Men chop and gather wood, women turn grindstones, and a child rides on the back of a blue water buffalo. Preparations for New Year celebrations keep everyone busy in these scenes of traditional life in Laos, a country in Southeast Asia. What other activities can you find?
Hmong artist Ka Zoua Lee shows us scenes from three different villages on this blanket. Neatly stitched words tell us that the top two rows are a Hmong's village. The next two rows are a Blue Hmong's village. And the two rows below that are a Lao's village. The artist pictures homes, clothing, and activities typical of each village.
The English words on this blanket suggest that it was made for sale in America. But the blanket also helps preserve the history and traditions of a people uprooted by war.
Hmong women have long used colorful thread and fabrics to decorate their clothing. Skirts, hats, baby carriers, and burial cloths are busy with bright patterns and designs. This needlework is called pa ndau [pon-DOW], or “flower cloth.” Girls begin to practice sewing very young, helping their mothers and grandmothers.
In traditional Hmong culture, women make new clothes for their entire family for the celebration of the New Year. A new set of clothes reflects the good fortune of the year before. It also speaks of a hope for success in the year to come. Making new clothes by hand is a great deal of work. When a girl marries, it is her duty to help her new family make the new clothing. Well-sewn clothing is a source of pride for the whole family.
There are two main groups of Hmong in Laos. Each cultural group wears a unique style of clothing, which gives the group its name. White Hmong women wear a pleated white skirt for their New Year festival. Blue Hmong women (also called Green Hmong) are known for their indigo-blue designs.
Patterns and designs can refer to other aspects of life as well. The zigzag border design around the villages on this blanket, for example, represents the mountains of Laos. It also is a symbol of protection from evil spirits.
Key Idea Two
The Hmong settled in Laos in the 1800s, fleeing harsh treatment in China. They farmed land high in the mountains near the Chinese border. Few people lived in this region before their arrival. The Lao preferred to live in the fertile lowlands, where farming was easier.
The way of life shown on this blanket was shattered in the 1960s and 1970s. The Hmong helped Americans fight against communist forces in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. After American troops left the region in 1975, the communist forces in Laos brutally punished the Hmong for their cooperation. Thousands of Hmong families fled to refugee camps in the neighboring country of Thailand.
Ka Zoua Lee sewed this blanket in a refugee camp in Thailand in 1980. By then, the scenes she embroidered on this story blanket were no longer a reality for many Hmong. She was most likely working from her own memories of the life she once had. Some story blankets record scenes of battles and refugee camps. But others, like this one, recall the peaceful way of life before the war.
Key Idea Three
International aid groups in the camps helped women sell their work in America and other countries. Thai traders bought their work to sell in tourist markets. The new form developed as women discovered that embroidered pictures sold better than their traditional costumes. Story blankets were often a family's only source of income. They helped the Hmong survive the years of waiting in refugee camps.
Story blankets also became a way to strengthen the bonds among family members and preserve their history. Traditionally only women had created pa ndau. In the camps, however, everyone had time on their hands. Almost every member of the family might be involved in the process. Men drew the scenes on the blanket. Women used those drawings as guides for creating the embroidery. Young children learned to sew the same way their mothers did, by watching and helping their elders. The scenes they sewed helped them get to know a way of life they could not experience.
Many Hmong families now live in Minnesota. These photographs by Wing Young Huie were taken in the Frogtown neighborhood of St. Paul in the 1993 and 1994..
Ka Zoua Lee combined many scenes of life in Laos in her story blanket. What scenes of daily life would you choose for an artwork? Think about your food, clothing, chores and celebrations. Draw several of those scenes, each on its own sheet of paper. Join them in rows to make a larger picture. Add a decorative border around the edge for a finishing touch.
Examine the trees and animals on the blanket, both the central panel and the surrounding border. Make a list of what you find. Then consult a book about Laos. What trees and animals are found there? Which of them has the artist included? Which animals on the blanket are not actually found in Laos?
Bryan, Nichol. Hmong Americans. Edina, MN: ABDO Publishing Company, 2004. Cha, Dia. Dia's Story Cloth: The Hmong People's Journey of Freedom. New York: Lee & Low Books, 1998. Millett, Sandra. The Hmong of Southeast Asia. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Company, 2002. Murphy, Nora. A Hmong Family. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Company, 1997. Shea, Pegi Deitz. The Whispering Cloth. Honesdale, PA: Caroline House, 1995.
Use the library or the internet to find out more about traditional Hmong New Year celebrations. What activities do you recognize on this story cloth? What other scenes might Ka Zoua Lee have included? Create a set of drawings based on your research and write a paragraph explaining each one. (Extra credit: Find out about Lao New Year celebrations, shown at the far right of the fourth row of the story blanket.)
Visit Mia's website before you visit the museum to find out which Hmong needlework are currently on display and where. Because cloth can be damaged by light, these works of art are rotated frequently. What do the works you see at the museum have in common with Ka Zoua Lee's story blanket? How are they different?
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