SEE BULTOS; NICHOLAS HERRERA; PRISON ART; RETABLOS; SANTEROS; SCULPTURE, FOLK.
best exemplified by the traditional textile art paj ntaub (pronounced pa ndao), with a history that spans millennia, are practiced by Hmong women exiled from the highlands of Laos, and are sold to supplement their families' incomes. Ancient Chinese chronicles tell legends about the Hmong, an independent people known for their resistance to Chinese assimilation policies. Many Hmong fled China in the 1800s, seeking autonomy in the highlands of Vietnam and Laos. They settled in the highest elevations, practiced swidden agriculture, and lived in small mountaintop communities.
Traditions of personal adornment and gift exchange characterize paj ntaub's role in Hmong culture. In the multicultural highlands of Southeast Asia, paj ntaub-decorated clothing distinguishes the Hmong from neighboring ethnic peoples. Translated literally as "flower cloth," paj ntaub is used to decorate the festive and daily dress of both sexes. Regional subgroups named themselves according to traditions of dress; for example, the Green Hmong use batik techniques to decorate their skirts and dye them with indigo, whereas White Hmong leave their pleated skirts undyed.
Paj ntaub helps to mediate relationships within Hmong communities. Mothers give daughters wedding gifts of paj ntaub-decorated sashes and aprons. In return, married daughters provide their parents with funeral clothes, and the designs sewn onto funeral pillows are meant to restore the dead to their ancestors. The exchange of paj ntaub enacts the continuity of family, of community, and of what it means to be Hmong.
Hmong subgroups practice different needlework techniques. All utilize embroidery, particularly cross, chain, and satin stitches. Most Hmong groups also practice different techniques of appliqué, in which layers of cloth strips form and accent design. Green Hmong women work in batik, and White Hmong women practice reverse appliqué, in which the background fabric and an appliqué layer together form the total design. Paj ntaub artists manipulate complex geometric structures to form intricate designs on a two-dimensional fabric plane. Women who invent new designs or creatively adapt old ones gain reputations as skilled paj ntaub makers. Paj ntaub is an exacting art that demands a high level of sewing skill and geometric analysis. Esteemed makers execute up to eighty stitches an inch.
War and displacement added a new value to paj ntaub, as it became a moneymaker. Decades of peace in the Laotian highlands gave way to warfare in the 1950s. Most Laotian Hmong defended the Lao monarchy against the Vietnamese-backed Pathet Lao. When the military struggles escalated with American involvement in the 1960s and 1970s, the strategic position of the Hmong proved invaluable. Covert CIA officers trained and armed Hmong soldiers and pilots. The North Vietnamese-backed Pathet Lao gained full control of the government in 1975. In the face of harsh persecution, more than 100,000 Hmong fled the country to find sanctuary in Thailand's refugee camps. Most of the exiled Hmong have since resettled in Western countries, with the majority now residing in the United States.
Hmong women in refugee camps turned to their traditional skills as needleworkers to develop products that they could sell to camp visitors, brokers from tourist shops, and ethnic-art dealers. Women adapted traditional designs to forms that would appeal to outsiders, from wall hangings to baby bibs. The traditional techniques of paj ntaub all served as tools to render age-old designs into modern accessories.
The refugee camps proved to be fertile ground for the flowering of paj ntaub. Not only did makers excel at innovative adaptations of tradition, but they also invented a new form of paj ntaub that they called story cloths. Radically departing from traditions of geometric design principles, story cloths used representational art, often punctuated by English captions, to tell about Hmong life, and to communicate Hmong history and daily life to outsiders. The story cloths told tales about growing rice, hunting tigers, celebrating weddings, and healing spiritual maladies. They detailed the horrors of the war and the desperate flight to Thailand. Refugee camp life also provided an environment