America has always been referred to as one large “melting pot” for people of all races, religions and ethnicities. But even for those immigrants living in the United States for the majority of their lives, the concept of cultural identity has always been a difficult subject to juggle, having to live between two distinct worlds.
Lao-American Chanida Phaengdara Potter, a 30-year-old Minneapolis resident, knows that feeling all too well, and she decided to open both minds and dialogue with the latest installation of her cultural gallery exhibit “Refuge of the InvisibLao: A Visual Essay,” being hosted at Brooklyn Center’s Brookdale Library April 3 to May 1.
“It’s an extension of the Lao Diaspora Project, which was a storytelling and visual essay project where I was collecting stories across the U.S. and in Laos,” said Potter. “The collection of stories are from everything to photographs to oral histories and poetry. These are stories of the Lao diaspora.”
Potter, alongside award-winning poet and writer Bryan Thao Worra, is the co-editor of the website Little Laos on the Prairie, a cultural blog and essay site based on the perspective of a Lao-American living in the Midwestern U.S. Founded in 2011, Little Laos was used to discuss life as a Lao-American, whether it was related to culture and food or news and personal anecdotes. Since the site’s inception, it has attracted thousands of readers from across the globe.
“It’s been really receptive to the Lao diaspora across the world, almost like having this online communal space where people can submit their stories and be part of the conversation,” said Potter. “It’s been kind of a fascinating social experience.”
Potter wanted to expand that experience to the public sphere. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the defeat of the Royal Lao Government by the Communist Pathet Lao group, coinciding with the fall of Saigon in Vietnam and the capture of Phnom Penh by the Khmer Rouge. With Indochina overtaken by Communist rule, thousands of Southeast Asians escaped their home nations and dispersed across the world seeking political asylum, the U.S. included. This was what Potter referred to as the “first wave” of Southeast Asian immigrants. Potter herself was born to a former lieutenant in the Royal Lao Army in a Laotian refugee camp, and she immigrated to America with her family when she was two.
In January, she curated the first “Refuge of the InvisibLao” exhibit at the Vine Arts Center in Minneapolis, which had a two-week run. The exhibit featured a wide variety of photographs, paintings and stories by members of the Laotian community regarding their experiences and cultural identities. One portion of the exhibit included paintings by Chicago-based neo-expressionist artist Chantala Kommanivanh.
“So what we did was a call for submissions for photographs,” said Potter. “The simple idea was to submit a photograph and most fond memory of that photograph. Some of those photographs were chosen by him to be recreated in two paintings. Some of the paintings that will be shown here will also be recreations of those photographs.”
Despite the Minneapolis exhibit being a success, Potter wished to be more accessible to the general public and give a better chance for substantial dialogue and reflection, which is why the Lao Diaspora Project chose Brookdale as their next venue.
“The idea of the project and this exhibit is to be able to have a conversation and a dialogue about reflections on the last forty years of Lao-American experiences and journeys,” said Potter. “It’s a collection of those stories. Even though it’s not a gallery space, it’s going to be displayed along the windows and in the display cases.”
“The idea is to have a very non-conventional, non-confrontational type of space where people feel compelled enough by just the visual aspect of it,” Potter continued. “I realized from some of the folks who attended the first exhibit that there’s always pieces of it that spark some sort of relationship and connection to them and their history and their past.”
Potter says that the exhibit touches upon crucial themes that people other than Lao-Americans can relate to, such as cultural clashes, isolation, transnational identities and displacement.
“Let’s say that you consider yourself Lao-American when you’re here in the States,” said Potter. “Yet you’re still a foreigner to your host country. (But) if you go back to Laos, you’re American before you’re Lao. So really, you’re never accepted.”
In the end, Potter hopes that this project will not only present a broader perspective for non-Lao people visiting, but provide a mirror for immigrants with similar stories of struggle and perseverance.
“It’s one way to have that conversation on reflecting and acknowledging the forty years (we’ve been here),” said Potter.
“Refuge of the InvisibLao: A Visual Essay” will open Friday, April 3, at Brookdale Library, with a special opening reception from 3-5 p.m., and the exhibit will be hosted at the library through May 31. Brookdale Library is located at 6125 Shingle Creek Parkway in Brooklyn Center.
For more information on the Lao Diaspora Project, visit littlelaosontheprairie.org, or call Chanida Phaengdara Potter at 612-460-5559.
Contact Christiaan Tarbox at [email protected] or follow the Sun Post on Twitter @ecmsunpost.