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?
As I am no longer in the educational environment where many provocative and vulnerable conversations take place throughout the art process, I miss the spaces that encouraged experimentation. This month in general has been filled with workshops, exhibitions and events. The below are brief reflections of my experiences engaging in three different spaces.
In Progress Nexus: Wing Young Huie Workshops
July 13-14, 2016
Growing up in a small town in Wisconsin, Hmong bodies were often portrayed in mainstream media as the model Asian minority or the latter, the unintelligent refugee immigrant that causes trouble, steals cars and sells drugs. Photographs of Hmong women in traditional attire always made me a little unsettled knowing that certain photos were captured through the male gaze, patronizing, and fetishizing.
In researching Asian American art, I came across Looking for Asian America: An Ethnocentric Tour by Wing Young Huie. I remember reading the book a few of times. The artist wrote entries about his experiences with each photo showcased in the book. I appreciated that Huie’s photographs engaged in the mundane. Huie included a photo of Hmong people in rural North Carolina in this book. I have never seen Hmong people photographed in this way by a non Hmong person before.
I didn’t think that I’d get a chance to meet the artist in the flesh after moving to Minnesota. Wing Young Huie presented a two day workshop, apart of the In Progress's Nexus program to have conversations with local artist about Photography. He continued the workshop with an introduction to his work and what influenced him to pick up the camera. He encouraged attendees to think about what makes one image better than another.
“What are you looking at? What do you see?”
“Who gets to have a say?”
Huie asked to the attendees at the workshops.
He went through various slide ID’s of Lake Street, University Ave and the Frogtown series, expanding upon ethical and personal experiences he had as a journalist turned photographer working in private and public sectors. The photos that attendees were seeing addressed issues of race, religion, social divide and disconnect in Minnesota and larger communities in America. In the wake of the recent police shootings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Philando Castile in St. Paul, Minnesota, I felt this workshop was extremely relevant to the happenings of the everyday that POC and indigenous people experienced in America. Indeed who gets to have a say in what America looks like?
Throughout his two day workshops Huie facilitated informal critiques, asking that attendees bring in questions and works for discussion. I was in a space with artists of different skill levels who engaged in media arts, photography, animation and film. I felt at home, being around artists who confidently spoke about their experiences, struggles with representation and art process that were not influenced by Western institutions.
In thinking about the lack of artists who are mentors, who are willing to offer their knowledge and resources to the community, Wing Young Huie is one of the few visual artist who utilizes his medium and Third Space Gallery to engage communities who lack access to contemporary arts. I can sense that many emerging artist looked up to him as he’s had many life experiences that are not taught in school. In two days, Wing Young Huie continuously challenged attendees to articulate what they are seeing and consider the role that each one had in their communities. I walked into the space thinking this workshop was about Huie’s photographic processes, and walked away with human experiences and invaluable stories from the attendees.
Wake Up Hmong, Wake Up
July 16, 2016
Immediately following the Wing Young Huie workshops, I happen to see the event Wake Up Hmong Wake Up floating around in social media. Laichee Dorothy initiated the first of her pop up/ art spaces to probe, challenge, and revisit what Hmong Art is. Laichee’s description immediately caught my attention in which she states:
“In a world of assimilation with an urgency to preserve our culture, let us change the course of the conversation.”
Laichee Dorothy, the host and facilitator welcomed people with a performance, wearing the Clothes chanting while sweeping each room of the house with a small tree branch dipped in white paint. Her intentions were to paint the space, making her mark, to initiate conversations regarding what is Hmong art, identity and culture today, a discussion that has remained silent for many Hmong communities.
In attendance where many of the host's friends and family, the artists displaying/performing and local artists working in various disciplines. There were music performances by Nikki Chang and Sao Her.
The work that caught my eyes and ears were the two poems performed by Kaja Vang. Kaja spoke powerfully about marginalization, white supremacy, and her identity as a queer Hmong American. She was unavoidable, her presence, voice, vulnerability was raw power. This performance was a small glimpse into what she does as a writer, however it left me wanting to hear and learn more about her work.
Laiche’s Wake Up Hmong, Wake Up “shook things up”. Attendees engaged in conversations about the complexity of the Hmong identity. People experience the awkward tensions of critical conversations regarding social justice, feminism, gender identities, issues that artists are addressing today. Overall this space was a powerful experience for me, as Laichee’s ideas and aspirations were on point with many of my own. In a way I felt that this space was a departure from the war stories and the preservation of cultures, it was a deconstruction of Hmong aesthetics, a contemporary experimental space to critically engage with Hmong American artist.
The Hmong Museum and The Hmong Chronicles a Storytelling Series
At this point my brain was starting to slow down. I found it ironic that I jumped from an experimental space into one that seeks to preserve and showcase Hmong oral stories. The Hmong Museum recently became incorporated in 2014 (https://hmongmuseummn.org/about-us/) as an institution. They believe that cultural traditions, crafts and arts will disapear with Hmong elders, and sees preservation as a priority and a race against time.
I’ve attended one or two paj ntaub workshops that the Hmong Museum hosted at the Center for Hmong studies at Concordia University. I came into their paj ntaub space seeking to understand how other Hmong people experienced paj ntaub. I saw these paj ntaub workshops as a way to listen and observe how master artisans pass down knowledge and skills that were traditionally mother to daughter versus teacher to students. Particularly what happens in a space that’s predominately female?
I truly enjoy talking to the Hmong Museum coordinators and being able to see the faces of this organization. They are people who are interested in rethinking, re-doing preservation with a Hmong perspective. The Hmong Museum launched the first event of their Hmong Chronicles series. In a conversation with Chuayi Yang, the Community Engagement Program Coordinator and board member, Yang explained that the focus of this chronicles is on oral traditions in the Hmong culture. Hmong Museum hopes to intersect young and old Hmong people through a series which encourages intergenerational collaborations, new forms and old forms of Hmong art and practices.
The Hmong Museum invited Fresh Traditions, a collaborative duo consisting of Tousaiko Lee a well known spoken word artist, activist in the Twin Cities and his grandmother Zuag Tshab to perform at the Minnesota Museum of American Art, with the Seeds of Change Exhibition as a backdrop. Tousaiko also invited his sister, two contemporary Hmong dancers, and his parents to be apart of the performance, showcasing a wide range of how oral stories can be interpreted and incorporated into other forms of art. It looked like there were over 100 people in attendance of the performance, roughly 60% of the audience were of the Asian or Hmong identity, 30% white, 10% non-white.
Tousaiko stated that Fresh Traditions has been together for over 6 years. As a unit I’ve seen them perform while I was in college. Zuag performs kwv txhiaj while Tousaiko performs spoken word. There were about five different, distinct performances. From kwv txhiaj, spoken word to folk tales, storytelling and contemporary dance. There was a lot of things happening, thankfully not all at once as the storytelling was paired with contemporary Hmong dance, and the kwv txhiaj was paired with spoken word. I enjoyed little moments where Tousaiko involves the audiences in his spoken pieces, to repeat and chant after he says a word. The moments where Zuag unapologetically performs and expresses herself.
As I sat further back in the space I did not get to see the dance performance, however I was able to hear Tousaiko’s parents retell the popular folk tale of the flood that created the 18 clans. This folktale is by far the most recognizable and popular origin story of the Hmong people. The Hmong Museum provided english translated interpretations of this story for people more proficient in english to follow along.
Overall I felt overwhelmed. I was looking for pockets of space to breath, absorb and ask questions, but I don’t think it was that type of performance. Fresh Tradition’s performance was not a harmonized marriage of voices, instead a jarring dance of Hmong spoken like speaking English and Hmong sung in metaphors. It’s contrasting, it’s a representation of the spoken word artist and his family member and metaphorically a broad representation of generational differences. I was hoping to see more. Yes there were new pieces that Tousaiko performed, however I felt that Fresh Traditions was not that different from what I saw in 2010.
The first event to the Hmong Museum Chronicles came off to me as an introduction to “who are the Hmong people”, and “what are Hmong oral traditions” and what is the Hmong Museum. I was looking forward to critical conversations, to speak about the process of kwv txhiaj. I wish it was a little more engaging, involving the audience who were Hmong, who can still relate to these traditional forms. Tousaiko also stated that it was a last minute decision to bring his parents, sister and the two Hmong dancers into the performance. Maybe him stating this was a way to get rid of nervousness or be funny, but why didn't he simply expand on his practice and the significance of having those particular bodies in that space?
Imagine the possibilities of a performance such as Fresh Traditions with Tousaiko’s family and the dancers, in a space at a Hmong Museum, with an exhibition about kwv txhiaj, paj huam, and dab neeg, imagine how different that experience would be for people versus it happening as a last minute decision? Imagine a space that not only preserves, collect experiences, but also provide space for engagements in Hmong arts, cultures, history while elevating lecturers and artists who engage in these traditions. This is what I imagine it would be like if Hmong Museum had a space, rotating shows, and docents who are well versed in engaging and providing people an experience in exhibitions, arts and history.
Full and Temporarily sated
Reflecting upon my art education I remember being in spaces where my artist peers questioned my American credibility. My professors specifically reminded me from time to time, “do not allow yourself to be pigeon holed”. I was forced to be in positions where I am made to be the Hmong cultural specialist. When I speak about my work people are more interested in me educating all communities including the Hmong communities about cultural and indigenous practices. Perhaps these are real concerns in what it means to be a Hmong American today? Americans are still unaware of who the Hmong people are and these pigeon holes might follow me throughout my lifetime.
I’m still trying to process what I’ve seen and experienced this month. The environments around me informs my work, and challenges me to see and feel things differently. Wing Young Huie's workshop initiated a nice tone for my thoughts in trying to understand other artist of color, myself, the community, Hmong experiences, and Hmong arts.
Events such as Wake Up Hmong, Wake Up assured me that artists of Hmong identity will continue to think about what it means to produce works that are contemporary versus preserving traditions and cultures. Hmong people need to start talking about the complexity of the Hmong identity. Artist who engage in contemporary issues don't overlook preservation, in fact artist like Yang Mee-Moua Yang's work draws heavily from traditional textiles and Hmong history, and her work shows her concerns with being a Hmong female. The fact that these artists felt compelled to claim a space to have conversations is proof that artists do not work in bubbles.
The Hmong Museum Chronicles reminded me that my work is not about preservation, nor are my goals ultimately about educating others about my people’s history and culture. I do not write Hmong history, I rather be apart of making content that historians write about. I don't know the answers to everything, I find that the best way to learn is to throw myself into different spaces, participate and support others along the way.