Multi-colored acrylics, charcoal sketches, spray-painted graffiti and yarn textures show the range of style in Chantala Kommanivanh’s solo exhibition, “One Sole Journey: A Self-Examination of a Refugee’s Identity.” Diverse imagery and media mingle as he pieces together memories and stories from his Laotian family and current emotions to represent an identity that, though drawn from many sources, remains unique.
Chantala was born the youngest of five brothers in a Thai refugee camp in 1982 during the Cold War, coming to the United States when he was 2 years old. Abstract, emotional elements in his paintings combine with images taken from photographs of the refugee camp and influences from his childhood in Chicago.
“I felt the need to detail, to preserve the feelings and stories of my family,” Chantala explains. “In examining my own past, I want to recognize the struggles of refugees all over the world who come to strange places, deal with poverty, hunger and identity.”
A faint charcoal sketch of the face of Chantala’s oldest brother Konglakhone is superimposed on heavily textured brown background in “Brother T-12046.” Chantala explains the brown represents the “dirt, grit and toughness” of a sibling who had the “shortest childhood,” working since age nine. Konglakhone‘s refugee ID shows underneath his face, as a yarn bracelet symbolizing good wishes curls over the image, giving it texture and paying homage to the protective older brother.
Chicago’s influence emerges in Chantala’s play with spray paint, juxtaposing graffiti with vibrant backgrounds, as if representations of his family are on the walls of the urban landscape, removed from their original time and place.
His father’s shadowy visage in “Refugee Daddy” plays suggestively with negative space to imply eyebrows arched with fatigue and determination. The contrast of green spray-painted symbols and specks of orange show a clashing of worlds, with the only other definite feature being the father’s refugee number. Chantala explains how he sees the permanence of numbers as that number is replaced with a social security number.
Transitions to America pop up in the exploration of Chantala’s past. With means both defined and undefined, verbal and symbolic, he presents a visual odyssey of rediscovering his identity between different worlds.
“Mother’N’Child,” in which the title itself evokes urban influence, is somewhat reflective of the Christian icon of Madonna and Child. A scattered, multicolored background frames the sketch of a distracted baby Chantala and his content-looking mother. Graffiti throughout the painting includes an outline of a cross to acknowledge the kindness of a Chicago Baptist couple who sponsored the Kommanivanhs’ entry into the United States.
“Tradition has to keep going,” Chantala says. “But artists also have to innovate and find their own voice.” (Ben Broeren)
“One Sole Journey: A Self-Examination of a Refugee’s Identity” shows at All Rise Gallery, 1370 West Grand, (773)292-9255, through August 23.