Imagining Lao World Order at Cold War

Fig. 10: A star installed at That Luang, 1979. Image: Natalia Gozheva.

By Anna Koshcheeva

from ACT 77, April, 2019


The decades after the WWII till the wave of communist “Perestroikas” in the 1980s[1] are often bracketed in global history as the Cold War. This time is also characterized by profound and continues change in what was French Indochina at the onset and post-socialist Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos at the end of that period. In Laos in particular, the Cold War chronology encompassed 1) “slow independence” from France, settled in the decade of 1945-1954; 2) the rule of the Royal Lao Government, growing American interventions, and the civil war in the following two decades; and 3) the establishment of socialist Lao People’s Democratic Republic in 1975, backed by the Soviet Union and Vietnam, and the following paradox of imagining the socialist future while simultaneously realizing the impossibility of applied Marxism.

Cold War histories are often narrated along the binary opposition of the superpowers of the USA and USSR and alignment of Third world nations against that bipolar worldview. For Cold War studies in Southeast Asia, scholars’ focus has predominantly been on an understanding of American efforts against the communist threat and co-option of these efforts by the local nation-state agendas. An analysis of these dynamics in the sphere of cultural diplomacy and visual cultures, for example, was compiled by Tony Day and Maya H. T. Liem. What problematizes this approach is the fact that many Southeast Asian nations had parallel negotiations with both superpowers to advance the nation-building projects and aspired for a non-aligned position in the world order.

For Cold War Laos, a convention is to see its history as clearly defined by the contestation of superpowers on the Indochina theatre. Actions of local players are generally viewed as having limited autonomy. Yet I argue that the becoming Cold War Laos is better understood as a process of continuous negotiation between multiple global and local agents. Cultural diplomacy and visual culture of that period serve as a good subject to unpack complexities and strategies of this negotiation.

Modern art, architecture and monumental sculpture are the sites where the negotiation of the Lao world order at Cold War was advanced and reflected. These sites brought together, recontextualized, and established new hierarchies between symbols, conceptions, technologies and medium of competing Western ideologies, Buddhist spatial-temporal cosmology and vernacular sensibility. An understanding of changing world order in Cold War Laos through the prism of its visual production is the central interest of this essay.

This paper will advance three main arguments. First, that the driving force behind imagining modern Laos was vernacular. Parallel analysis of cultural nationalist movement and practices in modern representation and art education in pre- Independent Laos will help justify this argument. Second, that Lao modern art is best appreciated as eclectic, cosmopolitan, and driven by the sense of urgency. Its methodologies and vocabularies are inclusive of those of the global players involved in making modern Laos, but also of local sensibilities. Third, that while Western historiography of Laos views it as a proxy state of the US – communist stand-off, visual culture of Laos attests to endurance and prevalence of vernacular agency and cosmology in imagining Lao world order.

Preface: colonialism, nationalism and an art school

Chiefly, modern art and art education in the region were promoted by colonial or state institutions. In her book on Cambodian nationalism, Penny Edwards wrote that “the central oxymoron of modern nationalisms, which claim both the youthfulness of a nation-in-formation and its purported rootedness in antiquity” might have been a reason for the growing interest of both indigenous leaders in the region and colonial authorities to define and conserve local artistic heritage (144-148). These desires to control production, reproduction, and renovation of cultural heritage resulted in the introduction of state or colonial sponsored art schools in Vietnam and Cambodia of French Indochina and Thailand in the 1910s (Edwards 147-148, Clark 84). Art historian John Clark noted that these modern art schools gradually replaced the preceding system of artisan ateliers (Clark 162). If ateliers functioned on the client-patron relationship, the art schools operated in line with governmental agendas.

Yet the agendas behind sponsoring art institutions by Siamese monarch and the French colonial government were in opposition. Siam strived to become a modern civilized nation on its own – siwilai. For the French it was to underscore a two-fold mission of 1) a protector of the cultural heritage of local populace and 2) an exclusive modernizing force in Indochina – mission civilisatrice. Art institutions of Thailand and French Indochina evolved respectively. Thailand relied on the import of artists from Italy. In French Indochina, art education continued to develop with the focus on cultural authenticity and preservation.

From the turn of the 20th century, Thailand has been hiring Italian artists, sculptors, and architects to facilitate modernity of Thai art and built environment. Being under pressures from British and French colonial powers, the Thai choice of Italian staff could be explained not only by the Italian artistic traditions and credentials but also by political considerations. By the 30s, both Thailand and Mussolini’s Italy started to advance nationalist rhetoric more explicitly. These dynamics might have played some role in the appointment of Italian sculptor Corrado Feroci (1892-1962) as a head of the School of Fine Arts in 1933. He developed the school’s curriculum based on European academy (Clark 162).

In French Indochina, the trajectories in art education were different. Training at École Supérieure des Beaux Arts de l’Indochine in Hanoi was designed by Victor Tardieu. It placed emphasis on the observation of local subject matter and innovation with indigenous materials, for instance, lacquer and silk. In Phnom Penh, at École des arts cambodgiens the focus on authenticity of local artistic traditions became more radical. According to historian of Cambodian art Ingrid Muan, the Director of École des arts cambodgiens George Groslier (1889-1945) virtually banned the introduction of any modern artistic techniques into the school curriculum. His aim was to preserve the authenticity and purity of Khmer-cum-Angkorian craftsmanship (74-77).

Development of cultural nationalism and modern art institutions in French Indochina and Siam form a basis for comparative analysis of similar processes in Laos. The territorial entity of modern Laos emerged as a result of armed negotiations between France and Siam in 1893. The treaty between two powers split Lao territories along the Mekong river – its historical central artery – with the right bank falling under the French control and the left bank becoming what is today the Issan region or Northeast Thailand. Consequently, more ethnic Lao remained under the Siamese control than in French Laos (Stuart-Fox 15). This fact would complicate the future imagining of Lao cultural identity as distinct from Thai. It would also support Thai arguments of nationalist pan-Thai propaganda and anxieties for the French colonial administration. In this context, the emergence of cultural nationalism in Laos is often interpreted by historians as a French initiated and sponsored project (Ivarsson 8).While such claims can be debated, nonetheless Lao cultural nationalism, launched in the 1930s galvanized a process of imagining modern Laos, including its imagining though visual culture. As it will become clear in the following chapter, the process of imagining modern Laos was propelled by vernacular efforts.

Part 1: Before the Cold War: art school and vernacular modernizing desire in Laos

Historian of medicine in Laos Kathryn Sweet noticed that “While subaltern historians in other regions of the world criticize colonial regimes for displacing indigenous systems of health and wellbeing, Lao historians criticize the French colonial administration for what they consider to be a neglect of the development of a modern health sector” (126). The same pattern can be observed for the system of modern education in Laos or art education in particular. Art history of Laos usually states 1959 as a year when the first state-sponsored school was opened (Phoummachanh 231).

These observations elicit an ambiguity of French colonial policy towards Laos. As an economically unprofitable territory within French Indochina, limited resources were assigned to mission civilisatrice in Laos. Yet the scarcity of colonial initiatives, limited scholarship or absence of an art school funded by the administration should not be mistaken for an absence of institutions and practices of modern art. It rather means that in the condition of colonial neglect, local modernizing desires played a more important role.

A photographic image attests to such modernizing desires and initiatives in art, technologies of representation and art education advanced by Lao Sangha[2] [Figure1]. The photo features Venerable Maha Thera Khamfan Silasangvaro (1901-1987), Abbot of Vat Khili in Luang Prabang, drawing a watercolor picture[3] on the verandah of the Sim of Vat Khili. The photo is taken in 1935 and is likely developed in Luang Prabang.  

Fig. 1: Venerable Maha Thera Khamfan Silasangvaro, Abbot of Vat Khili in Luang Prabang. 1935. Image: Buddhist Archive of Photography.

Maha Thera Khamfan received training in Dhamma and fine art in Bangkok in 1923 – 30 and became an abbot of Vat Kili in Luang Prabang in 1931. He is known to be one of the distinguished monks of the Northern capital and a patron of arts and Buddhist photography. Artistic practices of Maha Thera Khamfan in Luang Prabang covered paintings, applied arts, restoration of numerous monasteries, and sculpting a significant amount of great Buddha statues. His education activities resulted into an opening of the art workshop on the temple grounds, where novices were trained in sculping, woodcarving, applied arts and restoration of Buddhist arts and architecture (Sitthivong and Boulyaphonh 65-66). Maha Thera Khamfan also practiced and collected photography, amassing a historically valuable collection.

It is likely that some photographic portraits of Maha Thera Khamfan, other monks in Luang Prabang, and the photographs they have taken in the 1930-40s were printed in photo-studios in Luang Prabang. Photography was actively practiced by Lao Sangha from as early as the 1880s. It was used not only to record and represent their world, but also to facilitate monastic education, and aid communication and relationships with monastic communities in Thailand, Cambodia, and Burman. An exchange of photographic portraits, in particular, was actively practiced between monks from across borders (Berger 95-101).

It is illuminating to compare the use of photography in French colonial narrative, by the Siamese court and Lao Sangha. A French invention [4] and a sign of technological superiority, photography became an important element of visualizing mission civilisatrice. In the analysis of images taken by traveling photographers commissioned by the French colonial administration, Ande notes the frequency of the following subject matter: portraits of administration and military, images of buildings of schools, orphanages, and tax offices, steamboats on the Mekong River, scenes of hunts and trophies of wild animals, big cats and elephants in particular, and portraits of ethnic tribes or women in traditional costumes (61). This imagery implies a conquering and civilizing effort of modern and masculine French administration over a wild and uncultivated body-cum-land of the natives.

The Siamese court was fast to realize the possibilities of photography and adopt it for its own agendas. King Mongkut (1804 – 1868) and King Chulalongkorn (1853-1910) posed for numerous photographic portraits, often in Western-style attire, and exchanged these images with European courts. The royal family also enthusiastically adopted photography as a hobby. Maurizio Peleggi argues that “the refashioning of the royal elite’s public image was a key element in the project asserting their “civilized” status and, consequently, their claim to “national” leadership” (3).

By the 1880s photo-cameras were brought to Luang Prabang where Lao royal family and monks embraced the technology. Currently, the collection of Buddhist Photography Archive comprises over 35000 photographs taken in a span of 130 years (Berger 95). It contains numerous images that captured insider view on monastic life, ritual, and pilgrimage as well as cultural life, royal ceremonies, and modern historical events. Images taken by monks in pre-WW2 Luang Prabang construct a photographic narrative alternative to the one proposed by colonial photography. The world order presented in these images centers less on the colonial modernizing masculinity and more on Buddhist agency. Lao Sangha is envisioned in them as both a powerful cultural agent and a modernizing force.   

Another photograph also deserves consideration in this essay. It features French artist Marc Leguay (1910-2001) and students of his art school in Vientiane, taken around 1948 [Figure2]. The school on the photo is already the second Leguay’s attempt, a decade after the first one on the Khong Island.

Fig. 2: Mark Leguay and his students at École des Arts Laotiens in Vientiane, ca. 1948. Image: unknown  

Leguay arrived in Laos in 1936 and soon settled on the Khong Island. According to researcher Benteux, he opened a School of Applied Arts (École d’art Applique) there. Yet little is known about that school and its curriculum. During the WW2 Leguay was imprisoned by the Japanese in Phnom Penh and moved to Vientiane afterward. Here he opened his second school, École des Arts Laotines in 1948, which soon ceased operations due to inadequate funding (8). Eventually, Leguay became an art teacher at Lycée de Pavie, where he taught generations of future Lao elites until 1975. Over four decades of living and working in Laos, Leguay established himself as one of the most influential figures in the development of modern art and iconography. Besides teaching at Lycée de Pavie, he also designed Royal Lao Government banknotes and stamps and developed a publication on traditional decorative patterns. His oeuvre became inseparable from the visual identity of modern Laos and traditions of art pedagogy in decades to come.

Leguay’s representations of Laos fused Western ideas of linear perspective and vantage points, Impressionist commitment to plain air and close observation of real life, modern medium of oil painting or graphic design with the local subject matter. Yet his paintings and designs are problematic as a representation of modern Lao world order [Figure3]. The subject matter of his imagery is dominated by rural vistas, women performing domestic chores or adorning themselves, ethnic minorities, and traditional culture.

Fig.3: Marc Leguay,Femmes se parant, 1956, Oil on Canvas
Image: reproduced from Marc Leguay: le peintre du Laos

Laos imagined by Leguay is rendered exotic, ethnic, gendered and immersed in performing tradition. This representation captured the tension and further institutionalized a pattern of imagining Lao condition as latent modernity, still prevailing in Lao art of today.

Another significant record regarding the opening of an art school is found CEFEO of 1943. It stated that École des arts religieux was opened at Vat Chan (6). Thit Phou became the first head of that school and its immediate assignment was to assist with the restoration of Vat Phra Keow (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) in Vientiane.

School’s location at Vat Chan is a significant detail. By the 1930s Vat Chan emerged as a hothouse of Lao cultural nationalist movement. It operated under the aegis of Prince Phetsarath, a viceroy of Laos, Paris- and Oxford-educated intellectual, and later a leader of Lao Issara (Free Laos) anti-colonial movement. Notable Lao scholars worked and thought at Vat Chan, including Maha Sila Viravong. Projects in Lao historiography, literature, linguistics, law, art, and architecture were initiated there. Prince Phetsarath supervised restorations of the That Luang Stupa[5] and Vat Phra Keow, he also invited scholars of École française d’Extrême-Orient and Suzanne Karpelѐs from the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Phnom Penh to advise on restorations and to support research in Lao culture, art, and architecture. It is safe to assume that the agenda of École des arts religieux at Vat Chan was related to the study, preservation, and advancement of artistic heritage in Laos. To achieve it, the school relied on modern methods of research and education, engaged with French scholars and advanced nationalist projects of Lao elites. In that sense, the school was one of the agents helping Lao elites work out such modern notions as “national culture”, “national heritage” and “cultural traditions”.

Together with temple workshops, Buddhist photography initiatives and French artist’s visual production and teaching, art school at Vat Chan formed pluralistic  and eclectic network of agents engaged in imagining modern Laos. Unlike development of modern art in Thailand or in Vietnam and Cambodia of French Indochina, imagining modern Laos lacked state-sponsored program, institutions, and directives. In that sense, it was a process organically shaped by the colonial condition and an indigenous desire to modernize rather than a product of colonial administration. The approach to it was to render Lao world order as anchored in tradition and reproduced in modern media offered by French cultural and technological achievements. It not only reflected a deep-seated tension of Lao modernity but also opened a question: how the French legacy should be addressed in post-colonial Independent Laos?

Part 2: Imagining post-colonial Laos and Vat Sisaket

Historian Simon Creak noted that Lao independence was “granted in stages between 1949 and 1953-1954” (7). The emergence of the Independent Kingdom of Laos and the brewing of the Cold War were contemporaneous. Prasenjit Duara notes that to interpret the condition of the Cold War in Asia, such concepts as imperialism, nationalism, and decolonization should be considered concomitantly (458). These processes of decolonization and imagining nation-state dominated the rhetoric and produced a great sense of optimism in Laos in the 50s. New national institutions were established, including those dealing with culture and national identity. Evans listed “a national police force was created, a national treasury, a post office issuing its own stamps, and various cultural institutions dealing with Buddhism, national monuments, and language and literature” (94). At last a state-sponsored art school, École des Beaux Arts Lao was founded by the Minister of Education, Sport, and Art, Blanchard de la Brosse in 1959 (Luangrath 7-11).

Initially, the school was equipped to teach traditional Lao artforms: artists practicing weaving, silversmith, traditional sculpture, and woodcraft and musicians who played khene (Lao pipe), lanat (Lao xylophone), and fiddle were hired. The first cohort recruited to be trained in modern art was sent for study overseas. Students spent their first year of 1959-1960 at Thủ Dầu Một in South Vietnam and then 5 years at School of Fine Art in Saigon. Upon completing their education, they were assigned teaching posts in Vientiane or other locations or were offered graduate training at art schools in France (Luangrath 7-11). The following cohorts of students were sent to Thailand, Cambodia, Japan, and Vietnam. Later training exchange extended to the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, China, and India. This multidirectional placements for training meant that the community of Lao artists was cosmopolitan, multilingual and introduced to diverse ideas and technologies.

The scholarship on Lao art and culture was energized as well. The Vientiane office of EFEO opened in 1951, spearheaded research in anthropology, archeology, and philology. Lao intellectuals who served at various departments of Royal Lao Government also advanced the research and publications on art, architecture and monumental sculpture. Prince Souvanna Phouma, Phouvong Phimmason, Boun Souk, and Khanthong Thammavong contributed to the field with multiple publications.

Imagining post-colonial Laos was a collaboration between Lao elites, artists, and French scholars. One of the dimensions it took was a recontextualization of architectural sites, associated with Lao-ness, from a colonial to a national narrative. One of such sites was the library of Vat Sisaket.

An ability of an architectural site to become a metonym and a vessel of local culture was actively utilized in French colonial exhibitions. Pavilions built as replicas of Angkor Vat and Annam Tower stood respectively for Cambodia and Annam and their cultural traditions. Later, the same sites were often reclaimed for national identity making. Penny Edwards argues that Angkor War became an indispensable icon to designate Khmer-ness in Cambodian nationalist discourse (164-165).

Lao counterparts to Angkor and Anna Tower were temples of Luang Prabang (Morton 39-41) and the library of Vat Sisaket (Ande 187). The library was an inspiration for the Lao pavilion at the Marseille exhibition of 1906, and a site of “cultural significance”, restored by EFEO in the early and the late 1920s (Ladwig 102-103). In the Independent Lao Kingdom it became one of the icons associated with national culture and heritage. It was featured on the Kingdom’s stamps (Ande 187) and numerous artworks produced by Lao artists. One of such works is a watercolor produced by Anoulom Souvanduan (1948-), the graduate of École de Beaux Arts Lao [Figure 4].

Fig. 4: Anoulom Souvanduan, Untitled, watercolor, ca. the 1960s. Image: artist.

The watercolor presents men playing traditional music instruments and women performing a traditional dance. This enactment is taking place in the vicinity of Vat Sisaket, which becomes an architectural and visual index for Laos. It is likely that the inspiration for the composition of this watercolor came from the poster of the Cambodian Pavilion at the Hanoi colonial fair of 1919.[6] Both the poster and Anoulom’s watercolors have identical placement of musicians and dancers and feature iconic architecture in a backdrop. Furthermore, the music instrument shown on the foreground of both images is the same, and not, for instance, a celebrated in Laos khene. What is different between the colonial poster and Anoulom’s watercolor, however, is the absence of French officials and a King casting a governing gaze onto the natives. Anoulom’s rendition of post-colonial Laos implies the erasure of colonial administration and a self-organizing capacity to perform tradition.

Anoulom’s colleague, Bounleng Venvilavong, a graduate of l’Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux Arts de Saigon and l’Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux Arts de Toulouse has also chosen the library of Vat Sisaket as a subject matter of his painting produced in the early 1970s [Figure 5].

Fig. 5: Bounleng Venvilavong, In Vat Sisaket, oil on canvas, 56 x 46.5 cm, the early 1970s. Image: The State Museum of Oriental Art, Moscow.

Bounleng’s artwork announces Buddhism as a central element of Lao culture. The painting features Buddhist monks and lay people offering them alms in an act that symbolizes both a tradition and a social relationship in Lao society. The library of Vat Sisaket is a backdrop for this act, designating a site of Buddhism, a metonym of Laos and a national icon. The modernist style chosen by Bounleng renders the image and, by extension, the modern in Laos. The problematic aspect of the works produced by Anoulom and Bounleng is apparent as both imagined Lao modernity is limited to the celebration of “traditional culture”, delivered in modern medium of watercolor or oil and modernist style. These images of modern Laos are seen as artists’ retrospective and introspective gaze, rather than future-forward.

Another project, pertaining Vat Sisaket, was a widening of Lane Xang Avenue, carried out in 1961-1962. The initiative aimed to establish a new axis in and advance an image of  modernizing Vientiane. According to Frederic Mauret, Lane Xang road appeared on the city’s topography in 1940. It received its present name in 1953 as a commemoration of Lao independence (219-226). The redevelopment turned an avenue into a modern boulevard in the capital of Lao kingdom. To enlarge the avenue, the corner of Vat Sisaket, where the library was located, had to be cleared. Yet a solution was found to build a fence around the library, protruding onto the sidewalk. As a result, the library became one of the physical sites related to modern topography of Vientiane.  

Lane Xang Avenue symbolically connected the historical site of power in Vientiane, the former Royal Palace and the residence of Resident Soupier, with a newly established (yet unfinished) monument Anousavali. This monument was also envisioned as a commemoration of independence. The history of its construction reflects the complexities of building a new nation-state in the Cold War decades of the 1960-70s.   

Part 3: Negotiating Lao world order with the USA and Anousavali

As Eisenhower briefed his successor J.F. Kennedy on 19 January 1961, he referred to Laos as the most important place for the Cold War strategy. In his study of the American Foreign Policy in Cold War Laos, Seth Jacobs notes that during that time Laos was “considered a vital piece of real estate in the contest between communism and anticommunism, a ‘domino’ whose preservation was essential to America’s national security” (Jacobs 1-2).

The contest of American and Soviet superpowers in Southeast Asia included not only political and military efforts but also “a cultural offensive”. Revisionist studies of American art export in the 1950s and 1960s suggest that forms of cultural production like exhibitipns can viewed as part of the US Cold War propaganda, an observation noted by Kathleen Ditzig (39-40). One of the instruments of such export, for instance, was the International Program of The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), with its operations supported by the United States Information Agency. That explains why MoMA’s blockbuster exhibition of photography The Family of Man was brought to Laos and exhibited at That Luang. The exhibition was “most popular photography exhibition of all times”, brought to 38 countries and seen by an estimated 7.5 million people outside of the US. It centered around the message of universal humanism and effectively presented the US as its promoter. In recent evaluations, The Family of Man is often critiqued as an oppressive tool of American imperialism. (Turner 55-57). The timing of it show in Vientiane strategically coincided with the That Luang festival when virtually the entire population of the capital comes to That Luang. Little is known about the exhibition’s reception or any other MoMA’s shows brought to Laos. Yet it is evident that US programs supported modern art in Laos and the scene was vivid. The second issue of the magazine Friendship in 1970, published by Lao-American Association (LAA), contains a feature on the solo exhibition of artist Soukhaseum Cahnthapanya [Figure 6]. In the interview to the magazine, Soukhaseum recounts that he attended the Lao School of Fine Arts in 1962-1963, has exhibited and won prizes at the Mekong Society sponsored shows in 1964 and 1965, LAA sponsored show in 1967, a group show at Lane Xang Hotel in 1968, and a solo show in 1969. From 1970 Soukhaseum had his permanent gallery at 5 Quai de Fa Ngum.

Fig. 6: Photo of Soukhaseum Chanthapanya’s exhibition in the Friendship magazine published by Lao-American Association, 1970.

Built in 1963 in International style (Sovremennyi Laos 245), Lane Xang Hotel became a center of cultural life in Vientiane and hosted numerous exhibitions of Lao and American artists. Inspired by American Modernism showed at these exhibitions, Anoulom Souvanduan produced an oil painting in 1974 [Figure 7].

Fig. 7: Anoulom Souvanduan. Untitled, oil on canvas, ca. 1974. Image: author.

It is interesting to compare this painting by Anoulom with his watercolors produced in the 60s and discussed earlier in this essay, as it features some consistent and some new elements. Buddhist architecture, traditional dance, and music are again central to Anoulom’s representation of Lao culture. Similarly, familiar contours of Vat Sisaket library are the focal point of this artwork. At the same time, the library also is a part of the continuum of temples, stupas, and statues that stretches across the canvas. This continuum includes the Phivat Buddha of Xieng Khounag province, the temple on top of Phu Si Mountain in Luang Prabang, That Luang, and Vat Ong Teu in Vientiane, meaning the sites distant one from another. Ashley Thompson in her study of Cambodian temple murals observed that they may feature the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh and Angkor Wat in Seam Reap province within the same image. She proposed, that the placement of remote sites within singular pictorial space indicates that it should be read not as a geographical space represented in accordance with Western linear perspective but as cosmological, designating Khmer civilization (21-40).

Anoulom’s painting is also illustrative of the development of national iconography in Laos. Alongside the most recognizable architectural sites, the artwork features dock champa – a frangipani flower, the national flower of Laos, Naga – a prominent element in Lao Buddhist art and architecture, and a musical instrument khene. Cultural heritage, national identity, and modernist expressions are situated within cosmological conceptions in this later imagining of the Lao world order by Anoulom. The physical urban space of Vientiane was changing drastically in the period of the 1960s-1970s as well, not least due to the American development project. Historians Marc Askew, Colin Long and William Logan concluded: “American policy sought to create the city as the base from which the market economy could be spread to the rest of the country. But the unbalanced nature of US aid – the emphasis on military and security spending – and the very scale of the aid program quickly led to corruption, inefficiency and waste” (137). These magnitude and controversy of American efforts in Laos are some of the factors to consider when unpacking the meaning of Anousavaly monument established in 1957 [Figure 8].

Fig. 8: Anousavali, 1969. Photo by Frederic C. Benson. From the University of Wisconsin – Madison Libraries archive.

Anousavali [7] was commissioned to commemorate the independence of Laos. In such context, the choice of the monument’s design, with an obvious reference to Arc de Triomphe of Paris, seems surprising. Yet an iconographic and historical analysis can provide some possible explanations to it. A symbol of French cultural and military achievements, Arch de Triomphe in the Lao edition is doubled in width. It adopted a square floor plan to house an ensemble of towers in vernacular forms. A square floor plan is common for Lao stupas, which, in their turn, represent the architectural rendition of cosmic order. The frontal view of Anousavali resembles the shape of main gates in Lao temples, further indicating a need to reference Buddhist conceptions in unpacking the monument’s meaning. According to these conceptions, more venerable objects or images are conventionally positioned above less venerable to designate a hierarchy.[8] In such an interpretation, vernacular forms are places above Western ones in the design of Anousavali. Literally, built on the basis of French modernism, these towers inscribe new cosmic order in Independent Laos. Furthermore, Anousavali proportions, the size of its arches and the location on Lane Xang Avenue were designed with an account to host military parades under the Royal Lao Government (Sayasithsena 11). In that sense, the monument’s function was to orchestrate a symbolic performance of alignment of military power with the new nation’s axis. Albeit not proven, it is commonly speculated that the funds for the monument’s construction came from the misuse of USAID budget intended for aircraft runway (Evans, Short History of Laos 150). Regardless of the grounds of such speculation, the fact of its existence points towards subversive readings in the meaning of Anousavali. While the landscape of Vientiane was being transformed by developmental projects often sponsored by American money, Anousavali could be interpreted as a visual point of resistance. It dominated the urban landscape carrying an architectural model of Lao cosmology above American housing. And yet, as the independence of Laos was becoming nominal, so the construction of Anousavali could not be completed until 1968.

Part 4: Negotiating Lao world order with the Left and the Monument of the Unknown Soldier

Western historiography of Laos considers the period of 1954-1975 as the time of growing American influence. Consequently, it overlooks Royal Lao Government parallel negotiations with the Left: China, Vietnam, and the USSR. Even less is known about the history of international relationships in ‘liberated zone’ – the territory under Pathet Lao control. Yet, it is documented that that Prime Minister of Lao Kingdom Souvanna Phouma initiated the dialog with the socialist leaders to navigate the balance of powers at Cold War. He visited Hanoi and Beijing and met Mao Zedong in 1956 (Evans, Short History of Laos 167). In 1960 Lao Kingdom and the USSR established diplomatic relations (Kadymov 22). It was followed by Souvanna Phouma’s correspondence with Nikita Khrushchev in a lead up to the Geneva meeting of 1962 to restore neutrality of Laos (Sovremennyĭ Laos 18-19).

Similar to the US, The Soviet Union and China were active in the field of cultural Cold War. Moreover, they might have been more successful in connecting with masses, commented Roger Nelson in his study of Cambodian arts (Nelson 184-185). The Soviets actively exported dance, especially ballet, sport, engineering, and mass communication services: radio, printing, and cinema.

In 1974 the USSR donated a statue of King Sisavang Vong to Laos, designed by the Soviet-Georgian sculpture Merab Berdzenishvili and produced in Leningrad.[9] A close reading of this occurrence reflects the entangles of Royal Lao Government and Pathet Lao negotiations with the USSR [Figure 9].

Fig. 9: Statue of King Sisavang Vong granting a constitution to the people (in Vientiane). Merab Berdzenishvili. 1974. Photo by author.

The statue was a gift in response to the King Sisavang Vatthana’s visit to the USSR in 1972. It celebrated the event of King Sisavang Vong granting a constitution to the people, written on traditional bay lan (palm leaves). The communist regime would be established in Laos just a year after the statue was erected. In contrast to the Royal Lao Government, it would struggle to promulgate a constitution until 1991. Historian Grant Evans wrote “In what must count as one of the nicer ironies of Lao history, the statue of King Sisavang Vong could not be torn down, because it had been donated by the ‘fraternal’ Soviets. Indeed, the second identical statue was made for Luang Prabang and was installed inside the old palace grounds in 1977!” (Evans, Immobile memories 160-161).

The establishment of Lao PDR in 1975 made the project of imagining socialist modernity a national program. To assert it visually and symbolically, a communist star was placed onto the ‘national stupa’ of That Luang. [Figure 10].

The start equated socialism with ideal human attainment and signaled a phase of post-war reconstruction and nation-building in accordance with it. To facilitate the process financially, Prime Minister Kaysone Phomvihane visited Moscow in 1976 and USSR and Laos signed an agreement of “mutual partnership” (Kadymov 86).

Architecture and urban planning as a cultural battleground of the Cold War and modes of imagining socialist modernity interested scholars for a while. Yet their attention to Southeast Asia is rather recent. Christina Schwenkel studies utopian designs of Eastern Germany and their transference to Vietnam. According to her, “The dissemination of ideas about socialist modernity through the circulation of planning practices was as much about the techno-architectural engineering of urban space as it was about the social engineering of a global humanity” (156).

“Soviet-style” architecture, however, is marginal in the landscape of Vientiane. Despite Laos being a focal point of the American Cold War map until the 1970s, it was peripheral on the socialist one afterward. Consequently, the financial help to Laos was limited. It was mainly directed into building infrastructure rather than monumental urban spaces: bridges, roads, a radio station, electricity lines, geological stations, etc. (Kadymov 86-99). The Soviet Union, Eastern Germany, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Mongolia, and Hungary provided aid to Laos. Yet the scale of this help remains somewhat unclear and the Soviet reports are populated with such lines as “GDR is assisting LPDR in education, establishing construction companies, bicycle repair workshops and other objects […] HPR (Hungarian People’s Republic) is assisting Laos in irrigation and building a broiler chicken farm” (Kadumov 100).

In the absence of grand architectural projects of building a socialist future, other means of mobilizing national unity around common ideology were necessary. Benedict Anderson wrote that tombs of Unknown Soldier are ultimate sites of national imagining (Anderson, 9). Yet Anousavali already implicitly acted as a monument of the Unknown Soldier and a testimony to the preceding regime’s struggle against colonialism. An unconventional solution was found to that dilemma and another monument of the Unknown Soldier was built 2 kilometers down from Anousavali along the Lane Xang Avenue[1]. The design of this monument was in line with socialist symbology. The blend of this symbology with architectural vehicles that are used to render Buddhist cosmology meant that the monument represented a socialist world order. Its position down on the symbolic axis of Vientiane capital implied historical continuity and a takeover from the previous regime[Figure 11].

Fig. 11: The Monument of the Unknown Soldier. (The reconstruction on the new location next to the That Luang grounds). 2018. Image: author.

Conceptually, communist doctrine positioned itself antagonistic to religious believes and promoted an atheist state. In reality, a more complex relationship evolved between communist party and Sangha in Lao PDR. Following conventions of the Soviet Union and China, the new government attempted an anti—Buddhist campaign. It soon realized that such attempts were counterproductive to maintaining the power and slowing down the refugee flow and halt them (Evans, A Short History of Laos 202-203). With Buddhist worldview and economy central to Lao society, the socialist regime was better off operating within Buddhist symbology than trying to surpass it. An architectural embodiment of Lao socialist cosmology became rooted in Buddhist concepts. A stupa-like structure featured a square base, a tower, and a star as a pinnacle. It rendered ideology as central, dominant and dependent on the traditional conceptions.

On the urban plan, together with the Ministry of Defense and Army Museum, the Monument of the Unknown Soldier formed a node of sacred sites of socialism. The sites extended the axis of power from former Royal Palace and Anousavali of the Royal Lao Government. Later a grand Police Museum was added to these sites, marking the militarized nature of Lao socialism.

The Monument of the Unknown Soldier is not the only statue that represents a monumental articulation of the socialist world order in Laos. Its architectural formula is reproduced in multiple stupa—like statues with a star at the pinnacle, erected across provincial centers and other locations. The network of these statues references the system of kinship in traditional Lao meuang[11]. In that regard, imagining socialist modernity in Laos builds on communist symbology, Buddhist visualization of cosmic order and traditional concepts of the legitimacy of power. Patrice Ladwig in a study of French colonial rule in Laos describes it as “mimetic governmentality” that copied and “associated” with preceding Buddhist statecraft. He argues that memetic governmentality empowered “colonial politics of affect, whose goal was to win the “sympathies” of the colonized (98). Gregory Kourilsky extends this argument, stating that Lao Peoples’ Revolutionary Party (LPRP), the ruling party in Laos, also realized that co-option of Buddhist organization will help it stabilize the power (179).

The difference between these cases is that the French mimesis aimed to mitigate the position of a foreign power, whereas LPRP was a national elective body, inclusive of ethnic minorities (although not necessarily evenly) and a victor of the civil war. This difference elicits that negotiation of power should not be regarded, as it often is, as a contestation between the foreign and the vernacular, the (neo)colonial and the indigenous. Rather, it is a dynamic process inclusive of all present agencies. Respectively the imagining of the (socialist) world order is also a creative process of negotiation between conceptions, hierarchies, and vocabularies defining them.

Part 5: Artist and the world order. Anoulom Souvanduan.

To ponder an idea of an artist as an arbiter of imagining the world order, let us return to Anoulom Souvanduan and review his visual production during the socialist period. In 1976 he was tasked with developing a design of the national emblem for the newly established Lao PDR. The deadline given to him was one night. He came home, had an early dinner with his family, then locked himself in his workshop. The next day he submitted two designs, and one of them was taken forward (Souvanduan 130-131).

The iconography of the emblem proposed by Anoulom referenced the principles that LPRP had approved at the National Congress in 1975. The design spoke of progress and modernization and celebrated the sources of economic potential – hydroelectricity, forestry, and agriculture. The socialist symbology was borrowed from the emblems of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. 

For the next two decades, Anoulom was employed as a designer of Lao national banknotes, stamps, lottery tickets, and propaganda posters. His designs consistently featured the national and party flags, portraits of party leaders, marching soldiers, a troika of female bodies of three ethnic categories of Laos – Lao Loum, Lao Theung, and Lao Soung or lowland, upland, and highland ethnicities, and Buddhist symbology.

Comparing Anoulom’s visual production in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, the changes in his choice of styles and symbology become striking but also unsurprising. These changes reflect artist’ sensitivity, or perhaps sometimes the necessity to align with ideological currents and social dynamics. Similarly telling is the consistent presence of Lao Buddhist architecture, secret sites, traditional decorative patterns and female bodies in traditional dress acting as a metaphor of a nation.  One can argue that being employed by the new regime Anoulom overlayed socialist symbology and adopted socialist realism over consistent symbols of modernity and Lao-ness he worked out earlier. A closer reading of his work will also address some implicit messages, present in the art of Cold War Laos – attempts to imaging national unity, masculine and militarized leadership, feminine and ethnic body of a nation, and Buddhist authentic and enduring culture. This analysis underscores that the choices made by the artist were not accidental or divorced from the established legacies and new realities. It gives a ground to attend to his visual production as to a register where the changing world order was contemplated and imagined.

Summary: Imagining the local world order at the Cold War

This preliminary and cursory review of visual production in Laos during the Cold War was penned to deliberate how the historical processes that took place over that period were reconciled by artists. Paintings, monuments, sculptures, and maps were looked at to unpack imagining the independence, decolonization, recolonization, nation building and socialist modernity. The essay proposed to appreciate the imagining of Lao world order not along the conventional binaries of local vs foreign or the USA-USSR divide but as a continuous process of negotiation between multiple social agents in Laos, many of which were indigenous.

The review of art education in pre-independent, pre-Cold War Laos suggested that modern art and art education were the part of indigenous desire to modernize. Buddhist art workshops and photography initiatives, French artist’s visual production and teaching, and the art school project by Lao elites formed pluralistic and eclectic network of agents engaged in imagining modern Laos. The approach these agents advanced, was similar – rendering Lao world order as anchored in tradition and reproduced in modern media. At the onset of the Cold War, this imagining was preoccupied with working out symbols of cultural identity, a search for their modern expressions and uneasy contemplation of the French legacy in Lao modernity. It was advanced by the joint venture of Lao elites, artists, monks, but also French scholars and educators. One of the sites mobilized for imagining the Independent Lao Kingdom was Vat Sisaket.      

With the Cold War tensions gaining momentum globally, a controversial combination of American development projects, meddling in political processes, and, later, an outright aggression left its mark on the visual and urban landscape in Laos. On one hand, an introduction of American art and photography inspired new ways to imagine a cosmology of modern Laos, as was proposed, for example, in the painting by Anoulom Souvanduan. On another, it produced unconventional tactics of subverting American efforts, as might be argued in the analysis of the meaning of Anusavali monument.

Aware of Laos vulnerability to external politics, both Lao Royal Government and Pathet Lao advanced negotiations with the Eastern Bloc. If initial inspirations of these negotiations might have been a neutral and united Laos, the reality of the Cold War did not permit such peaceful resolution. Socialist Pathet Lao emerged victorious in the contestation for power. The Monument of the Unknown Soldier established during socialist period indexes how imagining of socialist modernity in Laos had to rely on vernacular symbols and conceptions. The articulation of LPRP rule was expressed in Buddhist architectural symbols and in accordance with traditional concepts of kinship.

The links between individual artist’s visual production and socio-political reality are exemplified in the oeuvre of Anoulom Souvanduan. The choices of style and iconography he made at the particular periods of time indicate that he as an artist contemplated the changes in the Lao world order. 

Visual production in Laos during the Cold War is characterized by eclectic and cosmopolitan nature, with a mix of legacies of French colonial, American and Eastern Bloc cultural imports and their creative reimagining within vernacular conceptions. Buddhist photography, modernist oils, and propaganda posters offered new ways to see and represent the world. Impressionist renditions of Vat Sisaket, a towering giant of Anousalavi and the Monument of the Unknown Soldier became pictorial and architectural manifestations of such imagining, while Lane Xang Avenue connected them on a new axis of modernizing Laos. Far from submissive to external imports, visual culture of Laos at the Cold War was powered by urgency and endurance of vernacular agency.



  1. A series of political and/or economic reforms that introduced elements of free market economy in communist states: Perestroika in the Soviet Union from 1985, “Reform and Opening Up” in China, Doi Moi (Renovation) in Vietnam from 1986 and Chintanakan Mai (New Thinking) in 1986. For Laos, see Yamada.
  2. Sangha – Buddhist monastic order.
  3. The images of some Maha Thera Khamfan Silasangvaro artworks are available in Buddhist Archive of Photography.  
  4. Invention of a daguerreotype by Louis Daguerre in the late 1830s.
  5. The main religious site of Laos
  6. The poster is featured on the cover of Penny Edwards’ book Cambodge
  7. In Lao literally – “the monument”. Now Anousavali is renamed as Patouxai, or Victory Arch, and is recontextualized as a tribute to Lao liberation victories and a tourist attraction. 
  8. For an analysis of a stupa as a model of cosmic order and Buddhist concept of vertical hierarchy see Natalia Gozheva.
  9. My translation of the inscriptions on the statues in Vientiane and Luang Prabang.
  10. That references the original location of the monument before it was moved closer to That Luang grounds. See photo in Grant Evans, The Politics of Ritual and Remembrance, viii. It is not known to me exactly when the Monument of Unknown Soldier was constructed. However, Soviet publications of 1985 and 1986 contain photographs of the structure. See Kadymov and Obnovlennyĭ Laos.  
  11. Meuang – a polity, city or country.

Anna Koshcheeva received her MA in Asian Art Histories at Goldsmiths’ College, University of London, in 2018 with the thesis “Art of Post-Socialist Laos: Contesting the Motherland: Her Past and Future”. She advances research on visual arts of one of the least studied counties in Southeast Asia – the Lao PDR.  She believes that looking at visual culture and built environments helps to appreciate history and the world order of a place. This belief underpins her interdisciplinary approach at the intersections of cultural history, Cold War and Buddhist studies and visual culture in Southeast Asia. Anna’s research is motivated by ideas of decolonizing narratives of the world margins and endurance of vernacular agency. Anna also holds an MA in World Economics and a Ph.D. in Economic Sciences from Udmurt State University (Russia). She has presented at multiple conferences including “Possession and Persuasion” Cornell Southeast Asia Program’s 20th Annual Graduate Student Conference in 2018.