monca’s latest exhibit is a Hmong-American take on self-identity


Interactive Weaving, No Word for “Art”, photo by Carrington Power

Art defies boundaries, breaks norms and introduces audiences to foreign concepts. The new exhibit at the Museum of Northern California Art in Chico is no exception. “No Word for ‘Art”’ compels viewers to identify their relationship with art while exploring the Hmong American identity through artists’ eyes.

“No Word for ‘Art’” is a contemporary art exhibition with interactive and visual pieces by co-curators Elizabeth Lee and Stacey Lo. 

Sara Smallhouse, who helped create the exhibit, found inspiration in 2019 after attending a museum conference in Santa Cruz. 

“I wanted to elevate the voices of Hmong curators.”

Sara Smallhouse

The co-curators decided to delay the exhibit a year due to COVID-19. They agreed that these artworks are most impactful when viewed in person.

This exhibit informs the audience of challenges Hmong American artists face. Creative jobs are often discouraged in Hmong culture and the curators want viewers to understand the importance of art.

“Our intention was to create a space for conversation on how we define and value art.”

Stacey Lo

This exhibit has outstanding works in the form of different artistic mediums. The artistic context explains to the viewer the significance of culture and art in the creators’ work and life, included in both English and Hmong. There is no word for art in the Hmong language, inspiring the name and concept, but this collection shows the many forms it takes. 

“Because we do not have the words to describe ‘art’ in the Hmong language, we hope our exhibit will act as sort of a visual definition of ‘art’.”

Elizabeth Lee
Untitled by Yaj Hawj, photo by Carrington Power

One form of art featured is photography and Yaj Hawj’s 2021 “Untitled’. This picture is a demonstration of Hawj’s culture and its traditional values integrating with modernity. 

Once Upon a Time, This Skirt Was a Book by Sheng Lor, photo by Carrington Power

A piece that exemplifies the many forms art can take is “Once Upon a Time, This Skirt Was a Book” by Sheng Lor. The hand-woven cotton cloth depicted symbols from an ancient Hmong language that no longer exists in the pleats of the skirts. On account of the unknown contents of these symbols, Lor encourages the audience to write their names, phrases of remembrance and personal stories that could be the contents of the skirt.

Thread and Cloth by The Leaders of a Lifetime, photo by Carrington Power

The Leaders for a Lifetime based out of Chico State’s College of Behavioral and Social Services present a collaborative project with Elizabeth Lee. Seventeen people in this Hmong youth empowerment program created Hmong story cloths and embroidered stories that mean something to them.

The Echo of Emotions is All that Remains After a Nightmare by Stacey Lo, photo by Carrington Power

“The Echo of Emotions is All that Remains After a Nightmare” by Stacey Lo is a video art installation that highlights reality and nightmares through a lens of her personal experiences and Hmong dream interpretations. The bedroom setting gives a sense of familiarity as it shows the occupant’s personality along with objects close to them. The projector shows abstract art videos that portray five of Lo’s worst nightmares. 

Another impactful piece is the video “Becoming,” which features a dance performance by Der Her, also known as Mage Flows. With the song “Evasion” by CloZee, the flow dance depicts the struggle of adhering to Western beauty, standards and ideals. The audience sees the subject overcome the internal struggle of conforming to blue eyes, double eyelids and fair skin as she dances with a hoop on fire and embraces her beauty.

In addition to viewing and interacting with these pieces of art, monca also invites the community to weekly special events. These include classes to learn traditional embroidery, a community art night and an artist panel for Hmong American voices. These events along with the artwork are open until Sept. 26

Carrington Power can be reached at [email protected] or @_carringtonp on Twitter