The significance of culture in Hmong art
by Carlos Gallego, Asian American Press
Ellina Xiong & Charles Vang, event co- chairs and leaders of Ua Ke, were excited to have renowned Hmong artist Seexeng Lee lecture at Macalester College this week. Prior to the evening lecture, both expressed a need to have a Hmong speaker on campus. Although Macalester is located in St. Paul, the largest urban Hmong population in the United States, a significant number of the students on campus have no idea who the Hmong are and event organizers saw the lecture as a great opportunity to educate their fellow students.
Ua Ke is the Macalester organization committed to promoting awareness around Hmong culture and traditions. In Hmong the name Ua Ke means “togetherness,” according to an article by Kristin Riegel in a recent piece in The Mac Weekly, Macalester’s student newspaper.
Aside from being a talented artist, Seexeng Lee also is an art teacher at Minneapolis Henry High School. He provided to the listener not only an overview of his journey and discovery as an artist but also an overview of Hmong history and the connection of art within Hmong culture.
Prior to going into Hmong art and its various forms, Seexeng presented information on the Hmong, their origins and the different types of Hmong peoples.
The Hmong and Their Journey
Seexeng Lee lectured on the history of the Hmong. The group originated in China and in the 1800’s and they began to migrate to other countries including North Vietnam, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. There are many groups of Hmong. The White Hmong, for example, are identified by their white dresses and Green Hmong by the batik fabric. He also shared that there are also many other Hmong groups including Striped Hmong, Black Hmong and Red Hat Hmong, in part one is able to identify to which group an individual belongs by their clothing.
There are approximately 6 million Hmong in China followed by 787,000 in Vietnam, 315,000 in Laos, 250,000 in the United States and 150,000 in Thailand. There are also Hmong populations in other countries throughout the world including Australia, France, Argentina and French Guiana.
The Hmong journey outside Southeast Asia began after the United States lost the Vietnam war and the Secret war in Laos. The Hmong, American allies, were forced to flee the communist regime in the region. The Hmong came to the Untied States just over 30 yrs. ago and, due to the Refugee Resettlement Act, were dispersed throughout the United States. According to Xeeseng, there is documentation of Hmong living in each of the 50 states except for one, Wyoming. The largest concentrations of Hmong are in California, Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Carolina with increasing numbers in other states such as Georgia and Florida.
Wish to learn about Hmong Art/culture? There are many opportunities. The Center for Hmong Studies has monthly presentations about Hmong culture or aspects of Hmong cultures. Their 2nd International Conference in early April would be a wonderful event to attend if anyone is interested in learning more about Hmong culture. Also, this Summer HAIL (Hmong American Institute for Learning) will have an art exhibition titled “REMIX.” For more information see the HAIL website. CHAT (Center for Hmong Arts and Talent) will also host a fashion show in
July and their Annual Arts and Music Festival in August. See the CHAT website for more information. Seexeng Lee will be lecturing on a similar topic at U of W- Milwaukee April 3rd, 2008.
Defining Hmong Art
Contemporary art is generally defined by its focus on aesthetics. However, according to Lee, “Hmong traditional art focuses on functional qualities rather than aesthetics.” According to a Hmong artist, “They don’t know the context of the richness behind the work.” This is one of the reasons that Hmong have difficulty is having their work displayed in galleries. Seexeng mentioned he would like to see a Hmong gallery where Hmong artists could display their art. “Some of the items in Hmong art have sacred meanings and others magical powers” he continued. He also noted many Hmong do not know the significance of the designs on many Hmong items such as the elaborate silver jewelry many wear on the traditional costumes during Hmong New Year and other cultural festivals
Seexeng shared with information about many of the traditional Hmong artists and their role within the community. These include blacksmiths and storytellers. Interestingly, storytellers had the important role of passing down much of the history and tradition as Hmong has always been an oral language. Although there are some who claim it has been a written language, this has yet to be proven according to Seexeng. It was not until 1952 when Dr. Smalley, Dr. Smalley and Father Bertais developed a written form for the Hmong language.
Hmong art also includes musical instruments and traditional materials, including textiles. The qeej, for example, is the traditional Hmong instrument (The qeej is made of 6 bamboo tubes and its origins date back more than 5,000 years to China). Textile Art “has been practiced for centuries and passed down from mother to daughter” who started as early as four years old.
Paj Nataub ( flower cloth) is very elaborate embroidery which serves many purposes thought Hmong culture. Paj Nataub is, for example, also used for making funeral garments to be worn by the deceased so that they can be welcomed and acknowledged by the ancestors upon their death. Traditonal skirts were once made of Hemp and would take up to a year to make. However, hemp is an illegal substance in the United States in addition to being very heavy
The Story cloth originated in the refugee camps with its origins traced back to the Ban Vinai refugee camp Thailand. At on time this camp was the most populated place in the world with 43,000-45,000 living in a 400 acre site.
Among Xeeseng’s most prominently featured artwork is a sculpture commissioned by North Point Health and Wellness Center’s for its atrium, entitled “Convergence.” This work is made up of five sphere elements, each represent a healing element, Concern, Family, Culture, Science and Wisdom.