Spotlight on the EWC Arts Program: Textile Exhibit Provides Insights into Lao-Tai Indigenous Culture

Patricia Cheesman, guest curator, giving a tour of the exhibit.

Master weaver Dalounny Phonsouny “Aire” Carroll demonstrating traditional Lao weaving techniques in the EWC gallery.

These photographs are from the Cosmic Creatures exhibit featuring Lao-Tai women wearing traditional textiles. -- Grandmother Lasa, 2004 (Patricia Cheesman).

Shaman, 1996 (Patricia Cheesman).

“The knowledge that Lao rural women have is immense and very ancient,” said Patricia Cheesman, guest curator of the current East-West Center gallery exhibit Cosmic Creatures:  Textiles from Northeast Lao Communities , in a Honolulu Advertiser interview. “This wisdom is from the earth, the longings of all people for a spiritual connection and a feeling of security and happiness.”

Elaborate textiles produced by Lao-Tai women from Laos’ mountainous northeast region bordering Vietnam are on exhibit in the East-West Center Gallery until October 12 (recently extended).  One of the exhibition’s pubic events featured master weaver from Vientiane Dalounny Phonsouny “Aire” Carroll demonstrating traditional weaving techniques on a loom that was shipped here from Laos. Aire prepared the warp and design shafts with natural dyed silk for the traditional animal patterns and wove designs similar to the cloths in the exhibition.  During the presentation, Cheesman spoke about the symbolism and stories of the cosmic creatures that are vital to the culture.

In the past a Lao-Tai woman wove all the textiles needed for her family and a good weaver was the pride of her community.  She processed plants into dyes and wove silk and cotton, which she grew and collected from the forest.  Today women continue to weave their traditional masterpieces for the tourist trade, many still using natural materials and dyes.

The exhibit features the dynamic weavings of the Xam Nuea people, who were shamanic and worshipped their ancestors in the form of cosmic creatures, together with the textiles of the neighboring Phuan people, who became Buddhist, but maintained may shamanic rituals.  Their cosmology is the common link between the different communities and sub-groups.  The cosmic creatures that adorn the textiles of all the Lao-Tai groups have a very ancient history, weaving tales of migrations, earths and heavens, magic and community.

“The textiles themselves are a visual feast,” remarked EWC Gallery Curator Michael Schuster. “But more than that they provide a window into the weavers’ unique cosmological outlook.”

For more information, click here to view a pdf file of the exhibit handout.

Click here to view a virtual gallery featuring select pieces from the exhibit.