“No Word for Art” highlights the richness of Hmong art


Art. The word is used to describe anything from a rare Rembrandt to a cork-covered car. It is casually bantered around in Western society; however, the word is not spoken in traditional Hmong culture. Why? Because, in the Hmong language, there is no word for art.

Yet it is through art the Hmong community shares its history and culture. The Center for Hmong Arts and Talent (CHAT) titled its 8th annual Hmong Arts & Music Festival “No Word for Art” as a way of highlighting this contradiction. The festival will be held on Saturday, August 22 at Western Sculpture Park in Saint Paul.

The event has the reputation of perhaps being the largest Hmong art festival in the country. According to Angie Hardy, CHAT’s managing director, it attracts both nationally recognized and local, up-and-coming artisans displaying a variety of art forms.

“The festival is a highlight of the year of what’s been happening in the Hmong community,” said Hardy.

Kao Lee Thao, a painter whose artwork has been featured in several venues including the Saint Paul Pioneer Press Gallery has displayed her paintings at the festival for the past five years. The festival holds special significance for her.

“It’s a special day for me because this event is what inspired me to pick up a paintbrush for the first time,” Thao said. “My world has never been the same since.”

Just as she was inspired, Thao hopes that, by sharing her artwork, she can help others discover the artist hidden within them.

“With every stroke, I leave behind a window into my soul, hoping to spark a fond memory or inspiration in others,” Thao said. “My inspirations come from my experiences and dreams. The best and most creative ideas come from people’s dreams.”

This year at the festival, Thao will show the depth of her talent by displaying a variety of original creations; however, she expects visitors will be especially drawn to paintings from her collection entitled “Woman in Bloom.” For Thao, art is an expression of how Hmong culture and American society intertwine.

“I’m trying to fuse the two cultures because we live in America [and] our culture is changing,” Thao said.

A photo of “Woman in Bloom,” one of Thao’s paintings is featured here; additional artwork can be viewed at http://www.innerswirl.com

The main stage will feature several musicians and singers throughout the day. One musical group that made its debut at the festival last year and is pleased to return is the young hip-hop group Hilltribe. According to singer and band spokesperson Vong Lee (aka Knowstalgic), the Hmong people originally lived in the hills of Laos. Naming the band Hilltribe keeps them connected to their past.

“We chose the name because it represents a part of our history and gives us a sense of pride.” Lee said.

Although they are primarily known for their hip-hop style, Lee believes the messages they convey in their music appeal to a variety of audiences.

“Our music is reflective of our experience being Hmong American,” Lee said. “It’s reflective of life. It encompasses all of our emotions and struggles as well as our accomplishments.”

Hilltribe will be performing several original songs at the festival including the popular “Do It Again” which is featured in their first music video.

Other artists will provides demonstrations for those who are interested. Festival-goers can learn how to play a bamboo mouth organ called a qeej (pronounced “cane”). Traditionally, a qeej is played at funerals to help the soul of the deceased journey to the afterlife. Storytellers will share Hmong culture through the art of paj ntaub—an embroidered tapestry that tells a story. A Hmong break-dancing group also will perform and give dancing lessons in the youth tent.

Hardy stated CHAT’s mission is “to nurture, explore and illuminate the Hmong American experience through artistic expressions.” Through various art ventures for youth and adults, CHAT uses art to enrich both the Hmong community and larger society. That’s an amazing accomplishment for a community that has…no word for art.

Deb Pleasants (deb@tcdailyplanet.net) is a full-time mother and a part-time freelance writer/citizen journalist. She enjoys writing about social and community issues; many of her articles have been featured in the Minnesota Voices series.

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