Revisiting Traditions: Sketching The Clothes #1

The Clothes #1
Mixed media

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? 

In making The Clothes #1, I was very influenced by performance, sounds and visualizing the body as an archiver of history. In exploring my Hmong American identity, I found inspiration from Nick Cave's Soundsuits, various artists from the 30 Americans Exhibition (I had the privilege to experience at the Milwaukee Art Museum a few years ago) and Hmong artists. I was particularly interested in how drawing and painting occupies space today. 

Nick Cave's Soundsuits in action. For more arts coverage, visit Art Beat:

I've been invited on a few occasions to be a contributor/collaborator in Magnolia Yang Sao Yia's dances and choreography. In collaborating, Magnolia has been very helpful in offering her resources from her exploration of Hmong dance and movement. We've had many conversations about decolonizing and unsilencing Hmong women experiences, identity and particularly patriarchy.

The Clothes works to further the understanding of Hmong oral and visual traditions. I believe that Hmong clothing are an important medium that have been archiving trauma, oppression, patriarchy and a colonized Hmong history. The finest traditional Hmong women’s clothing restricts full body movements, it’s loud from the Franc coined belts, heavy and is eye catching, immediately drawing attention to the woman's body. When wearing traditional clothing, unlike the movements of the Hmong male’s body, particularly the movements of men performing with the qeej, the female body movements are restricted to looking beautiful, similar to the way that Chinese foot binding works. The Clothes are subtle symbols of Hmong beauty and often violent in silencing the women’s positions as makers, producers of cultural history, knowledge and masters of a craft that symbolizes Hmong today.

Directed, written, and edited by Magnolia Yang Sao Yia Filmed by Prakshi Malik Special thanks to Ananya Chatterjea, Diyah Larasati, Erika Lee, Darren Johnson, and my family.

Racism and Gun Violence:

The Clothes #1 is sewn with camouflage nylon, the materials utilized for camping tents, a war/hunting women’s clothes. I want the bullets to sound like the body is dropping metal shells every time it moves. The bullets, similarly to the French coins on many traditional Hmong clothing speaks to the history of Hmong involvement with colonial power, whether it be the tokenized Hmong elitist of the late 19th century (the French Indochine War) or the influence of America on Hmong history. 

I particularly chose this camouflage print as I am reminded from time to time of the racism, discrimination, and gun violence that I grew up with as a Hmong American. “Save a Hunter, Shoot A Hmong”, was a bumper sticker that I saw on numerous cars in Wisconsin. I remember many white high school peers assuming that it was completely normal to shout this phrase. A Hmong colleague brought a news article during a current event presentation to speak about the Chai Vang shooting incident that happened on November 21, 2004. The classroom became tense after my colleague summarized the news article and gave her honest opinion on where she stands in this case. She like many Hmong colleagues felt that this incident shouldn’t be the divine definition for every single Hmong American. Many of my white and Hmong peers were silent on the topic of racism, in this case, Chai Vang was demonized in popular media as an uneducated savage. 

I remember this moment so vividly, I felt the most Hmong and American in that classroom, at that school, in the town that I onced called home. I wasn’t able to separate Hmong from America, yet the larger community’s demeanor changed instantly as this incident was covered via radio, television and newspaper. 

In revisiting the concept of recording experiences, histories and memories in the traditional Hmong clothes, I could not ignore how meticulous and intentional Hmong women possibly were in listening to the world around them as they created the clothes for birth, marriage, coming of age and death.  When I hear the sounds of the French coins, I am reminded of my unquestionable history with French colonization and patriarchy. When I see the camouflage prints and hear the bullet shells colliding, I am reminded of home, America. So what does it mean to wear The Clothes today? Fill free to write to me and let me know.