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Creative Development | Moving national narratives: artistic expressions of flight, refuge and belonging by Roy Huijsmans

National historiography often takes the form of a single story propagated by those in power, thereby muting alternative experiences of ordinary citizens of these celebrated events. In Laos, the country’s National Day coincided with an international dance festival, showing different ways of recounting histories. In this blogpost Roy Huijsmans suggests that in the creative realm and performing arts we may find articulations of the subjugated narratives of the collective memory of the nation.

When visiting the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) late November 2019 for the Fang Maekhong International Dance Festival I found myself also witnessing the preparations for the celebration of the 44th Lao National Day. Government buildings were being adorned with freshly purchased national flags, always flanked by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party flag in bright red and sporting the familiar hammer and sickle in yellow. There were the inevitable banners, too, carrying slogans celebrating the nation and the progress made under the leadership of the communist Lao People’s Revolutionary Party.

In Lao historiography, the establishment of the Lao PDR is presented as the logical endpoint of a long struggle by the Lao peoples against imperial forces – first French colonial rule, then Lao Royalist Governments backed by the United States of America as part of its broader stakes in the Second Indochinese War. Around each national day (2 December), the various Lao newspapers and television stations contribute their bit to the reproduction of the national narrative, with specials about revolutionary heroes, heroic battles, and by detailing the development progress made under revolutionary rule. The same narrative is presented in school text books, musea, and in public speeches by officials.

All this is not particular to the Lao PDR. National historiography often takes the form of a single story told from the vantage point of the victors. Thereby it silences the many different experiences that were generated by these very same historical events (Evans 1998). For example, the narrative of a united revolutionary struggle against foreign powers and influence hides the many internal conflicts and civil war that were also part of the making of the Lao PDR.

A key element missing from the Lao narrative is the fate of the about 10 per cent of the then population that left the country throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. They left because they found themselves on the wrong side of history or simply escaped the impoverishment and repressive political climate characterising the infant years of the Lao PDR.

Virtually everyone in the today’s Lao PDR knows someone who has fled the country. Stories of flight, refuge, and increasingly also about return are told, yet often in private. These are the stories of uncles and aunts now living in France, the USA, or Australia. These stories have found no place in school textbooks or in any of the official commemorations around the Lao national day. Yet these stories matter because these, too, are a part of the collective memory of the nation.

The arts: subtle propositions going beyond the national narrative

Artistic initiatives are turning the tide to make the voices of migrants and refugees heard, however. Parallel to the preparations for the Lao National Day celebration, Vientiane also witnessed the 10th edition of the Fang Mae Khong International Dance Festival. The French-Lao dancer Thô Anothaï was part of the impressive line-up comprising Lao national and international dancers. In his contemporary dance titled Mekong, Thô enacted his personal experience of fleeing Laos at a young age. Through his dance, by means of movements rooted in hip-hop and contemporary dance, he represented memories of his flight, such as a boats man paddling him across the Mekong River in the deep of the night.

As Thô took the stage, the first lines of a Lao traditional song were played. Soon the music gave way to soundbites of women’s voices in French, Lao, and the Vietnamese language that graphically described moments in the experience of flight and refuge. The song accentuated Thô’s personal account as a Lao story; the women’s voices referenced the broader context of the aftermath of the Second Indochinese War in which we must understand Thô’s experience. Through his performance Thô invited the audience to accompany him in his journey across the Mekong River, recalling his childhood experience of flight expressed through the serene and stunning beauty of his dance.

The themes of flight, refuge and identity are also central to Nith Lacroix’s 2007 documentary film titled Pierre & Pierrot. The film focuses on twin brothers of a French father and a Lao mother who were separated at a young age in their flight across the Mekong River into Thailand.

Thô Anothaï and Nith Lacroix’s artistic work are first and foremost works of art. Yet, by staging their work for audiences in the Lao PDR, the art may become more than just that. For more inclusive celebrations of national events, it is important to recognise the suffering and pain that is also part of the collective memory of the nation.

Evans, G. (1998). The Politics of Ritual and Remembrance: Laos since 1975. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books.

This article is part of a series on Creative Development. Read more articles of this series here.

Color 2 Roy Huijsmans

About the author:

Roy Huijsmans is a teacher/researcher at the ISS.












Creative Development | Migration and musical mobilities in Sudan and Laos by Roy Huijsmans, Katarzyna Grabska and Cathy Wilcock

How are belonging, citizenship, and rights contested through creative practices such as music and dance? What role do the creative industry, international cultural institutions, and the mobilities of performing artists play in this? And what is the significance of all this for rethinking development in post-conflict settings such as Sudan and Laos? This article briefly reflects on these questions that are driving a new ISS-funded research project.

Researching development through creative practice

A new research project led by ISS researchers Katarzyna Grabska, Roy Huijsmans, and Cathy Wilcock called Creative Development: Migration and musical mobilities in Sudan and Laos seeks to investigate the intersection of migration and creative practice. The project commences in 2019 and involves qualitative, arts-based and ethnographic field research in France, Laos, Sudan, and the UK. This research will contribute to an emerging body of work studying the relations between arts, popular culture, migration, and development.

In development studies, there is some recognition of the role of popular culture in development practice, perhaps most noticeable in research on the phenomenon of ‘celebrities’ as goodwill ambassadors (e.g. David Beckham, Shakira, Angelina Jolie). In migration and refugee studies, the engagement with the arts has been more profound and has gone beyond a focus on the rich and famous, also breaking with a western-centric view of development.

A good example is the collaborative project led by Dave Lumenta at Universitas Indonesia. The project is entitled ‘Performing out of Limbo’. It is a musical/research collaboration between Oromo refugee youth from Ethiopia and musicians, students and academics from Indonesia (see a short YouTube clip here, and a write up here).

Music and dance as acts of citizenship

The project’s conceptualisation of citizenship and belonging draws on the work of Engin Isin. In the social sciences, citizenship is mostly treated as a ‘status’. In their 2008, book ‘Acts of Citizenship, Isin and Neilsen depart from such a view and approach citizenship as an act. Such a conceptualisation of citizenship enables us to rethink ‘who’ can be a citizen based on ‘collective and individual deeds that rupture socio-historical patterns’ (p13).

This approach enables viewing music and dance performances as acts of citizenship, as explored by Aoileann Ní Mhurchú in her article ‘Unfamiliar Acts of Citizenship’. Here she engages with the experiences of young migrants in Ireland and their engagement with hip hop and vernacular languages. Their practices do not fit into conventional categories of belonging based on language use, ethnicity, or nationality, and are better described as processes facilitating ‘creative hybrid refashioning of self’ (p163) through which political identities and relations of belonging are renegotiated. Although these songs, like much hip hop, come with a message, the focus on processes and effects lead us to go beyond a discursive analysis of the lyrics to ask what senses of belonging those involved in these musical practices realised through them.

Creative development and contested acts of national belonging in Laos and Sudan

This research project will build on the work of Ní Mhurchú and others through examining music and dance as acts of citizenship in post-conflict settings. With recent histories of violent internal conflict, followed by regime change Laos and Sudan offer fertile terrain for studying acts of citizenship in and through (re)emerging creative practices.

In both Laos and Sudan, questions of national belonging are delicate matters. Expressions of citizenship are not only regulated through legal practices, but also actively promoted through national education curricula and state-censored media. This indicates that citizenship in these contexts is much more than a matter of status, but also a matter of conduct, and one that comes with a strong national(ist) morality. From such a perspective, it is not difficult to see why a music video by the popular Thai national country singer Lumyai shot in the Lao tourist site of Vang Vieng stirred debate in Laos. Although the lyrics hardly refer to national belonging, other elements of the clip do. The music video is shot in a famous rural Lao location, and in her dance moves Lumyai weaves together elements from the traditional Lam Fong dance with sexually provocative moves. As such, Lumyai transgressed norms about proper (gendered) conduct on Lao soil.

Emplacement and movement in creative development

Due to recent histories of violent conflict, there are significant Lao and Sudanese diaspora, and the diaspora play an active role in the creative scene. Migration, like popular culture, is a transnational phenomenon. Moreover, culture is also transnationalised through international cultural institutions. This is evident from the work of the Institut Français in Laos and in Sudan and the Goethe Institute in Sudan. Culture has always flown, but this is particularly true in the present-day social media landscape. In addition, diaspora networks and international cultural institutions also facilitate the movement of artists and creative development. At the same time, dance and citizenship become acts of citizenship when they are emplaced—that is, when these creative expressions become meaningful in relation to more territorialised relations of belonging. Hence, the research project will pay close attention to the dynamics of mobilities and placemaking in the manifestations of creative development under study. Stay tuned!

On 5 February 2019, the ISS will host a workshop on ‘Moving methods: creative approaches to experiences of displacement, migration, social justice and belonging’.

Color 2 Roy HuijsmansRoy Huijsmans is a teacher/researcher at the ISS.






Kasia Grabska_

Katarzyna (Kasia) Grabska is a lecturer/researcher at the ISS and a filmmaker.’




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Cathy Wilcock is a postdoctoral researcher at the ISS, with a background in critical development studies. In her role at ISS, she is continuing her work on political belonging in the context of forced migration.