The Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre (TAEC) is a social enterprise in Luang Prabang, Laos, dedicated to promoting the appreciation and transmission of Laos’ ethnic cultural heritage, and livelihoods based on traditional skills. TAEC features a museum with exhibitions on the ethnic cultures of Laos and fair-trade handicraft shops directly linked with artisan communities. The Centre’s work includes school outreach activities, craft workshops, lectures, research, and a non-profit foundation.
The Centre was founded by Tara Gujadhur and Thongkhoun Soutthivilay who now serve as Co-Directors. Tara Gujadhur is an American with an anthropology background and 15 years’ experience in indigenous community development and sustainable tourism in southern Africa and Southeast Asia. Thongkhoun Soutthivilay is from Luang Prabang and trained in Japan, the Netherlands, and Thailand while working at the Luang Prabang National Museum for over 10 years as the Collection Manager and a conservator. Together they began work on TAEC in 2006, building a collection, researching, working with ethnic communities, and curating the permanent exhibitions. The Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre opened to the public on 5 July 2007.
To date, TAEC has welcomed over 200,000 Lao and international visitors, and has become a regional leader in cultural heritage management and community development.
TAEC and Handicrafts and Advocacy
TAEC recognises the need to support livelihood development in ethnic minority communities, which represent a disproportionate percentage of the poor in Laos, as well as foster the more long-term goal of cultural pride and identity building. TAEC’s Museum Shop, TAEC Boutique, and online shop sells crafts sourced directly from artisan communities, promoting handicraft skills and livelihoods based on traditional arts - keeping these precious arts alive and reducing the need to migrate to larger cities and towns for employment.
50% of the shop’s income goes directly to the handicraft producers themselves, and currently provides over 600 ethnic minority women, men and their families in 13 provinces with supplementary income. According to fair-trade and sustainability principles, TAEC works closely with handicraft producers, providing small loans and payments upfront, training in product design, quality and small business practices, and logistical support. TAEC has supported artisans to visit Luang Prabang to participate in cultural exchange activities and crafting residencies.
Oma and Max Mara
In early April 2019, TAEC became aware that the Italian fashion brand Max Mara had duplicated motifs from the Oma ethnic group of Laos, and were selling a line of clothing featuring these designs as part of their ‘Weekend’ line. The Oma were not credited in the name of the garment, on tags, or online, and the patterns were simply digitally reproduced and mass-printed. TAEC reached out to Max Mara’s headquarters and when they received no response, launched a campaign to draw attention to the plagiarism and pressure Max Mara to pull the line.
The Oma are a tiny ethnic group living in northern Laos, are often described as a sub-group of the Akha ethnic group (and called “Akha Oma”), though they would consider themselves a distinct community. It is estimated that there are fewer than 2,000 Oma in Laos, inhabiting seven villages in Phongsaly Province. Small Oma communities may also exist in neighbouring southern China, northwest Vietnam, and Myanmar.