Hmong ‘Story Cloths’ Exhibition Now Open at Ruth Funk Textile Center
Paj Ntaub a Textile Tradition
MELBOURNE, FLA. — An exhibition of 28 flower cloths and embroidered articles of “story cloths” from the Hmong culture opens Sept. 23 at Florida Institute of Technology’s Ruth Funk Center for Textile Arts.
The clothing and flower cloths, known as paj ntaub, illustrate the profound relevance of textiles as infrastructure in the China- and Southeast Asia-based Hmong culture and highlight an art form that shifted as it adapted to fit new realities.
In addition to the textile pieces, Cloth as Community: Hmong Textiles in America will feature activity stations throughout the exhibition, as well as feature photographs of contemporary Hmong women and children in traditional dress by local artist Peter Kastan.
“Not only will we be showcasing the unique talent of Hmong artists, but our exhibition will also allow visitors to engage with personal stories of immigration, travel and culture,” said Keidra Navaroli, the center’s assistant director and curator.
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.
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.
Despite its deep roots in Hmong culture, this complex art was not widely known outside Asia until after the Vietnam War, when Hmong refugees arrived in the United States. Later, 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.
The works in this exhibition demonstrate a period in time when old paj ntaub influenced new designs. 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.
Organized and toured by ExhibitsUSA, a national part of Mid-America Arts Alliance, the exhibition was first curated in 1999 by Carl Magnuson, a cultural anthropologist working with a Hmong refugee community. Curatorial updates have been done by Geraldine Craig, who has published more than a hundred essays on contemporary art and Hmong textiles and now serves as department head of art at Kansas State University.
Cloth as Community: Hmong Textiles in America closes Dec. 16.
Regular hours for the center will be 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and noon to 4 p.m. Saturday. The center is located next to Evans Library on the Florida Tech campus, 150 W. University Blvd. in Melbourne. Admission is free. More information at http://textiles.fit.edu/.