Born in Laos in 1958, Tiao Nithakhong Somsanith is a descendant of Vang Na, in the line of Viceroys proceeding from the former Luang Prabang monarchy. He was introduced to a variety of artistic practices, including painting, sculpture, and lacquering at a very young age. Although the art of gold embroidery is a courtly one, and specifically reserved for women (usually transmitted from mother to daughter), he discovered this artisanal practice while observing his mother and grandmother. Soonafter he undertook an apprenticeship, which he continued until becoming named a mo, or gold embroidery expert.
In Laotian, gold embroidery is expressed with “sinlapa pak dinh”: “sinlap”: art, “pak”: needlepoint, “dinh”: to squirm or wiggle, describing the threads of precious metal wound around a core of silk.
In Laos, such embroidery is a highly-regarded traditional art, and so is afforded a privileged place: embroiderers emerge exclusively from the aristocratic milieu and embroidery pieces are prized and used as royal regalia, bridal finery, and nuptial dowry.
Following the advent of the Democratic Republic of Laos in 1975, the practice of this art has tended towards decline in tandem with the deterioration of the royal family. Tiao Nithakhong Somsanith eventually left Laos, arriving in France to study first at the Beaux-Arts d’Orléans before pursuing psychology at the Sorbonne.
The prince continues to practice traditional Laotian embroidery, sourcing his gold and silver threading from one of the last remaining artisanal mills in Lyon. This guardian of ancestral Laotian culture is acclaimed for the contemporary relevance of his work, in which he expresses a personal aesthetic nourished by ancient techniques. Tiao Nith, as he calls himself, is exhibited across the globe and his embroideries are ordered by numerous museums, institutions and private collectors.
Since 2002, the artist-embroider has chosen to return to a life on the land of his ancestors in Laos, where he actively works to preserve this exceptional heritage which presently endures thanks to a handful of artisans still in active production.
Today, Tiao Nith teaches at Souphanouvong National University and works actively in Luang Prabang for the promotion of the traditional Laotian arts of dance, music, puppetry, and floral art as well as lacquerware and precious metal embroidery. He is devoted to the transmission of this artistic heritage, of which he is one of the few remaining custodians.
Thank you to Catherine Choron-Baix
Photograph Copyright: Ratsamy Szafran