From Kwvtxhiaj and PajNtaub to Theater and Literature: The Role of Generation, Gender and Human Rights in the Expansion of Hmong American Art

By Vang, Nengher N.; Hein, Jeremy | Hmong Studies Journal, January 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

From Kwvtxhiaj and PajNtaub to Theater and Literature: The Role of Generation, Gender and Human Rights in the Expansion of Hmong American Art


Vang, Nengher N., Hein, Jeremy, Hmong Studies Journal


Introduction

International migration creates numerous challenges for immigrants and refugees, including political insecurity, economic disadvantage, familial conflict, and racial prejudice and discrimination. Despite these high priority hardships, a growing literature reveals that international migrants avidly participate in the arts in Europe (Costanzo and Zibouh, 2013; Delhaye, 2008; Escafré-Dublet, 2010; Orlando, 2003; Rogstad and Vestel, 2011; Soysal, 2004), Australia (Ram, 2005; Tabar, 2005), and the US (Fernández-Kelly, 2010; Jamal, 2010; Leonard and Sakata, 2005; Wilcox, 2011). The Hmong followed this pattern when they arrived in the US as refugees from Laos after the Vietnam War. Hmong refugees dramatically expanded their artistic expressions from traditional kwvtxhiaj andpajntaub to books, plays, paintings, and other creative genres. Why do immigrants and refugees like the Hmong invest so much of their scarce time and resources in art when they are still busy meeting basic needs and confronting oppression in their new society?

Marginalized groups, according to some scholars, use art to resist racial oppression. In the US, blacks often feel excluded from art events organized by whites (Shaw and Sullivan, 2011). Among both disadvantaged (Beighey and Unnithan, 2006) and middle-class African Americans (Banks, 2010:5), black art is "rooted in the desire to respond to and rectify legacies of black marginality as well as continuing black inequality." For example, middle-class African Americans who moved back to Chicago's poor Bronzeville neighborhood used public art as a means of "reclaiming a geographic and historic space for black culture" (Grams, 2010:191).

Asian American art shows strong parallels with the anti-racism oppositional consciousness in Black art (Chon-Smith, 2014). Like blacks, Asian Americans also experience racial oppression because they are less likely to have their ethnic identities recognized by the dominant group and more likely to be grouped together based on physical features (Kibria, 2003; Tuan, 1998). Vietnamese Americans, for instance, have used art to contest the representation of the Vietnam War in US popular culture and historical memory (Espíritu, 2010; Pham, 2001). Similarly, South Asian and Chinese American youth create music adapted from African American rap to express a subcultural citizenship that challenges the assimilationist identities required for upward social mobility (Maira, 2010; Wong, 2010).

Other scholars, however, argue that tensions within the ethnic community are the catalysts for artistic expression by immigrants, refugees, and their descendants. Rather than a response to racial oppression by a dominant group, communities created through international migration use art to adjust to their new transnational lives (Wilcox, 2011). The experience of Bengali immigrants in the US exemplifies this view of art as the expression of changing identities under diaspora conditions (Niyogi, 2011). They engage in artistic innovation to express new ethnic identities (such as the fiction of Jhumpa Lahiri) even though they have a rich Bengali literature in India (such as Tagore's prose and poetry). Similarly, China has three official dance forms (classical, folk, and ethnic); yet, Chinese Americans still construct a "Chinese" identity through dance performances in order to combine first and second-generation interpretations of Chinese culture (Wilcox, 2011).

This article engages this debate by analyzing the Hmong artistic expressions in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area, the largest Hmong American community in the US. Through content analysis of articles about public art events published in the leading Hmong newspaper in Minnesota, the paper identifies three different motivations behind the extraordinary expansion of Hmong American art from 2002 to 2011. First, our data reveal that the most active artists in the community saw themselves as an intergenerational bridge helping Hmong culture to evolve. …

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