About this exhibit
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.