The exhibition, “Cloth as Community: Hmong Textiles in America,” opens Nov. 10 at West Wyandotte Library, 1737 N. 82nd St., Kansas City, Kansas.
Hmong flower cloth (or paj ntaub) is one of the world’s great textile traditions and an excellent example of cloth as community.
Despite its deep roots in Hmong culture, this complex art was not widely known outside Asia until after the Vietnam War, when Hmong refugees arrived in the United States. The works illustrate the profound relevance of textiles as infrastructure in the Hmong culture, an art form that shifted as it adapted to fit new realities.
Visitors to Kansas City, Kansas, Public Library can experience the exhibition, “Cloth as Community: Hmong Textiles in America,” opening Nov. 10 at West Wyandotte Library. The exhibition features 27 textiles—flower cloths and embroidered story clothes—by those in the Hmong community.
The library will hold an opening reception at 2 p.m. Nov. 16 featuring Geraldine Craig of Kansas State University, who currently provides curatorial updates for the exhibit. Following Craig’s presentation, a documentary will be shown.
Geraldine Craig is an artist and writer whose research-based practice focuses on the intersections and relationships between textile history, theory or criticism, curatorial work, studio practice. Craig’s writing is formed by modes of knowing as a maker, with primary research interests contemporary art and craft and Hmong textiles, generating knowledge of craft practices marginalized in Western art history canons.
She was the 2012-2013 Dorothy Liesky Wampler Eminent Professor, James Madison University, and 2014 International Fellow-in-Residence, at the Women’s International Study Center, Acequia Madre House, Santa Fe, New Mexico. She has presented at conferences throughout the United States, Italy, Brazil, Canada and Denmark.
Craig has written a monograph on sculptor Joan Livingstone (Telos: London), and published over 90 book chapters, catalog essays, articles and reviews in Art in America, Hmong Studies Journal, The Journal of Modern Craft, Surface Design Journal, and Sculpture, among others.
The story of Hmong textile production reflects the shift in the creation of textiles with traditional abstract patterns created for family and ceremonial use to its evolution as a source of commerce and telling of a new life abroad. The works also reveal the radical upheaval Hmong refugees experienced, as many crossed the Mekong River to Thailand.
Hmong women traditionally produced complex clothing that established clan identity through abstract geometric designs, created by embroidery, appliqué, reverse appliqué, and indigo batik. These patterns continue to influence the aesthetic choices of contemporary makers, even as those choices were mediated by refugee experience and economic concerns.
Historically, textiles in village life were not sold but they held important spiritual protections. In refugee camps and beyond, the sale of textiles generated important income for families, and this creation of textiles for commerce brought on changes to this centuries-old art form. Story cloths emerged with pictorial art, sometimes sharing escape narratives of those in refugee camps.
As the memory of the Vietnam War receded and American buyers required more upbeat subjects, many of the story cloth subjects morphed into representations of a new life in America or nostalgia for the pastoral life left behind (animals in a jungle, scenes of village life, or illustrated Hmong folk tales with English text).
The works in this exhibition demonstrate a period in time when old paj ntaub influenced new designs, often produced at a larger scale or with more space devoted to the triangular borders, and embroidered story cloths changed to fit a new market that was different from tourists
or relief workers in the camps. The works show how the profound relevance of textiles as infrastructure in the Hmong social fabric has never been part of a fixed cultural tableau, even as the narrative is adapted to fit new realities.
Organized and toured by ExhibitsUSA, a national part of Mid-America Arts Alliance, the exhibition was first curated in 1999 by Carl Magnuson, a cultural anthropologist, working with a Hmong refugee community. Curatorial updates have been done by Geraldine Craig, who has published more than a hundred essays on contemporary art and Hmong textiles, in venues such as the Hmong Studies Journal, The Journal of Modern Craft, Art in America, and Surface Design Journal.
Craig is currently department head of art at Kansas State University, and previously served for six years as assistant director for academic programs at Cranbrook Academy of Art. ExhibitsUSA sends more than 25 exhibitions on tour to more than 100 small- and mid-sized communities every year. Based in Kansas City, Missouri, Mid-America is the oldest nonprofit regional arts organization in the United States. More information is available at www.maaa.org and www.eusa.org.
- Story from Kansas City, Kansas, Public Library