Bounpaul Phothyzan: Unearthing Lao History Through Art

Contemporary Lao artist addresses social issues with outstanding works.

In a lesser known art scene of Laos, Bounpaul Phothyzan stands out as a leading Lao artist whose works have been shown domestically and abroad. In recent years, his sculptural and photographic works have been selected as parts of the 9th Asia Pacific Triennale in Brisbane, Australia, the Singapore Biennale, the Elevations Laos Symposium and Art Prize in Vientiane, Laos, and the “Post-Repost-Share” exhibition and the “Lao Art and Social History from the 1950s to  the Present” in Bangkok, Thailand. Diverging from a popular theme of traditionalism commonly found in commercial and touristic artworks, Bounpaul’s artistic practice engages in serious issues such as capitalism, deforestation, and historical justice. 

In the work titled House of Dove (2018), for example, Bounpaul puts white birdhouses over cluster bomb shells from the American bombings during the 1960s and 70s. The piece was originally created as a site-specific installation in the garden of Bounpaul’s parents in Champassak; he obtained the cluster bomb shells from Attapeu province on the Lao-Cambodian border. While the installation was first conceived as personal––something related to his family and his home village––it simultaneously evoked a shared experience of wartime violence in Laos and Cambodia during the Second Indochina War. Referencing a universal symbolism of peace (the dove), the work is a critique of  the continuing impacts of the U.S. bombings in Laos today.

Compelling us not to forget a violent past, Bounpaul also reminds us of hope and resilience. In other photographic works like Ship (2015), Bounpaul documents the ordinary lives of Lao villagers who literally lived alongside the debris of war. They are shown carving a bomb fuel tank into a fishing boat, using it to grow edible plants, and sculpting it for decorative purposes. These villagers are not simply portrayed as “victims” but as those who struggle to make their land liveable. 

One of the most active artists in Laos, Bounpaul also runs the Eastern Art Gallery and Academy located in Vientiane and Savannakhet. At the Eastern Art, Bounpaul trains Lao children to draw and paint. Through his socially-engaged art and art education, Bounpaul continues to make art relevant to everyday life in Laos. 

Images: Courtesy of the artist

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