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Twin Cities Daily Planet: ‘REmix’ looks at Hmong art and literature through generations

TWIN CITIES DAILY PLANET

Mai C. Vang in front of her work Caij Ntuj Nplooj Poob.
Photo by Nikki Yang
Mai C. Vang in front of her work Caij Ntuj Nplooj Poob.

REmix is an exhibit on display this month at the Homewood Studios gallery. The exhibit attempts to not only forge connections among the Hmong community in the Twin Cities-one of the largest Hmong communities in the country-and the more established local communities, but also among generations within the Hmong community.

On Saturday July 19th, Ka Vang will read selections from her latest work, Riding Shotgun: Women Write About Their Mothers; there will also be a reading by Shannon Olson. The event will be hosted by performance artist Katie Ka Vang, who was recently featured as part of the Asian American Theater Festival. The closing reception will be held on July 25th; on the 26th, Yer Yang will lead a paj ntaub workshop at Homewood as part of FLOW, the Northside Arts Crawl. For more information, see homewoodstudios.com.

Subtitled The Intergenerational Art Exhibit and featuring 12 Hmong artists from around the world, REmix was organized by Homewood Studios and the Hmong Arts Connection (HARC). It follows last year’s Throwing Pebbles Into the River exhibit, also at Homewood. That exhibit was curated by Seexeng Lee, whose work is included in REmix. The series of exhibits originally began when Lee met one of Homewood’s owners, George Roberts, while they both taught at North High School. For this year’s exhibit, a strong belief in the everyday presence of art in Hmong life undergirded curator Sai Ntxhais Vang’s motivations.

“Everyone in the Hmong community is a practitioner of art in one form or another,” Vang writes in her Curator’s Statement. “Art is the foundation of the [Hmong] culture even though the word ‘art’ does not exist in the Hmong lexicon.” These activities include the playing of the wind-blown qeej, the weaving of paj ntaub (the story cloth often used to transmit Hmong histories), and kwv txhiaj, the art of chanted poetry.

While such activities are often seen as aspects of “traditional” Hmong culture, the exhibit is also an exploration of the bridge between contemporary and traditional culture. “None of these works [in this exhibit] are traditional,” Vang told me. “I think the context is traditional, [but] the medium is not.” The context, for her, was “going to the elders and talking to them about what kind of art they did and how that affected their lives,” as these contemporary Hmong artists attempt to “reclaim, reinterpret, reinvent, and rejuvenate the traditional to the contemporary by learning from their elders.”

It’s misunderstandings among generations that REmix aims to break down, while at the same time looking at the global circuits of cultural migration and adaptation that mark the Hmong’s presence here in Minnesota.

Mai C. Vang’s work deftly captures the multiple histories that mark the history not only of the Hmong, but also of their homelands in Southeast Asia. The vivid washes of color in Caij Ntuj Nplooj Poob (Time of Falling Leaves) have an impressionistic, pointillistic feel to them. The painting depicts a mother and young girl in a forest, a memory of Vang’s first autumn here in Minnesota.

Sai Vang is represented with a series of photos she took in Laos depicting young village girls. The photos were inspired by Vang’s own childhood in Laos, when her mother would take photos every weekend as an advertisement to potential suitors. While Vang admits that the photos “have a lot of nostalgia for me,” these photos are also a meditation on the general themes of home and homeland. For many, the idea of a “homeland” only comes about-or is, at the very least, sharpened-once you’ve left.

Images of a Hmong homeland are most directly represented in the work of Lixseem Lis-a painter-and Txhiaj Lis, one of the first Hmong to graduate with a Ph.D. in anthropology. Both living in Thailand, the two collaborated to create iconic scenes of Hmong domestic and village life, a memory of what many Hmong emigrants left behind.

Pao Hour Her in front of her work.
Photo by Nikki Yang
Pao Hour Her in front of her work.

The photographer Pao Hour Her best brought out the juxtapositions, sometimes strange, that mark Hmong presence in Minnesota and elsewhere. Her photos include a young Hmong girl, Mai Youa, in a glamorous pink dress, as well as a young Hmong boy named Allen Her sitting atop a Power Wheels Hummer.

The younger generation of Hmong artists are represented by Alyssa Velazquez, a child with leukemia whose work features almost otherwordly hands among large swaths of color. Pakou Yang, a high school student, created a work entitled My Friends, depicting people of all colors in all the same shape, an ode perhaps to the sameness that marks us all regardless of color.

Similar associations mark Seexeng Lee’s arresting Silent Cry, which sits at the end of Homewood’s long hallway. The painting features a single figure-not marked by gender, race, age, or any of the usual identifying features-immersed in white drops of rain, sitting among a panoply of paint colors. For Lee, it’s a testament to how struggle and pain unite us, and to the fact that the struggles that many Hmong face are not just their own. At the same time, though, Lee’s work marks the misunderstandings and isolation that he has felt amongst members of his own group.

The conversation about these issues will continue well after the walls are bare.

Justin Schell is a freelance writer and a grad student at the University of Minnesota’s Comparative Studies in Discourse and Society program. He’s working on a dissertation on Twin Cities immigrant and diasporic hip-hop and plays the washboard tie with The Gated Community.

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