Photos by Joshua Pelta-Heller
Of her many talents, former two.one.five Fashion Director Catzie Vilayphonh is best known for her dominating spoken word performances on controversial social and political issues that widely affect Asian American communities. Now further extending her need-to-know worldly knowledge, Catzie’s working on new project, backed in part by the prestigious Knight Arts Foundation.
Read on to learn about her winning ideas for Philly’s first Lao arts festival and her inspirations and observations as an artist, a poet, and an organizer–or simply, as Catzie.
two.one.five magazine: Tell us about your Knight Arts Project.
Catzie Vilayphonh: It is a project –an arts festival—to bring in other Lao artists to come to Philadelphia. For a while now Lao artists feel like we don’t get recognized by our own communities. We get recognized by other [arts] communities—like, if we were writing a play, the play writing community would recognize us but the people we grew up around don’t really know what we are doing.
Part of the reason why [the Lao] community doesn’t know who we are is because our culture doesn’t really prioritize the arts. When they think about the arts, they just think about traditional arts like folk arts. But we are Asian American, we are Lao American, so therefore there is this hybrid of cultures going on. We have our traditional ethnic background and we come to America and we are given new lives.
I’m part of a group called Yellow Rage, and so even though the spoken word community knows who I am and the Asian American community knows who I am, I’m still sort of a mystery to my own community. My mom didn’t know what I did until she saw me on TV. I think for a long time she thought I was just lecturing. And I was like, “Oh yea I talk in schools” and she sort of saw it and was like, “Oh, OK, I get it now.” But I feel like part of the reason that our community doesn’t know who we are is because our culture doesn’t recognize us and so I am like alright then I’m going to bring all of these artists to come to Philadelphia and then you’ll see that we actually are doing something.
215: Tell us a little more about the cultural disconnect you see in your community, or in the Asian American community in general.
CV: When I was growing up, I didn’t get Asian American history until my senior year of high school and even then, they touched upon a small part of South East Asia. And I was like, well we need to tell the story and if nobody else is going to do it then, we need to tell our own stories. I feel like by making an example of having all these artists come in and tell that story, then other people can be encouraged to tell their own stories, and so I sort of see it as a healing medium.
I know that mental illness is something of like a taboo in different Asian cultures and I feel like I’ve heard [personal] stories not from my community but from where I travel to places like Minnesota where there is a huge Lao community—and people are still talking about the experiences of when they were growing up with these bombs they couldn’t explain what it was. I sort of feel like that’s a very important part of the storytelling.
We have this tradition for the Lao New Year, it’s pretty much like a beauty pageant. It’s based off of this story which is, there’s a boy who’s really smart, and the god above found out he was really smart and he tried to test him, and the god felt like, “I’m a god, I’m really smarter than you. I’m going to bet that if you’re smarter than me, I’m going to cut off my own head.” And of course the boy solved the riddle and the king had to cut off his own head. Because he was a god and he had to be alive, and that’s the only way to overlook his people, he said to the boy that as long as you carry my head every New Year and take care of it then there will be prosperity and all that other good stuff. And he had seven daughters.
So I interviewed the pageant contestants and these girls were like I had no idea that this was the story. They just do the pageant because their mom tells them to and they don’t know why they are seven or carry the head around and I was like this is kind of sad because how are you going to continue our tradition and you have no idea why?
215: They don’t appreciate it.
CV: No. And then it dawned on them. They are Americans and so they are like, “Oh, we can do whatever we want” and I’m like are you going to make your own daughter do it? They were like, “You know, I think I will give her the choice, I will let her decide.” And what if she decides no? What if all of you guys grow up and have daughters and all of your daughters say no, what’s going to happen? And they were sort of like oh, now I see why my parents make me.
I also feel like there is a disconnect between the younger generation and the older generation. The younger generation is all about being American and being defined and being expressive and all this other stuff, then the older generation is sort of trying to hold on, and the two never really find a way to see eye to eye. I think by bringing all these artists who range in age, from the older generation, first generation refugees to younger generations, to bring them together to say look, we all have the same story, we all pretty much are doing the same thing. Art transcends through age and generation and storytelling is something we can all connect to because it’s something we all come from.
215: You mentioned that there are issues that are taboo to mention, especially in Asian cultures. Do you feel that your efforts have had positive feedback or do you feel that across the generations, they are hoping that your stories would stay quiet?
CV: I would say yes and no. I feel like, no, in terms of some people don’t know what I do, so it’s still a mystery. I could see why I might not be praised, because especially the poetry that I do, uses curse words and you know all those things that a good Asian girl should not be doing. But I don’t know, I haven’t had that chance yet to be able to present it to them. I feel like I try, but I don’t know what it is that keeps them from coming to see me. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. Maybe If I had other artists to co-sign with then people would realize what I did.
215: So when will the Lao arts festival take place?
CV: I want it to be part of the Lao New Year festival, which happens every April. I think it’s a great way to get people to come. So this is the thing about trying to market to your audience. You sort of have to give them a reason to come, and I feel like by combining it with the new year, people would be in a more celebratory mood, hook them in with moon year festivities, and once they are here, get them to sit down and present all these artists and give them a show. And make them realize that there were Lao artists that were making films, or Lao artists that were doing visual arts or Textiles or fashion design.
I want it to be an ongoing thing, at some point in time, maybe we can present this without having it being connected to New Year’s festivities, but I kind of just want to get it on the ground rolling first.
Who are some Lao artists we should know about?
There are people being recognized all over the United States nationally. Brian Thao Worra is the first Lao American to win an NEA Fellows. He’s a writer. I feel like that is somebody that should be recognized. Thavisouk Phrasavath, Oscar nominated Filmmaker. He is somebody that should be known. There are other people making History and I feel like just because they are not rappers or people that you would normally see everyday, I still feel like they should be recognized for what they do because what they do is tell stories and because they are Lao American, they tell our stories for us and we should welcome them or recognize them for their great work.
And so, I think that part of the reason why artists are artists is because we have a story to tell and the way in which we choose use to tell the story is our medium and so in which I choose to tell my story is through poetry and the way that maybe Tavi chooses to do it is film so.
215: So you have a year to come up with this?
CV: I have a year to come up with the money first. So once you are awarded a Knight Arts grant, you have to come up with the other half, and then you get the money and that is sort of the challenge. Its supposed to get you amped up, like I’m 50 percent of the way there, all I need is the other 50 percent. Usually it’s that first funder that’s usually hard to get and usually what’s supposed to happen is that when other funders see that somebody else is backing you they are like, oh ok this person is backing you up, I could back you up and he’s already taken care of 50 percent, I don’t mind taking care of 5 or 10 percent. And I think the thing about writing grants is that you get familiar with the process and so you are able to cater to whomever you are asking from. It’s a learning process and obviously you might not get all of the money but you are challenged and the title is how are you going to come up with the rest of the money for the proposal that you came up with? How much do you believe in yourself?
215: How can our two.one.five readers help you get there?
CV: Once I figure it out, I’ll find a way to get the word out there. But I think from being in the city for so long and knowing so many people, like working with Two.One.Five and Asian Arts initiative, I’m friends with Kimmel Center. I think being in the community so long I just know enough people that I feel like I can get the word out and whatever way I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it.
For more information on the Knight Arts Challenge, visit www.knightarts.org.