Seexeng Lee: the significance of culture in Hmong art, Part 2

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Seexeng Lee, the renowned Hmong artist, presented at Macalester College on last week. Event organizers spoke of the importance of presenting Hmong culture and art to the community, which, despite a large Hmong population in the Twin Cities, is not very familiar with the group. This is part two in a series about the significance of Hmong art and the work done by the artist Seexeng.

Seexeng had a large family. However, in 1980, only half of them were able to make the journey from the Ban Vinai Refugee Camp in Thailand to the United States. It would not be until 1984 when he would join the rest of his family. As Seexeng became more and more accustomed to the United States and began to pick up English, he continued drawing every chance he got, and he dreamed of becoming an artist. However, his parents much preferred he follow a more stable career path. Therefore, this proud product of the Minneapolis Schools continued on to Augsburg College where in1997 he earned a double major in Art and Education. It made his parent’s proud to know their son would be a teacher. He continues to enjoy the best of both worlds, inspiring youth as an Art teacher at Minneapolis Henry High School and also practicing his craft outside the walls of the classroom.

Although today gold leaf is visible in much of his work, this has not always been true. While at Augsburg, his intrigue with gold leaf lead him to ask a professor about gold leaf. The professor responded it was reserved for the “rich or sacred”. Seexeng would wait 10 years before he would once again work with gold leaf. Three years ago, Seexeng’s father passed away. Seexeng recalled he had painted a portrait of his father several years earlier and he was driven to try to locate the portrait. Once he found the portrait he updated it, highlighting the military patches on his father’s jacket with gold leaf. The portrait was displayed next to father’s casket during the visitation. He was very proud of the portrait and felt it was well-received by family and guests. This reawakened his interest in gold leaf. Since then, he has used gold leaf in a portrait of his mother. Today, gold leaf is a frequent element in his work as he uses it to highlight certain elements of Hmong culture.

During his lecture, Seexeng detailed the various types of Hmong forms and explained how their craft related to Hmong life and culture.

Traditionally, Blacksmith’s were men. Form and function rather than aesthetics are important. He indicated curves of a traditional Hmong knife are not for the aesthetics, rather for functionality, as part of the knife is for cutting and another section for chopping. Men also made the jewelry used for the traditional Hmong costumes.

Seexeng noted according to renowned professor, Dr. Gary Yia Lee, Hmong never had ‘dance’ as defined by many – they had ritual performances. Dance was not considered a form of entertainment. Today, dance in the Hmong culture has taken many forms. In fact, youth who dance are influenced by the dances of Bolleywood as well as Hip Hop. Although neither cultures played an influence in traditional Hmong culture, it plays a role in the lives of many of today’s Hmong youth..

Storytellers had the important role of passing down the history and tradition. Hmong has always been an oral language. Storytellers played a vital role in retaining the culture. Until recently, Hmong folk tales and proverbs were only transferred orally. Today, they are more readily available as they are available in books; many plays also retell Hmong legends and history. Minnesota is probably the best place to see Hmong arts, he said.

In addition to the traditional stories and folktales there are many contemporary authors and artists. Some of the most prominent include: Mai Neng Moua, Kao Kalia Yang, Dia Cha, Tou Ger Xiong, and Tou Saiko Lee as well as Dr. Chia Youyee Vang, author of the recently released Hmong in Minnesota.

In a subsequent interview, Seexeng noted it was unimportant whether the storyteller is male or female, although if they were a little older they tended to have greater legitimacy. The topics also did not vary according to gender, “The beautiful thing about Hmong common for storytellers do not have to be male to tell great stories or to learn them. One of the best storytellers in my section of the Ban Vinai Refugee Camp was my distant grandmother, every night the kids in the neighborhood would go and ask her to tell us stories.” He mentioned his father was a talented storyteller as well. He further indicated that in the story “Yer and the Tiger,” while there might be minor variations between storytellers, generally it had the same beginning, middle and end.

Textiles is another form of Hmong art. Paj Nataub (flower cloth) is the best-known art form. It is very elaborate embroidery that serves many purposes throughout Hmong culture. For example, when a baby is first born, he is considered is very fragile and a cap is given for a baby to wear. Many believe when the sprits see the designs they will think they are flowers and they will leave the baby alone. Its beauty also serves to intrigue the baby and keep its spirit from wandering. “The Hmong believe if the spirit stays with you, you are not going to be sick, but if the spirit wanders away, you are going to be sick.”

Today, use of Paj Nataub is widespread. In addition to traditional uses, it can now be found in such items as purses, water bottle holders, baby carriers and bookmarks. Sadly, however, the art form is being lost as in the United States it is rare for moms or grandmothers to pass on this art form due to it being very time consuming and few youth having an interest in learning the craft. Luckily, according to Seexeng, there are still some programs such as Concordia Hmong Culture and Language program along and a few other school programs out there still trying to teach it to young Hmong girls.

” It has been practiced for centuries and passed down from mother to daughter . . .beginning as early as 4 years old.” He shared various types of textile arts including weaving (basket making) and skirt making. The making of a traditional skirt takes about one year to complete, so it is easier for Hmong living in the United States to order traditional dresses and costumes from Laos, Vietnam or Thailand. Fewer and fewer are made by Hmong in the United States, he admitted.

“Another contributing factor to the death of this method was that Hmong nowadays got a hold of new, lighter, cheaper, easily accessible, more colorful, printable fabrics such as cotton, polyester, silk and synthetic fabrics.” Lee also pointed out that some traditional Paj Ntaub and many of the Story Cloths are no longer made by Hmong, because Hmong in Laos or Thailand are paying others (non-Hmong) to create it. They then export them here (US) to be sold at the local flea markets.

In a follow-up interview, the speaker mentioned shared information on the origin of the story cloth, which does not have the same cultural significance as the Paj Ntaub. The Story Cloth was made in the refugee camps as a way for women to occupy their time and raise money for their families.

Regarding the changes in the prevalence of some traditional art forms, Seexeng was asked about what message the Hmong artist should tell Hmong and Non-Hmong about the culture and the Hmong community. He responded, “I can not say what they should or shouldn’t say, it is totally be up to them and how they feel about the Hmong community and culture. However, I do wish for them to express themselves and their message authentically.” He continued, “On the other hand, I have tried really hard to pass on the message that the Hmong culture is beautiful and worth preserving because our arts are currently evolving and changing at such a fast rate that if we are not careful we will eventually lose them. Please don’t get me wrong, change to me is a good thing, however, if we aren’t careful…it may evolve too fast and too much may lose its original intent and or functions. I am all about extending the meaning and functions of our arts, but not to totally disregard its origin and or intended purposes.”

According to Seexeng, Hmong culture today is in a very brittle state. It has not been pure for the past 2-3 centuries as Hmong are a semi nomadic people, and he shared that he Hmong are losing their cultural heritage and values at a greater rate than at anytime in history. While he recognizes change is inevitable and a natural part of society, it is important to preserve the core elements of Hmong culture.

The presentation closed with Seexeng responding to an artist saying he was trying to find himself. Seexeng said that three things that are important for successful artists: knowing the mechanics of art, understanding the craft and instilling yourself. He noted the importance of the human factor. “When you walk away it resonates itself.” He also told the artist “you went into it because you have something that only you can express.”

Seexeng continues to inspire both Hmong and non-Hmong alike as his work gains in popularity. For more information about Seexeng visit his website www.seexeng.com.

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