Jarett F. Wait Gallery, also on the Museum’s fifth floor.