The Canvasser

Community activist Cy Thao plans to tell the story of the Hmong people in a series of 50 paintings--and may one day speak for them in elected office

On the whole, Thao pulls no punches in relating the stories he has heard or seen. There is much blood, decapitation, and violence in the war scenes, which span most of the century and include historical battles against China in the late 1800s, against the French in the mid-1900s, and against communists during the American war against Vietnam and Laos. (Hmong soldiers were recruited by the CIA to wage secret warfare against the communists, leading to civil conflicts in the Hmong community.) Given this history of bloodshed, there are scenes of Hmong-on-Hmong violence, of blond-haired French soldiers caught killing scarcely armed Hmong soldiers. And then there are the pictures of the aftermath--long lines of families fleeing through mountains or across rice fields or rivers, the dead bodies left behind on the paths or floating in the water. As mountain dwellers, the Hmong, according to Thao, generally never learned how to swim. In a final painting, then, small figures come out of thick green foliage, holding flotation devices made out of plastic bags or large bamboo tubes, on the way to crossing the wide and flat-blue Mekong River. Some of the devices fail, and these figures are then seen drowning. Also in the river is an overturned boat, its passengers flailing in the water. As Thao recounts, refugees would often be betrayed mid-river by the guides they had paid to bring them across.

Thao's family had to cross this very river. "We came very early, before the big problems occurred," he says. "But still I can remember going by car through a lot of checkpoints. At the river, we split into groups in order to fit on the boats. We had to dress as servants and told the guards that we were going across to work in the fields. My brother and sister went first. Then I went. Then my mother and two brothers." Thao's father went last, the rest of the family waiting for him for a week until he finally managed to cross. "It was pretty tense for a while," Thao says.

He pauses briefly, then continues: "I'm painting a lot of stuff that people don't want to acknowledge"--referring particularly to the betrayal of Hmong by Hmong, as not all sided with the U.S. in the war. "It's just the way we are. We're not good at expressing ourselves."

Shaking hands, kissing babies: Cy Thao (second from right) with his wife and infant, along with friends, in a Frogtown restaurant
Geoffrey P. Kroll
Shaking hands, kissing babies: Cy Thao (second from right) with his wife and infant, along with friends, in a Frogtown restaurant

Just as Cy Thao's vision is expansive, his goals for the display of the work are similarly deliberate. He hopes to exhibit his completed series of paintings in its entirety, preferably at a venue on University Avenue such as the Sunrise Market. In this way, his vision of Hmong history can be visible within the community itself. Afterward, Thao hopes to find a buyer--perhaps a museum or a foundation--who will purchase the paintings as a package, so the story will always remain intact. If he can't find such a buyer, Thao says, he will likely store the paintings--bringing them out to show his grandchildren when no one bothers to remember the old stories and the old hardships any longer.

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