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Treasures of past kings survive in Laos

Years have passed since the era of kingdoms in Laos but the kings' artistry of handmade lacquerware bowls is being kept alive in one family's hands.

During the 20th century - during the reign of Sisavangvong around 1904 - the king of Luang Prabang used lacquerware bowls in his household collection which were usually made of bamboo basketry work or carved wood before being coated with resin from black-varnish trees.

Lacquerware bowls, designed by Ounheuan, and often used for almsgiving ceremonies.

These bowls were a symbol of the households of royalty and the extremely wealthy during this period.

Owner of Mani Lacquerware Bowls, Ounheuan Sounkaseum, made the decision to carry on his family's tradition with lacquerware and to inherit some of the king's valuable art in 2004.

“I have been making lacquerware bowls since I was a child; its smell is in my nose while the sound of carving them surrounds my ears. I fall in love with their beautiful patterns all over again whenever I look at them,” he says.

Ounheuan closes his eyes during the moments he is contemplating continuing the conservation of the ancient art form for future generations.

Back in the 1990s, his father stopped his work with lacquerware and for a time it looked as though the traditional craft and beautiful artwork would disappear forever.

Fortunately, 10 years later Ounheuan brought the making of lacquerware bowls back into his life in an effort to both preserve the tradition and his family business.

In 2012, he went to Myanmar to educate himself in the art of making patterns in lacquerware in the hopes of developing his art and attracting more interest from both locals and tourists.

“I am very happy to see that my efforts have such a positive influence on the art form as I have now seen young people increasing their use of lacquerware bowls in day-to-day activities like the alms giving ceremony,” Ounheuan said with a smile.

Today, lacquerware bowls are mostly the preserve of the rich as they are somewhat expensive.

Further sustainable conservation

Mr Ounheuane dreams about seeing the king's art spread out among people across the country as a part of a sustainable conservation initiative.

Consequently, he plans to open yet another branch in Vientiane at the end of the year.

He has observed that more and more people in Vientiane are tending to use lacquerware bowls, vases and trays for household decoration as well as for ceremonies.

“Some customers in the southern provinces are interested in our products but we don't have any plans to open a branch there just yet,” said Mr Ounheuane.

He went on to explain that his traditional lacquerware products were recently awarded One District, One Product (ODOP) status in Luang Prabang in August and that he might have been the first traditional lacquerware maker in the province.

Since the designation many people have began to recognise his products and he says his market is consistently expanding, especially the growth that he has seen this year compared to the past few years.

He added that it's not only local customers purchasing his products but that some of his customers also come from China, Vietnam and Thailand.

He has even exported his products to as far away as Australia, Japan, Germany, and America.

Mr Ounheuane plans to increase his production in response to the high demand but says he still faces a shortage of skilled labour which can sometimes hinder quick production.

Currently, he has only eight people making lacquerware and most are family members so he plans to recruit more workers, in particular, amputees.

He says he teaches his employees how to work properly with valuable art so that they can hopefully have sustainable jobs which can play a part in further expansion.

Mr Ounheuane explains that he intends to promote human rights as well, like hiring disabled people so that they are able to support their families.

As part of his success, his lacquerware bowls are now being considered World Culture Heritage by The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation in Luang Prabang.

Documents for the process have been submitted, the results of which he expects will be announced by the end of the year.

“If the lacquerware bowls are announced as World Culture Heritage, it will feel as though the efforts of my conservation have not been like pouring water onto sand,” Mr Ounheuane exclaims with optimism.

By Ounkham Pimmata
(Latest Update March 21, 2017 )

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