In a few weeks, Malichansouk Kouanchao (Mali) will make the Wat Lao Buddhist temple on Second Street Northeast her home. Rooms will be built, a generous food supply will be ordered, and overzealous wedding-party patrons will wiggle in their toile bridesmaid's gowns for their thousandth "Duck Dance" of a lifetime. A wall away from it all, Kouanchao, a visual artist and muralist whose work is featured in the current "B-Girl Be" exhibit at Intermedia Arts, will be attempting to create the perfect woman.
The temple, where Kouanchao's Lao-immigrant parents are members, is moving from Minneapolis to Monticello. But Kouanchao's decision to turn the sanctuary into a residence, art studio, and rec center is less about preserving tradition and more about circumventing it. If a woman isn't living at home with her parents, traditional Lao rules require her to be married or in school, neither of which the 33-year-old Kouanchao is. "Even if I'd been born here, my parents would still have cultural issues," Kouanchao says sheepishly while picking at her scone at the May Day Café. "But I think they're starting to accept it more."
Kouanchao's family emigrated from Laos when she was eight, after her father spent three years in a Communist reeducation camp, and the family was later forced into a refugee camp for six months. Her father was a colonel and English translator in the Lao Royal Army, which helped to speed up their emigration process. The family chose Minnesota as their rebirthing grounds partly because Kouanchao's father had a nephew living here and also because the lake state wasn't in danger of being swallowed by hurricanes or volcanoes. "They didn't know anything about snow," Kouanchao says. "They'd only heard about it."
The photo-manipulated and gel-layered images Kouanchao created for "B-Girl Be" reveal her fascination with her cultural heritage, the pop art of Warhol and Basquiat, and how media hegemony redefines and reinforces traditions and values. Two Sisters was inspired by a Chinese propaganda poster of the same name, a piece commissioned by the Communist Party in the 1960s to promote women as agrarian workers. Kouanchao used the background of the poster, with Chinese writing and a weeping tree creeping into the picture, and replaced the two workers with Asian girls decked out in athletic gear and garish necklaces that look like Olympic gold medals. "Asians are obsessed with 24-karat gold," she says. "It has so much power." When Kouanchao was little, her mother bartered her gold jewelry to cross the river into Thailand.
The two women in the piece are a collage of disparate body parts: faces of young girls with the body of Missy Elliott. Kouanchao used the same technique for The Fighter, digitally manipulating an outlined image of an Asian woman in cornrows and oversized boxing gloves by adding the tiny, pursed, red-painted lips of traditionally revered images of Asian women.
The pieces are two of the most provocative images in the exhibit, revealing how modern propaganda is obscured by a collective willingness to accept popular culture and its ascendant consumerism as dogma. "It's using old propaganda to re-create images of women that are powerful and more real than hoochie mamas you see in magazines or videos," Kouanchao says of her artwork. "At the same time, they're still defined by the media; they're still defined by style. I want to show how so many women are still influenced by it."
As a student at South High School in Minneapolis in the late '80s, Kouanchao was the only Asian girl whose head had sprouted dreadlocks. "My mom would pull my hair all the time because I'd be on the phone constantly," she says. "I was so rebellious. I wouldn't come home till after 2:00 a.m., or I'd stay at my friends' houses without telling her." She spent her defiant years tediously etching pictures of Jim Morrison and Bob Marley, along with making T-shirts that said "Fight Back" for a women's zine that never took off, and another for her own wardrobe that featured an ominous skull and the words "Fight the Power" scrawled across the front. "It was so cheesy," she says, before busting out laughing. "I look back at some of those things, and I'm like, 'What were you thinking?'"
Now, Kouanchao has shoulder-length hair with caramel highlights, and she wears jeans and a navy T-shirt instead of homemade threads. "In Laos," she says, "I'm an XX-Large. It used to be that the heavier you were, it was a wealthy status symbol. But it's changed with the influence of Thai media." When she goes back to visit, she hears whispers about her appearance or about why she's unmarried, an atrocity at her age by Lao standards. Her mother, too, holds close to her an image of the perfect woman she hopes Kouanchao will someday become.
"My mom and I have struggled so much with my fashion and her way of seeing how I should look," Kouanchao says. "Just a few weeks ago she pulled out an old picture of me when I went to temple with her and wore my hair long. [Imitating mom's voice] 'Look at you! You so cute here! I like you like this.' It was from a long time ago," Kouanchao says. "But she still keeps it by her vanity."