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.
This post was taken out of context the moment the photo went up without any acknowledgment of who the artist is and what the work is about. Several people quickly assumed that it was a Halloween costume, created from who knows where, to be consumed as if it were the latest Hmong clothing trend in the Hmong Diaspora. The comments were mostly from Hmong people discussing how visually unattractive my body and the clothes were. The misogynistic comments stood out the most. As a female, it's hard not to notice the patriarchal remarks made on this Facebook post. Several comments perpetuate male dominance and one even exudes homophobia. Specific comments use tactics like shaming women, sexism, and misogynistic humor as a way to silence female labor and knowledge. The snide and subtle comments made about female beauty and appearance seems to be inevitable when what's portrayed is a female figure versus a male figure wearing hunting-war themed Hmong clothing. Had the figure in the photo been a male, these comments would be vastly different because the narratives of war and hunting are more often associated with the Hmong male figure.
Other comments targeted female beauty, specially stating how textiles should be viewed. Conversely, there were a few comments expressing the disappointment in the act of spreading hatred. Perhaps the most outrageous was the suggestion that my Hmong clothes were created for the newer political movements in the Hmong communities, representing a parody of Hmong culture, clothes and women.
A few of them expressed shock and amusement at the provocative image of a female clothed in a “hunting-war-costume”. To some, it seemed disturbing that a female was not wearing Hmong clothing to please Hmong men. One male in particular commented upon on his opinions regarding traditional clothes, stating that the work doesn’t make sense, but he’s not against what he’s seeing. More importantly no one acknowledged the labor and knowledge of Hmong textile craft deriving from Hmong women. In this case Hmong clothes was foreign and yet a recognizable object to be consumed and recontextualized. Without any context or prior knowledge of the work, the way people responded in this incident suggests that regardless of who creates Hmong clothes and textiles, it is a Hmong right to own and consume at will in any way.
So What Have I Learned From This Incident?
Sometimes I forget that the internet is a community, a space where people live and respond in real time. It’s a given that the way people engage in contemporary arts on the internet is different compared to offline world where experiences are more tactile, tangible and visceral. On the internet, people feel safer to express their opinions whether it’s negative, positive or threatening. On the other hand, commentators expose themselves, revealing who they are based on their comments. I am made aware of each individual as I hover over their names, visit their pages and see what they published onto their online spaces.
Ethics in Labor and Knowledge
The way people took my work and recontextualized it on social media is disheartening. I don't have control over what people think and how they express it online. However this is beyond people stating their opinions because it's essentially about appropriation, plagiarism, and exploiting my labor and knowledge. A disingenuous pretense was set for people the moment the work is reposted without acknowledging the artist, title and context of the work. I think of these comments as a reflection of the current status of online and offline Hmong communities; of their inner thoughts and knowledge in Hmong arts. Does engaging in Hmong identity mean giving every Hmong person the right to own my knowledge and labor? I don't take people's comments personally, however this incident reveals that there are major disconnections in acknowledging the labors of artists, artisans and makers in online and offline Hmong communities. Acknowledgement and respect is often given to educators, scholars, doctors and lawyers, I'm confused as to why people are not able to do the same for artists; especially when artists are producers of knowledge and culture.
Additionally, I wonder whether or not if the reactions to Hmong Clothes #1, khaub ncaw hmoob #1 are directly related to the current understanding of how Hmong textiles are viewed today. Today Hmong clothes are worn few times a year during celebrations, New Year's, marriages and funerals. The majority of Hmong clothes and textiles that are consumed in America are produced overseas in Southeast Asia and China. Many Hmong Americans are removed from the process of creating Hmong clothes and textiles because what they see and consume are the end products. Based on these comments, people are removed from the artists and crafters who are still continuing in Hmong textile traditions. Therefore what's projected is a singular experience of Hmong clothes.
In light of this incident and various other incidents that I've encountered as an artist, I believe that there's a lot of work to do in the Hmong community. Particularly in understanding what Hmong cultural reproduction looks like today. What does it mean to be a contemporary Hmong arts and how is the community experiencing Hmong art when the artwork is engaging in gendered knowledge and experiences? My work is not about exploiting my community. In this case, people revealed themselves through their own engagement of the work online. Some were supportive while others were misogynistic and sexist. The conversations from this incident was not a planned event and this post has been removed from Facebook per my request. Reflecting upon this experience, I wondered a lot about what it means to be a Hmong artist with integrity and what it means to be engaging in collective knowledge, histories and identities. Often times, Hmong identity and culture functions as a collective, but this does not mean that Hmong people have the rights to owning my work and labor and doing whatever they want with it at will. This incident was an uncontrollable situation and I have no doubt that this image will continue to live on the internet as an image of parodies. It will live on as a cultural image that Hmong people will continue to recontextualize for their own personal interest.