Dig Deeper Than What Is On The Surface: Chantala Kommanivanh

Introduce yourself

Hello, my name is Chantala Kommanivanh. 

When did you first start getting into art?

As a kid growing up I was always drawn to art as far as I could remember. My older brothers who were really good at drawing, they introduced me to it, and I often imitated what they drew. They drew cartoon characters such as HE-MAN, Woody Wood Pecker, Thundercats, Garbage Pail Kids and all sorts of good old 80’s caricatures. And by observing them and practicing on my own I got good at it myself.

You and your family were refugees from the unfortunate outcomes of the 1964-1975 Secret War in Laos. When landing in the states at two years old, and growing up in Chicago, did you feel like you lost your Lao identity?

Not really because my parents were really good at raising us, Lao. We spoke Lao at home, we ate Lao food at home, and we participated in Lao ceremonies such as in Lao New Year within our own small community that existed. I didn’t question my Lao identity until my first trip to Laos. When I was at the airport I felt as if I was a foreigner and I was also treated as a foreigner. For instance, people in Laos, even my cousins would be hesitant to speak to me in Lao because they weren’t sure if I spoke or understood the language and also they would fix me food that they thought was palatable for an American (which I thought was weird). Coming back to Chicago from my visit to Laos had me then question my identity as Lao and also as an American because Americans would consider me as an outsider first before they would recognize me or not as American because maybe my eyes are small.

Your collection of paintings derive from personal and found photographs representing pivotal times throughout your life. As you’ve gotten older, have you ever gone back to Laos for inspiration?

I’ve only been back to Laos once when I was 19 years old. The photographs that I’ve documented into paintings comes from photographs that survived our migration and also fellow Lao Americans strangers would email them to me, so these memories become activated and amplified because their history is important.


Have you looked at those photographs and interpret them differently while getting older?

These old photographs are special because many personal photographs were destroyed during the migration. Photographs are documentations of life before communism took over Laos. Therefore if these photos say you were apart of the opposition then there was a high possibility that you would be imprisoned or executed. My father was in the Royal Air Force in Laos and he destroyed all his documents that may connect him to the opposition once communism took over Laos in 1975. Photos that exist in our family’s procession today, starts at 1980. When I paint (re-document) these pictures, I celebrate its importance and amplify how crucial archiving is to one’s history.

While you were growing up you said you “Admired the geometric designs in my mother’s textiles. They altered and shaped who I am as an artist today.” What was it about the geometric designs that reeled you in so much?

I was fortunate to witness a woman make a silk textile piece by hand when I was a kid and ever since then I admired their beauty. I understood their complexity and I admired my mother beauty when she wore Lao Silk. Every piece she owned was different and I was attracted to their intricate designs and color. Lao Silk equates to Lao identity for women, and I believe my mother passes her Lao identity to me and my brothers and also our Lao traditions when these silks are pass on into the family line.

Lets talk about your more recent work, ‘Here There’. This work is a little different in comparison to your other work. Talk about the inspiration behind these pieces.

“Here There” are aggressive marks layered on top of marks, color and aggressive brush strokes that lead the painting to reveal an abstraction that may re-present landscapes. These landscapes reveal decay, remnants of past marks, shape, and space. I like to think of these landscapes as in between states of decomposing and flowering. Landscapes are affected by man’s greed, man’s beliefs, and man’s denial of nature that causes man to migrate and find new landscapes to destroy. “We” as humans are always in the state of Here and There, always in constant with nature. And most of the time “We” pressure nature to accelerate nature’s behavior.


On top of painting, you were also a part of Maintenance Crew. Back in April, you guys put out your last project, ‘Educated Fools’. We know how much of an impact hip-hop had on your life, how hard was it to step away from making music?

It was not hard at all because I know “We” as a collective put out 5 quality albums that will have its own life after Maintenance Crew. I feel many people are still discovering the music and we are gaining new listeners every day. Music was always a part of the painting process. Even though there is no more new Maintenance music there will still be music being made on my own.


If you want people to take away one thing from your artwork, what would it be?

I want people to dig deeper than what is on the surface. Beauty is a façade; my bright colors mask my complex history. Every brush stroke is a capture memory. Every mark is important because without a brilliant mark “We” don’t exist as part of human history.