THE OVERVIEW OF LAOS HENDICARFT
The Lao crafts emerged primarily as an expression of the ritual or functional needs of rural society, although state intervention began at an early date with the commissioning of high-quality craft items for the Lao royal courts and temples. In marked contrast to the situation in neighbouring Viet Nam and Cambodia, the French colonial government made little effort to exploit the Lao craft sector for economic purposes. Prince Phetsarath's School of Arts, which operated between 1932 and 1936 at Vientiane's Wat Chanthaburi (Wat Chan), was intended primarily to raise the standards of craftsmanship amongst the Buddhist sangha. Meanwhile French expatriate artist Marc Leguay, who opened a private art school in the Khong District of Champassak Province in 1940, would appear to have been motivated by the desire to nurture indigenous creative talent and at the same time provide an additional source of livelihood to individuals in that region. Following the establishment of the National School of Fine Arts (now the National Faculty of Fine Arts) in 1959, the Royal Lao Government introduced a number of initiatives to develop the craft sector for both domestic and foreign markets. However, by 1975 craft products were still not contributing significantly to the country's foreign trade. Between 1975 and 1985 Laos was effectively closed to world markets and craft items were once more produced mostly for domestic or community usage. However, with the advent of the New Economic Mechanism (NEM) after 1986, an increasing number of both state and private craft enterprises were set up and there began a steady shift back to market production. Since the establishment of the Department of Handicrafts of the Ministry of Industry and Handicrafts in 1999 and the Lao Handicraft Group (now the Lao Handicraft Association) in 2001 there has been a more sustained effort to target foreign markets, with annual trade fairs to promote Lao crafts both at home and abroad. At the time of writing there are just over 26,000 registered small handicraft businesses in Laos. Lao craft production currently accounts for just under 15 per cent of total industrial output, and the government is seeking to increase this. The importance of the handicrafts sector to the Lao economy is illustrated by the fact that when an industry and handicraft exhibition is held around 80-90 per cent of the products on display are handicrafts. Textiles currently make up the largest single area of all Lao craft production. Laos has a strong tradition of cotton and silk weaving. In fact, several renowned European designers have recently started coming to Laos to purchase elaborate Lao weavings. These weavings display a level of skill and artistry mot seen anywhere else in the world. The artists from each province incorporate distinctive colours and patterns into their work. Such pieces can be bought in all the major markets, or directly from makers in silk weaving villages in Luang Prabang.
THE TEXTILES OF LAOS
The production of woven and embroidered textiles is undoubtedly the most prolific of all traditional crafts in Laos.
Produced in many different styles and dyed in a range of different colours according to the geographical provenance and ethnicity of the weavers, silk and cotton cloth is hand-woven on traditional wooden frame looms by the ethnic Lao and most other Tai-speaking ethnicities to create the ubiquitous wrap-round skirts with eleborately bordered hems (pha sin), ceremonial shawls (pha biang), shoulder bags and many other articles of Lao traditional clothing.
All regions of the country are suitable for the farming of cotton and mulberry trees, which are often planted on co-operative land with a view to providing raw materials for the wider community. Traditional weaving techniques handed down from one generation to the next include chok (discontinuous supplementary weft technique), khit (continuous supplementary weft technique), mat mi (resist-dyeing technique), ghot (tapestry weave technique), muk (continuous supplementary warp technique) and muko (a combination of the muk, mat mi and chok techniques).
Various regional styles may be identified, ranging from the solid colour and striped pattern mix of northern chok and supplementary thread silk textiles to the Khmer-style pha chongkraben of the southern provinces. Motifs used also vary from region to region, but the use of gold and silver threads and protective diamond- and star-shaped designs and images of mythical animals such as dragons and nagas are common to many parts of the country. In recent years the migration of many provincial weaving families to Vientiane to seek employment there has led to the evolution of a new, modern style of Lao textile which includes both regional and international designs.
Sadly textile weaving and dyeing has largely died out amongst the Mon-Khmer ethnicities of Laos, but Hmong, Yao and Sino-Tibetan ethnicities such as the Lolo-Burmish speaking Akha, Ha Nhi, Lolo and Phunoi continue to weave and dye their own clothes. However, the latter are perhaps best known for their sewing and embroidering skills, which have given rise to some of the most spectacular and colourful traditional costumes in the world.
In recent years the Ministry of Industry and Handicrafts, assisted by the Lao National Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LNCCI) and the Lao Handicraft Association, has made strenuous efforts to revitalise traditional weaving as a sustainable enterprise through the development of incentive and protection schemes, training, promotion and marketing. The Lao Women's Union's Lao Cotton State Enterprise (LCSE) and non-governmental initiatives such as Lao Textiles by Carol Cassidy have also made a significant contribution to the revival of this important craft sector.
THE WOOD CARVINGS OF LAOS
At one time forests covered much of Laos, providing the raw materials for the emergence of woodcarving as a major craft. The woodcarving traditionally served as a sculptural art, and with the spread of Buddhism it assumed an increasingly important role in the production of Buddha images and the carving of temple and palace door frames, pillars, roofs, lintels and decorative friezes. During the Lane Xang era skilled carpenters were also employed to produce royal thrones, ornate wooden furniture, royal barges and other forms of regal and aristocratic transportation such as palanquins and elephant howdahs. By the early 20th century their work had expanded to include the production of high-quality tables, chairs and cabinets for a growing urban middle class.
The decline in traditional Buddhist practices during the 1970s resulted in the loss of many traditional woodcarving skills within the monkhood which the UNESCO Cultural Survival and Revival in the Buddhist Sangha Project, Luang Prabang is currently seeking to revive. In the meantime, despite restrictions on woodcutting designed to halt the countrys already serious environmental degredation, demand for domestic furniture shows no sign of abating.
THE SPA PAPER HANDICARFTS
The paper has been made by hand in the wider region for over 700 years using the bark of the local sa or mulberry tree (broussonetia papyrifera vent). The bark is crushed and soaked in water until it had dissolved into a paste. The liquid is then scooped out, poured through a bamboo sieve and finally placed in a thin layer on a bamboo bed and dried in the sun.
Traditionally sa paper was used for calligraphy and for making festive temple decorations, umbrellas, fans and kites. In former times it was also used as a filter in the manufacture of lacquerware. In recent years the art of sa paper handicraft has been revived, particularly in Luang Prabang where it is now used to create lampshades, writing paper, greetings cards and bookmarks.
In an environmentally-focused initiative funded by the Japan International Co-operation Agency (JICA), Laos through its Forest Conservation and Afforestation Project (FORCAP), Japanese paper weaving techniques have been taught to villagers in Vangvieng District of Vientiane Province, enabling them to produce an innovative new handicraft which meshes the traditional Lao crafts of weaving and papermaking. Sa paper is used for weft and cotton or silk for warp; yarns are dyed with natural materials that are available locally, and woven into local patterns. In 2002 Vangvieng Posa Handicraft was commended under the UNESCO-AHPADA Seal of Excellence for Handicraft Products in South East Asia scheme.
THE BUDDHIST SCULPTURE IN LAOS
The earliest Buddha images found within the territory of present-day Laos are those of the Mon and Khmer kingdoms of the first millennium CE. Dvaravati-style Mon Buddha images may still be seen today carved into the rock face at Vangxang, north of Vientiane, and several Mon and Khmer Buddha sculptures recovered from the central and southern provinces have found their way into museums, the most noteworthy being those housed at Ho Phra Keo in Vientiane.
According to legend, Laos most famous Buddha image – the sacred pha bang – was originally cast in Sri Lanka, but its typically post-Bayon Khmer features betray its real origins.
The design of the earliest indigenous Buddha images dating from the period 1353-1500 is heavily influenced by that of the pha bang, but by the early 16th century a distinctive Lao style had begun to develop. From the reign of King Wisunarath (1501-1520), Lao Buddha images began to display a characteristic beak-like nose, extended earlobes, tightly-curled hair, and long hands and fingers.
At this time too there also appeared two mudras (gestures) that are found only in Lao Buddhist sculpture – Calling for Rain (in which the Buddha stands with both arms held stiffly at the side of the body, fingers pointing downwards) and Contemplating the Tree of Enlightenment (in which the Buddha stands with hands crossed at the wrist in front of the body).
The period from 1500-1695 is generally regarded as the golden age of the Lao Buddha image, and many magnificent examples of religious sculptural art from this period may still be seen today in Ho Phra Keo, Wat Sisakhet and the Luang Prabang National Museum. However, with the demise of Lane Xang and the growth of Siamese influence in the region during the 18th century, Lao sculptors fell increasingly under the influence of the contemporaneous Ayutthaya and Bangkok (Rattanakosin) styles. By the French colonial period decline had set in, and Buddha images were cast less and less frequently.
The Laos Buddha sculpture uses a variety of mediums, including bronze, wood, gold and silver and precious stones. Of these, bronze is by far the most common and was used to create many important Buddha statues, including the colossal images at Wat Manorom in Luang Prabang (14th century) and at Wat Ong Tu and Wat Chanthaburi (Wat Chan) in Vientiane (16th century). Smaller images were often cast in gold, silver or precious stone, while wood and ceramics were popular for the tiny, votive images found in cloisters or caves.