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The Untold Stories That Speak to Hmong Artist Law Thao

By Law Thao

It started with a question... Why?

My family lineage includes many adversities, conflict, and trauma tied to the Secret War. They fled the hilltops of Laos and fought in the CIA-recruited army to fight against communist troops in Southeast Asia. The story cloth of my people holds a journey that includes many steps trekking through the jungles of Laos to cross the Mekong River to reach refugee camps in Thailand to stepping foot in the United States. I was born in March 1994 to this family lineage and I hold my history close to me.

Discover more about the CIA's clandestine operation in Laos that unfolded in the shadows of the Vietnam War. Aimed at preventing the spread of communism deeper into Southeast Asia, the "secret war" impacted the lives of thousands of Hmong men, women and children.

Growing up, I have always been curious about the stories of the Hmong people. There wasn't a curriculum to be learned in schools or films to be watched to know what Hmong history entails: I felt like parts of the stories were untold and hidden. Starting with my own family's experiences, I wanted to find out what our history uncovered and I wanted to share untold stories with the world. I believe that sharing these stories will start a deeper conversation around unraveling the "why's" or "curiosities" in our culture.

Artist Law Thao | Photo courtesy of the author
Artist Law Thao | Photo courtesy of the author

In order to learn and go in depth, I listened to stories told by my grandparents and parents - the simple stories of Hmong life, the cultural beliefs, the clothing tradition of Paj Ntaub. Some stories brought tears.

So many of us in the Hmong community - our parents, grandparents, aunts/uncles - have these stories. I remember sitting there and listening to the story told by my grandma about her dreams, passions and the drive of survival.

The stories that my grandma told me were filled with intense emotions. I'll always remember how she retold memories of her experience as a Hmong woman who overcame the barriers of being Hmong. I hold close to me her stories of hope: She was a woman who always aspired to have a better life for herself and her family, despite the hardships of war and poverty. Miracles can happen, and collectively we can live in a better world. After the passing of my grandma in September 2012, I launched even deeper into a journey of discovering my Hmong identity. Her story was one piece of a larger Hmong story that gave me a deep understanding of the importance of preserving and sharing our narratives. My grandmother is my inspiration to share the breadth and richness of our Hmong story.

At the time, I was trying to figure out my own identity as Hmong-American, and I was driven by the question, "Why?": Why did it feel like these stories of Hmong people were new, even though Hmong people have a long history? This question continues to guide my work in learning more on our Hmong history, current events, and how we hold and embrace multiple identities.

Exploring a variety of artistic paths, I dived into my own story:

In October 2014, I created the short film "My Inner Hmong: The Hmong Paj Ntaub" about a young woman who is trying to find inspiration for her art project and, in the process, unravels many stories about the Hmong people through the stories.

In June 2015, I created "The Hmong American in Me," a video installation that represents the experience of navigating between dual identities of being Hmong and being American.

In May 2017, I made "Reconnecting with my Roots," a 10-minute, deep personal narrative documentary on three women of Hmong, Somali and Ecuadorian descent on their experiences centered around their cultural identities and life challenges.

In November 2019, I filmed "I am SouthEast Asian Hmong," a 3-minute short video to empower others to embrace their Southeast Asian Hmong culture, roots and identity.

As a Hmong-American visual artist, I love the art of storytelling and capturing unheard voices. I am proud of my cultural identity - and I believe it is important to preserve culture, to have intimate conversations and to uplift marginalized communities. While capturing amazing stories to share with you all, I hope to inspire, impact and create spaces for conversations.

This year, I've been working on reflection videos on Hmong culture that tap into memories and sensory experiences. I started with "Reflections on Hmong Clothing & The History of the Xauv."

Reflections on Hmong Clothing & The Xauv

Then I moved on to explore "The Hmong Chicken Herb Soup (Tshuaj rau Qaib)."

The Hmong Chicken Herb Soup (Tshuaj rau Qaib) (1)

Next up, I'll be creating a full-length feature documentary highlighting seven personal Hmong stories and reflections on Hmong identity today. I hope to bring to light these collective stories that engage our Hmong community and also showcase a wider lens of our Hmong identity. This project is my attempt to share the Hmong-American Experience.

Law Thao is a multi-media artist from Saint Paul, Minn., who creates work to inspire others to think deeply about social justice issues, specifically race, to be more culturally aware and to have pride in who they are.

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