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.