2020/21 MCAD–Jerome Interview: Kuab Maiv Yaj | Minneapolis College of Art and Design

2020/21 MCAD–Jerome Interview: Kuab Maiv Yaj

By Story by Bo An on April 28, 2021
Photograph of Kuab Maiv Yaj wearing traditional clothes ; Kuab Maiv Yaj
Kuab Maiv Yaj

Kuab Maiv Yaj, Koua Mai Yang is a HMong American female artist based in St. Paul. Yaj’s studio practice investigates HMong identity, culture and history. Ongoing for a little over 820 days, her current project, Hnav HMoob, Wear HMong, consists of photographs, moving images, and installations. The project engages in everyday HMong clothes through making, dressing, and performance to raise questions about HMong materiality, aesthetics, culture, and female representation in the circulation of global cultural production. The project seeks to understand the history of HMong traditional dress from a female perspective, a place of labor, experientially and through an embodied methodology. The heart of her work is to hold space for the possibilities of addressing the legacy of statelessness, wars, invisibility, and the layers of oppression in HMong female experiences. Yaj holds an MFA from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, and BFA from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

In this interview, Yaj discusses her durational performance Hnav HMoob, Wear HMong and reflects on how the project has evolved over the last two and a half years.

Your work investigates recurring themes surrounding bicultural identity, home, female experiences, and Hmong patriarchy. Could you tell us about how these ideas unfold in your work?

In my practice I engage in Hmong and Western art practices and ways of knowing. The work that I make is not limited to these recurring themes listed above, but most of the art that I create is based on my reflections on Hmong experiences. Identity, home, and female experiences are often intertwined and influences how I come to understand who I am. In some ways these themes are where I am positioned in my observations and influences how I frame my work.

I’m curious to know more about your durational project Hnav Hmoob, Wear Hmong. What was the impetus for this project? How and when did this project get started? What have you learned about yourself and your practice over the course of working on this body of work?

The project Hnav HMoob, Wear HMong began in August of 2018, because I was interested in many things that surrounds paj ntaub and Hmong fashion. To name one, I was interested in theorizing Hmong female labor in paj ntaub. As a Hmong female who makes paj ntaub and wears Hmong clothes, was it possible to own your paj ntaub and images as uniquely yours? I was thinking about the paj ntaub as an ancestral practice, but also the collective authorship and ownership of the practice in the Hmong identity and the ethics involved in when the female labor and intentions of the makers are overlooked and becomes owned by all Hmong people; or when all we see in visual representations of Hmong events, news articles about the Hmong, speakers, etc., are Hmong women and girls in Hmong New Year clothes? In a sense I wanted to reclaim my body, my sexuality, and see if wearing Hmong clothes will shift anything in these patriarchal practices of Hmong representation.

The first 50 days of wearing Hmong clothes, the project started to feel like I was onto something beyond my family’s memories of a post-Vietnam War world. Though dressing in Hmong clothes created challenges around my safety, it brought me closer to the collective bodily experiences of dressing, the fit, and looking like my ancestors; like how Hmong dress influences the way the body inhales and exhales while wrapped in layers of fabric. In these small gestures of how the body moves, the project attempts to imagine different frameworks to talk about paj ntaub today.

Hnav HMoob, Wear HMong has been ongoing for over 980 days and has developed many moving parts: (1) it provides a process of grieving the things we/Hmong people have lost throughout our history of displacement, (2) the project theorizes and engages in the repetitive imagery of Hmong women and girls dressed in Hmong New Year fashioned clothing, and recently (3) the project seeks to create a different collection of images that disrupts, Chinese, Western, and Hmong patriarchal gaze and their influences on Hmong/Miao cultural materials, specifically the ones often found in non-Hmong private and public collections and archives. The everyday performance amplifies the histories embodied in the material and in my body has never left. Through the durational performance I hope that people will see the questioning I am asking by seeing what I’m wearing.

day 951

Day 951, April 02, 2021, 2021, digital photography. Photo taken at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. 

In your recent blog post, you asked some poignant questions: “What does it mean when the majority of one's education is focused on Hmong culture and history and the people who support [you] the most are educated, white people? Are these situations foreshadowing my future in the fine arts?” Can you share some of the ways in which you are answering/grappling with these questions?

These thoughts, ideas and questions are not new, Indigenous, Black and POC feminists, Queers, and Trans social justice activists have been demonstrating it throughout history.I was hoping that people will continue this engagement in thinking critically about privilege, cultural and gender-biases and see intersections in the systems of power that are at play. When I asked these questions, I was thinking about if it was possible to undo whiteness when I am still benefiting from Westernization and the legacy of colonialism in institutions like the University? I was hoping that by asking these questions, I’m inviting people to think deeply with me about where and how we are positioned in these systems of power and what it means to begin decolonizing ourselves. That maybe what comes from questioning are actions and tools that will be useful to transform, shift and dismantle white supremacist systems of power. I am still grappling with these questions.  

You use Hmong textiles in your work and I was wondering what do these textiles mean to you and why are they the primary medium of your works? In addition, you could talk about the process of choosing/making these fabric parts of your work and their transformation into the final artwork?

In Hnav HMoob, Wear HMong, the fashion or dress style I wear is the regional dress of the Hmong from Xieng Khouang Province in Laos, because it is my family’s regional fashion. What I wear are my ideas of an everyday Hmong dress which differs from the current elaborate Hmong New Year dress.

In terms of fabric and materials, some clothes are made with leftover fabrics from when my parents owned a Hmong clothing store, and I originally wore clothing gifted to me by the women and men in my family. What has shifted over the years is that I’ve gotten a little laxed with maintaining a strict consistent look and have been mixing and matching my clothes. Additionally, I’ve changed certain things in the construction of the clothing to better fit my body, to adjust for everyday use, and protect my body from hot and cold weather conditions.

Overall, I’m really inspired by my great grandmother Ying Lee also known as Pog Nkaj Neeb Yaj, who was the only person in my life who wore different iterations of Hmong clothes every day. These are limitations I set for the project, because I want to make sure that I honor my grandmothers, aunties, and mother, who have been dressing me since I was a child. It is important to acknowledge their labor and at large the collectiveness of Hmong women’s labor by remembering their names, stories, and their ways of knowing in paj ntaub practices.

Initially, I wanted to engage in a look that was specific to my family’s history, because I do not speak for all the Hmong people in the diaspora, however, recently I’ve been thinking about expanding beyond the limitations that I set for myself because Hmong fashion and clothing have become a globalized market. In the market for Hmong clothes are Hmong, white and non-Hmong fashion designers modifying and utilizing Hmong and Miao textiles as the main component of inspiration for their modern/contemporary fashion and branding. A loud example is Eponine London who became visible in mainstream news for cultural appropriation, however, there are various other non-white global designers and artists who continue to engage in Hmong and Miao textiles in complicated ways and have not become visible to the West or is too entrenched with cultural appreciation or cultural conservation practices. It becomes difficult for Hmong communities in the diaspora to consistently push for conversations about erasure and invisibility when these topics also relate to ideas of belonging to a nation-state. In a way what I am thinking about deals with ideas of power, who really gets to have a voice and who really benefits from global capitalism, fashion, tourists, and design industries? These questions are important because where are Hmong people placed in the selling and consuming of our ancestor’s knowledge? Do we get to own our ancestorial practices?

day 857

Day 857, December 29, 2020, 2020, digital photography

You talk about the experience of statelessness and invisibility in your work. I am curious about what community/communities you are a part of and if these topics are part of the conversations that are happening within those communities. How do these conversations affect your art practice, and vice versa (i.e., how does your art affect your community)?

We’ve experienced tremendous loss and trauma in our history and it’s still difficult to begin our collective healing. The history of statelessness also contributes to a common Hmong repertoire that goes: we are war torn people, we have no land and no home to return to, our elders are dying, and our culture is becoming obsolete as our young assimilate to survive. I think about displacement and statelessness as an inheritance from my ancestors, and it is impossible not to be influenced by this history. This repertoire has become a dominant theme in Hmong arts and other aspects of our community’s culture production. The fear of more violence and erasure is real and can be paralyzing or limiting, but I am hopeful that there will be ways to transform and shift the narrative. Eve Tuck for example, proposes desire-based frameworks to disrupt deficit models or damage centered narratives. What that proposes is putting more focus on contradicting, complicating, and focus on the self-determination of lived lives in aesthetics, critical Hmong scholarship and community engagements.

How has COVID affected your art-making process?

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected everyone in the world. Though I am surrounded by a concentrated Hmong community in the Twin-Cities, at large there are few of us scattered all over the world; not many people wear Hmong fashioned clothing in the everyday, so the last two years has been an alienating experience. Once the pandemic arrived in the US, being isolated intensified the solitude I was already experiencing. The sense of community I was privileged to be around disappeared and it felt like my creative support system was also gone. Any safety that I felt before the pandemic was compromised as the former US president consistently blamed Chinese and Asian people for the coronavirus. As we’ve been seeing in the media, bigotry, xenophobia, and hate crimes against Asian Americans have risen.

Additionally, the elders in my family don’t speak English fluently, so for a while it was difficult to see the privileges that comes with knowing and understanding the English language. Where English speakers were connected to CDC guidelines and trusted media outlets, while my elders were clueless about this virus and received information on preventative measures a few months following major outbreaks; and this experience was not unique to my family, but noticeable in lots of non-English speaking households. It’s been difficult to stay motivated to engage in “art” when it makes more sense to focus on surviving.

What are your plans for the future? If you are working on a new project, could we get a sneak peek at it? Can you tell us a little about it?

I hope to learn more about curation, be involved with museum collections, be more engaged in the local Hmong community, and work collectively and collaboratively with other artists in the Hmong identity. I think it’s important to build trust among one another, work towards building complexity in Hmong identity, and create spaces where we are engaging artistic practice from social justice frameworks.