I recently met Tiao Nithakhong Somsanith at the 5th International Conference on Lao Studies, in Bangkok. He transformed a drab classroom into a sacred space—golden embroideries of the Buddha, lace-like stencils of angels hovering like snowflakes on the windows overlooking the Chao Praya river, and an aura of the timelessness that imbues these ancient arts.
Amongst this glimmering beauty, is Tiao Nith, a spry, multi lingual, elegantly dressed, spontaneous man, with an infectious laugh.
As a child of royal lineage in 1960’s Luang Prabang, Lao, he grew up surrounded by courtly arts, such as painting, lacquer, embroidery, and dance. He watched his grandmother and mother patiently practice this aristocratic art, making traditional triangular pillows, royal sashes and sabai, jackets, collars and dowry pieces. They delicately worked the precious gold threads, imported from Dorures Charles Mathieu, a French company that historically supplied these luxury threads to the Lao royalty.
Even though embroidery was a woman’s work, the young Tiao Nith apprenticed until he reached the level of a mo, or gold embroidery expert. Additionally, he became a doctor and practiced in rural Lao, and later psychology in France, where he sought asylum. The family embroideries were exquisite, and he managed to save a few pieces to inspire and teach today’s students.
You can get ‘stuff’ from your genes, but not everyone does such remarkable things with their hidden gifts….
Tiao Nith is both a guardian of the traditional techniques and designs, and a contemporary artist, exploring the limitations of the artform.
His contemporary embroideries are transcendent; the attenuation of threads into golden grasses that appear to be blowing in the wind, or stitched leaf carcasses that look like they are dipped in gold and laid on silk…..or the nearly abstract wall hangings of embroidered monastic codes, like Surrealist automatic writing, twisted golden script copied from ancient Pali palm leaf manuscripts—transforming one message into another medium.
What a special new friend in the global circle of textiles.
Tiao Nith will participate in an exhibit (August 15-20, 2016) and receive an award at the SACICT Foundation, Support Arts And Crafts International Center of Thailand. He teaches, works in Luang Prabang, Nan, Thailand, and France.