Day 286: June 08, 2019

Visited at 14:00

Berlin Carnival of Cultures

https://www.berlin.de/en/events/2092491-2842498-carnival-of-cultures.en.html

My body is slowly becoming more accustomed to the time shift in Berlin. I am finally back at my regular sleep schedule, sleeping at 2am and waking up at 11am. I planned to visit a flea market today but missed my stop while taking the U8. My intentions were to get off and take the next train back to the previous platform, but the train station was slightly confusing. I ended up near the Mehringdamm platform for U6 U7.

I followed the large crowd to the streets and realized that I was next to the Carnival of Cultures in Berlin. I wanted to take pictures tomorrow at this festival because there will be a parade, a showing and celebration of cultural and ethnic performance. The site felt specific to my exploration of cultural dress and embodied performance of Hmong.

Carnival of Cultures, Berlin, Germany 2019

Carnival of Cultures, Berlin, Germany 2019

I slowly wandered around and the environment was very similar to the State Fair or your typical festival grounds. Because it was a culture festival, I found myself looking for Hmong-like and Hmong inspired materials. For the first 10 minutes I saw food vendors, lots of Latin, African, Middle Eastern, and Indian inspired food. Similarly I saw African, Latin, Middle Eastern and Indian inspired prints, accessories and clothing. There were a few Southeast Asian and East Asian food vendors selling Korean, Thai and Vietnamese food.

I walked past some Sri Lanka performers in cultural dress and I found myself thinking about the purpose of the festival. Certainly it was a celebratory atmosphere, Berliners sharing and experiencing one another’s culture. Seeing a variety of cultures being represented felt familiar, like being at the local markets on University Ave in Minnesota, or strolling down the fashion district in LA.

Yet the majority of people who were the audience were still white people-at least they appear to be white. I found myself thinking about performance, particularly who’s celebrating what and who’s performing for who? What is culture at the Carnival of Cultures? According to the website, the festival is seen as:

"A proud expression of hybrid cultural identities

The organizers of the festival proclaim that "the Carnival of Cultures is open to everybody and all forms of cultural expression. It is regarded as a platform for a proud expression of hybrid cultural identities, containing traditional and contemporary elements. It includes and attracts all age groups, professional artists and amateurs, people from all walks of life."

Indeed I saw a mixing-hybridity of food, crafts, and bodies. Small vendors selling handi-crafts made from all over the world. It was in these vendors that I saw Hmong. The kind of Hmong that was manufactured from China and other factories elsewhere in Southeast Asia for tourism. The kind of Hmong that was sold back to the Hmong people to sell for survival.

I was going to ask for prices and I thought about purchasing, however, I realized that I cannot own all these materials because I do not have space for them when I travel back home. Additionally, several of the items can be found at the local Hmong market and craft markets in Minnesota. Sometimes you’ll find some of these clutch-its at Forever 21, an accessory for the festival summer look.

Carnival of Cultures, Berlin, Germany 2019. Vendor selling hand braided bracelets, trinkets, necklaces, and other accessories. The jean sweater has a mola textile attached on the back.

Carnival of Cultures, Berlin, Germany 2019.

I was excited to see Hmong, but was also not excited because I don’t think these vendors are aware of where the textiles and designs come from. I also do not think that these textiles are in the same position as the kind of textiles that I find at local Goodwills or second hand thrift stores. These textiles are not displaced, but designed intentionally to serve the purpose of the festival, tourist attraction, small mementos of the event.

I told myself, to not be too excited by the hint of a reflection of Hmong history and culture because these materials do not bring any awareness for the erasure that happens when hybrid cultures are formed. Looking around I wondered why other cultures were not present? Why is it that the most vulnerable communities become symbols of assimilation stories in larger cities? How different is this Carnival of Cultures from the World’s Fair or large expos that were created to educate white communities about the exotic other?

Carnival of Cultures, Berlin, Germany 2019. The last time I saw the black bags on the right was when I was in Sapa, Vietnam. The women and children were selling trinkets and one of these bags were gifted to me. They are machine made, some of the Sapa Hmong stated that these bags were made in China and then resold to them. The trinkets on the left look similar to the ones that mother use to sell at Hmong sports tournaments in the United States. They are either made in China or Thailand.

Carnival of Cultures, Berlin, Germany 2019. Miao and Southeast Asian Hmong textile hand bags and wallets mixed with a variety of other textiles.

“Every year in spring, the Carnival of Cultures celebrates cultural diversity in Berlin. Costumes, dance, music, rituals - the carnival is a great opportunity for members of Berlin's ethnic groups to make their cultures visible and for everybody else to see and celebrate cultural diversity.”

Carnival of Cultures, Berlin, Germany 2019.

Carnival of Cultures, Berlin, Germany 2019. Miao and Southeast Asian Hmong textile hand bags and wallets mixed with a variety of other textiles.

Getting lost today helped push me in a direction of reflection. Walking through hordes of people, I was reminded of growing up Hmong American, a “hybrid” identity; an identity that is not necessarily one without the other, and one where culture and traditions are constantly shifting. I was reminded that in a modern society, it can feel like the larger society is moving so quickly that those who pause to reflect is endangered of moving backwards in time. It seems that people are excited for the contemporary and modern shifts in traditional knowledge and crafts, but I find myself more interested in trying to understand what is lost when these shifts happen under the myth of assimilation. What becomes past, what stays in the present and then the imagined future?

A Private Matter

A Private Matter

it's a private matter pain is a private matter it's a personal thing it's a private matter
pain is a private matter Paint is a private matter. It's a personal think, a private matter
Private is pain, a personal matter is. a person matter is a personal thing a matter. It's a private thing, a personal matter. 

Read More

A Reflection: Hmong clothes #1, khaub ncaws hmoob #1

A Reflection: Hmong clothes #1, khaub ncaws hmoob #1

On September 9, 2016, I posted a photo of my work Hmong Clothes #1, khaub ncaw hmoob #1 onto my Facebook Artist page. In this image I was modeling Hmong clothes that I created with camouflage nylon and bullet shells while wearing black high heels and holding a toy gun. I originally wrote about my process in an earlier blog post which you can read about here. In my original post I did not include any context, instead wrote the title of the work, dimensions and mediums as one would do when labeling works of art. Also included in this post was a fragment stating “Maybe, I’ll wear it for the Hmong New Year”. 

About six hours later, this post was shared over 50 times on to other people’s Facebook walls, forums, and other social media websites. It generated over 2,000 views on my artist Facebook Page. I made the decision to delete everything on my artist page however the photo was reposted five days later into a public Facebook page and forum called Kuv Yog Hmoob - I am Hmong. Kuv Yog Hmoob is a space where Hmong people from all over the world come together to share Hmong experiences. There are over 24,000 members and it is growing daily. A good majority of the posts and comments are written in Hmong and many active members speak freely based on their opinions, beliefs and experiences. A few friends recognized my photo and brought it to my attention. At this point the Facebook thread had already generated over 100 comments, 270 shares and 470 reactions. 

Read More

A Reflection: The Ananya Dance Theater Audience Empowerment Workshop

The Ananya Dance Theater (ADT) hosted an Audience Empowerment Workshop on August 22 at the Frey Theater in The O'Shaughnessy complex at St. Catherine University in St. Paul for the community to learn more about "Horidraa: Golden Healing," ADT's 2016 production. ADT dancers performed excerpts from "Horidraa" and after each performance, Ananya Chatterjea, founder, director, choreographer of ADT opened the floor up for reflection and discussion. 

My mind is still processing what I experienced. I felt naive as I listened to people's reactions, thoughts, and comments regarding the four pieces performed. Naive in the sense that the movements were familiar. Have I been performing this? When was the last time I was seduced? When was the last time I tried to hide my imperfections? When was the last time I told someone to stop and think about what they were saying, consuming, and enforcing? I realized that on a daily basis these dances are performed. The dance I saw today was unpolished, raw and truthful. Below are a brief observation of the first and second performance.

Read More

Revisiting Traditions: Sketching The Clothes #1

Revisiting Traditions: Sketching The Clothes #1

Hmong Scholars, historians, anthropologist, and Hmong elders have stated over and over again that Hmong textiles, clothing and paj ntaub have been traditionally passed down from grandmothers to mothers to daughters and so on. It's an oral and visual tradition that's learned through memorization and produced by the hands of Hmong women. 

I revisited this "traditional" female process to ask the questions: "What if we took this tradition serious? What would Hmong women's clothing look like today if I continued to explore the concept of history, memory and spirituality recorded in the fabric and body? What if we thought serious about the materials that are on the finest traditional Hmong clothing and continued creating? What does it mean to wear The Clothes today? 

Read More

Cravings for Creative Spaces

Cravings for Creative Spaces

The Hmong people have been in America for a little over 40 years. Generally speaking, it's hard to find spaces where artists of the Hmong identity can reflect and have critical conversations about their working processes, especially if the works are influenced by their experiences, histories and cultures. 

Today the internet and social media platforms are making it easier to seek out events that elaborate on contemporary issues in the arts. There's a lack of contemporary Hmong conversations about visual and performance art in my community. I've been throwing myself into other community spaces to explore how artist of color and indigenous identities mentor and engage in contemporary American issues. What does it look like to make art influenced by one's identity? Are there similar issues that artist of color and indigenous artist experience?

Read More

Googling General Vang Pao (GVP)

Googling General Vang Pao (GVP)

I've been reading Claiming Place On the Agency of Hmong Women by Chia Youyee Vang, Faith Nibbs, and Ma Vang. There was one particular chapter that forced me think about the visuals that are generally chosen for history books, The Women of "Dragon Capital" Marriage Alliances and the Rise of Vang Pao written by Mai Na M. Lee, a history professor from the University of Minnesota-Minneapolis. Who gets to decide what pictures goes into a book? Can the photos in a history book aid or take away from someone's writing? 

Read More

Art Rants: Love Hate Relationships with Art

Why pursue art? Why did you decide to walk down this path? The questions that I ask myself once in awhile. I am always reassessing myself and the work that bubbles out of me. I create in various state of minds. Sometimes I make in a trance when my imagination, thoughts and energy are at its highest, to a point where I have to release or live with being overwhelmed by emotions. Other times I slowly chip away at a thought and spend years to add one mark at a time. 

Read More

Quote-Unquote-Hmong-Artists

In 2005, a group of friends and I founded the first anime/manga club (Fans Revolution) at my high-school. I sold a copy of the Fans Rev. Coloring book-2nd issue, to Tengo Lor, who I met through an online artist network called Hmongartist.net. He was actively advocating for Hmong visual artist, and he gifted me with a variety of collectibles from active artists affiliated with Hmongartist.net among other organizations during that time. I was shocked to find these promotional items in a pile of crap that I was going to toss.

Hmongartist.net/ Hmong Artist Network
 

Since arriving to America the communist take-over of South East Asia, the Hmong people immigrated to the United States and elsewhere in the world to flee from persecution for siding with the Americans during the war. To "succeed" the American dream, most elders told their children to get a higher education and to become lawyers and doctors. For the young children who had their hearts in arts, sometimes it was shunned upon. It wasn't until recently in the past years that the Hmong art community has bloomed so much, especially in the metropolitan areas of Minnesota. There, through art, Hmong artists and enthusiast has come together to build a community in support of one another.
ART IS THE ESSENCE OF CULTURE
Many civilizations have come and gone. Art is one of the many fundamental identities of a culture. Without art, there is no history and documentation of our people. Imagine, the great Romans, Mayans, Egyptians and other cultures have dwindled away thousands of years ago. How do we know about them even though they have gone and past? We know because they had left their art behind.
The Hmong people are the same. We are a dying culture being assimilated into others. Sure, there can be Hmong doctors and lawyers, but please let the artists become artists. Like the Paj Ntaub past on through our generations, it is only one of the few reasons our new generations can understand our rich cultural past. 
Our mission, is to help preserve and nurture the Hmong artists in our community. Through art, we can re-establish our culture and in the process, to learn from it as well as teach it. -- Tengo Lor, Hmong Artists Staff


When the internet was still dial-up and DSL was the fastest way to connect with like minded individuals, Hmong Artist Network (no longer active) and the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent challenged my perception of what it means to be Hmong in America. It is still uncommon for Hmong people to pursue anything other than being a doctor, lawyer or someone who brings in the money. In high-school I found solace in these platforms which encouraged exploration of identity and conversations through creative expression. 

For the longest time I thought Hmongartist.net was a Center for Hmong Arts and Talent space. As I look through these promotional items, Hmongartists.net is a website owned by Hmong Artist Network, a collective and network of artist who created a space for artists working in Hmong to engage, express and share their experiences. It was through this platform that I began to contemplate the words Hmong artist and Hmong art

In the early 2000s, many of the artist I met online were from areas of America where there were larger concentrations of Hmong. Growing up in a smaller city in Wisconsin, I could count all the Hmong people that I knew on my fingers. Though I could not fully relate to the Hmong which I saw represented on Hmongartist.net, I felt the need to be active in this platform. It was an exciting time to know that I was not alone in the world, and though I could not agree with everything I was seeing, I was not fully equipped to explain why some images do not sit well with me. 

Hmong Artists

What does it mean to be Hmong?  A question that I have asked myself multiple times, a question that contemplates where Hmong fit into the conversations regarding race, history, and human experiences. It is a question that blurs my elder’s definitions of Hmong, it is a conversation starter to engage everyone to speak about their experiences. In the words of a friend, it is very much about being the “author of your own life”. Today, the word Hmong holds diasporic history, collective memories, and complex visual and oral histories. Then, when the word Hmong and artists come together what comes to your mind? 

My Roots, Selfportrait, 2007 

Unlike my high school self, I now contemplate the words Hmong artists and Hmong art. I am hesitant to carelessly throw around these words as I question the intentions and processes of someone’s Hmong art, and where it comes from. Are the words Hmong artists and Hmong art used to describe a collection of voices and experiences? Are Hmong artists exploring art and their expression through Hmong lens? Then by being Hmong and an artist, make Hmong art even if the works produced do not engage in the processes of arts and crafts of the Hmong?

It has been 10 months since I moved to Minnesota and I fear that what is understood as Hmong art to the general community, are works of art which I believe lacks critical engagement and integrity. I find various Hmong artists work problematic. Specifically, Hmong art where women and men are represented only in traditional Hmong clothes, surrounded by popular textile motifs often for the aesthetics of making something looking pretty. What are these artists really saying to their audience? It is problematic when these works of art are sold, mass produced and consumed without considering how violent an image can be. Is this due to the lack of intentionality in the works produced, lack of awareness of Hmong visual history and who consumes art? Are people desensitized to art because everyone is bombarded by images? Is it because anything and everything is art? I am itching to have more conversations with people regarding their working processes to better understand for myself what Hmong art is. 

Artists Working in Hmong

Since living in Minnesota, I have come into contact with various artists from all over the United States and elsewhere in the world, who are challenging Hmong experiences through critical engagement in various mediums. To name a few, Pao Houa Her, Jennifer Tshab Her, Sieng Lee, Mai Kue Vang, Vanghoua Anthony Vue, Fres Thao, Andre Yang, Song Yer Thao, Magnolia Yang-Sao-Yia , Victoria Kue, Sao Her...have been engaging in art, identity, movements, and community.  In their works, they deconstruct traditions, confront histories, trauma, patriarchy and create spaces for engagement.

As Burlee Vang writes in the book, How Do I Begin? A Hmong American Literary Anthology:

“You can't separate yourself from your ethnicity. But ethnicity shouldn’t be for the artist an object of exoticism or a kind of artistic limitation. I am less interested in my being Hmong (unless it serves as a crucial theme or topic) and more concerned with trying to reveal some universal experience or truth, despite how alien the world, situation, or characters I am presenting might be to readers. I am interested in transcending boundaries, to make familiar the unfamiliar, extraordinary. This is how an artist can connect successfully to the audience. This too, I think, is how one can produce that which is eternal. There's one thing I am certain of. Something undeniably spiritual happens when you devote yourself to an art form. By using words as a kind of ethereal lens, one is able to see the soul with some clarity. Art can reveal its elusive shape. . .”

Vang's connection with his work is inseparable from who he is and it is less about being Hmong, but is not something that should be seen as separate from his works. I too hope that artists are seeking truth in their works and are not exotifying and appropriating cultures without trying to reveal some universal experience. That is not to say that artists should not engage in recontextualizing traditional textiles, sounds, oral traditions, or borrowing from other cultures, but to cautiously incorporate or deconstruct these processes from a place of understanding beyond something that looks and feels pleasing, let alone claiming to invent new forms of art without considering the hard work that came before.  

As I am becoming more aware of who I am, what I do, and how I communicate to people, I also hope that there is a stronger sense of community support for artists working in Hmong or who has worked in Hmong. Seeing how Hmong people have such strong and often spiritual connections with traditions in oral, visual and performance, I expect no less of quote-unquote-Hmong-artists to engage and challenge histories, traditions, communities, and audiences to engage in Hmong art. However as an artist who works in Hmong, though highly influenced by my identity,  my work goes beyond me being Hmong, and as Vang suggests, it is more or less about  making a connection with someone. At the moment, I am really obsessed with making a mark, drawing a line and filling space. It brings me pleasure, gives me pain, and if I can bring people to my world, it is a win-win for everyone. 

 

Gazillion Strong: Sex, Dance & Rock n Roll

On February 12th, I was invited by my artist, dancer and activist friend Magnolia to attend an event filled with a variety of community artist and activist at Bedlam Theater. Hosted by Gazillion Strong, a non-profit organization dedicated to the development of resources and tools that aid marginalized communities
(http://www.wearegazillionstrong.org/), Sex, Dance, and Rock & Roll brought together community members to support the voices and communities of the indigenous people and people of color (POC). 

Performing that night was the Ananya Dance Theater which was founded in 2004 by Ananya Chatterjea
(http://www.ananyadancetheatre.org/)

A Life Underground, a hardcore rock band consisting of friends who found each other through their differences (https://www.facebook.com/undergrounders246)

See More Perspective, a politically-and-culturally-conscious hip-hop artist (https://seemoremusic.bandcamp.com/album/sex-tape-or-my-response-to-our-morbidly-underdeveloped-sex-education).

Horidraa: Golden Healing by The Ananya Dance Theater, Feb. 12, 2016

Voice, Power, and Movement: Horidraa: Golden Healing, 2016 http://www.ananyadancetheatre.org/about/touring/ In general, performances are entertaining and connections that are made in real time with beginnings and endings, however I want to focus on the Ananya Dance Theater (ADT) and what it means to be a participant and observer in their work. 

The Ananya Dance Theater (ADT) presented Horidraa: Golden Healing, a piece which engaged the entire space in movements and sounds. Though it was my first experience with ADT, based on this one performance I knew that ADT works to curate radical and provocative ways to experience storytelling. 

Viewers could not look away from this performance as everyone was brought into a spiritual journey where movement and gestures were made recognizable and yet not recognizable. Right off the bat, the performance set a peculiar tone. The sounds and movements animated the space and the audience were made to let go of their preconceived notions of dance and to solely rely on feels. It was  unsettling and uncomfortable hearing the guttural cries of pain, anger, and the huffing and puffing of exhaustion. Their movements went from subtle and pleasing to jarring, grotesque, sad, and pungent. I was a sensory overload, I constantly told myself to take things as they come. In my opinion, the Ananya Dance Theater was re-educating people on how to listen and feel someone's stories. 

In particular this performance felt like a personal narrative told in the lens of someone who comes from a different world, yet recognizable despite the unfamiliarity of the movements. It was a humbling experience as I believe many audience members were left feeling unsettled and wanting to know more about the context of the work. Though it’s important to have context, I think it really works for this particular piece to have audience members come into the space without any notions of what they are seeing and experiencing in front of them, heightening the importance of what is contemporary dance. 

Coming from a small city where POC and indigenous people had no presence, Sex, Dance and Rock n Roll blew my mind away. As I become more familiar with the Twin Cities area, I’m beginning to understand how powerful the voices of POC and indigenous communities can be when there are support systems and especially when there are strong advocators who come together to create. This event creates awareness of these communities and enforces the basic human connections that have been disrupted overtime.

Uploaded by A Life Underground Official on 2016-02-17.

The Clothes

The Clothes

The Clothes are such a big part of my life and I’ve been wearing The Clothes since I was younger. If I could, I’d wear The Clothes every day, similarly like my great grandmother in her pre-American years. She only wears The Clothes and nothing else. She’s commando, bra-less and dignified. Upon coming to America, she had to pack The Shirt, The Xauv, The Apron, and The Head-wrap away but she was able to keep The Pants. The Pants was deemed functional by American society, enough for people to not eye her like she doesn’t belong.

I wear The Clothes every year, in schools and for celebrations and whenever I feel like it. I wear it to remind myself and others that I am different, that I come from a family and a history of people who do not have much but their memories, metals and clothes.  The Clothes isn't just a cultural object, The Clothes represents me, I wear The Clothes for myself. 

Frog Town Community Mural

 

[8/23/2015]

Frog Town Community Mural 2015 on 611 Dale St. N, St. Paul, MN 55103

 

It's been roughly 4 months since I moved to Minnesota. To learn more about the communities in the Twin Cities, I began volunteering for a community mural lead by confident and compassionate youth leaders who title themselves the Frog Town Crew (FTC). This crew consists of high schoolers from the Frog Town Community. It's a program of St. Paul Smart Trips and the Kitty Andersen Youth Science Center at the Science Museum of Minnesota and their projects works to promote a healthier lifestyle, safety and the Frog Town community. FTC is led by two community organizers, Tou Saiko Lee, spoken word and hip-hop artist and Marc King an emerging artist and assistant coordinator at the Youth Science Center. 

Working in collaboration with FTC is artist Krissana Ari, a multi-media artist, musician and activist in the LGBTQ and various other communities from the West Coast. At the heart of this mural are students who are taking charge of community organizing and learning to become the leaders of their generation. They are leaving a large mark in their community to encourage conversations about positive change. This mural is a portrait of their community and home.

As an outsider assisting in this project, I was extremely moved by these students and their dedication to being the change in their community. I was moved knowing that these teenagers were spending their summer, trying to show how they felt about their community and how it should be viewed differently than how the media portrays it. Upon moving to Minnesota, I've heard many bad things about Frog Town. About how it’s always dirty, unsafe, and your car can even get stolen. I can't even begin to imagine what it's like growing up with the gang related violence, police brutality, theft, and negativity. How does anyone believe in positive change when all you hear and see are the negatives? 

I believe the Frog Town Crew are doing what anyone would have done. They are promoting positive images of where they come from while setting strong examples of how a community can combat and shift the voice and misconception of a neighborhood which has been developing and growing with various different ethnicities and cultures. 

I moved to the Twin Cities, Minnesota because I wanted to see for myself what it's like to live in a concentrated Hmong population. My first memory of Frog Town was from the late 90s, when I use to visit my grandmother every summer and stay with her for 2-3 months. She loved St. Paul simply because she was able to converse comfortably and shop at local stores for everything. To her, Frog Town was a big part of her life. It was an extremely humble experience to see the Frog Town Community Mural's process. As an artist, nothing gets better than seeing how supportive the neighbors and businesses were in donating materials, time, and a wall to paint a portrait that will hopefully last 10-20 years from today. 

Thank you Frog Town Crew!

To learn more about the Frog Town Community Mural, like and follow them on social media: