Exodus

As a Child, Cy Thao Crossed the Mekong from Laos to a New World. Now His Paintings Are Taking the Hmong People Home.

There are many versions of the folktale about how the Hmong lost their language. One of them goes like this: In ancient times, a Hmong rebel was fleeing through a bamboo forest from soldiers of the Chinese emperor. The rebel carried with him scrolls of Hmong writing. He came to a river, the legend goes, and there saw a water bug dancing across the surface. Thinking that he could do the same, and same, and thus escape his pursuers, the man tied pieces of bamboo to his feet and leapt into the water. As he drowned, he swallowed the scrolls he'd been protecting. So the written words were lost; in time they were forgotten.

This is how Cy Thao tells the story, anyway. We're sitting in his office at the state Capitol on a quiet Tuesday afternoon. When the Legislature is in session, the whole building has the becalmed air of power being discreetly exercised. Conversations aggregate into a low thrum that sounds like oiled loafers swooshing over carpet.

Thao continues: "In China, the emperor started encroaching on the Hmong country. The Hmong fought back. But those that did were conquered. And the emperor outlawed the Hmong language, throughout history. Thousands of years.

"So the Hmong found the way to communicate with each other was through pattern and design. They would make designs to sew on their clothes to communicate when and how we're going to attack which garrison. They would walk from village to village and communicate with everyone without the emperor and his soldiers detecting what they were saying. Throughout the ages, many people lost the meanings of those designs. But we still kept the designs on our clothes."

Thao is a sturdily built man, not quite plump, but compact and thick-limbed: a former wrestler's physique. His face is round and unlined, though a neat goatee and scant hair make him look somewhat older than he, in fact, is. Although still in his freshman term as a state representative, Thao has something of a veteran politician's gift for easy rapport, the ability to make stories he's told a hundred times sound improvised. If this eloquence seems slightly practiced, that's only because, at age 32, Thao has already spent years as an emissary of Hmong culture.

As a politician, Thao is the public face of a large Hmong constituency in St. Paul's Frogtown; as an artist, his ambition is even greater. This week at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Thao will unveil "The Hmong Migration," an epic cycle of 50 oil paintings that tracks the 5,000-year Hmong journey, from the creation of the universe, to the refugee camps in Thailand where Thao spent his early childhood, to the Hmong diaspora he now represents in the state Legislature.

"People always say, boy, somebody should be doing this," Thao says of the project, which preoccupied him for three years and took him to three countries. "Somebody should tell our story. So one day I just said, 'You know what? I'm not going to wait for that somebody anymore. It's just as much my responsibility-- it's a huge responsibility--to tell that story."

Thao gravitates toward a Hmong quilt hanging on his office wall. In a few vivid scenes, it tells the story of the Hmong exodus from Laos: A line of refugees winds through the jungle, starving women dig for roots, soldiers rake the crowd with machine-gun fire, and men drown as they try to swim across the Mekong. On the other side of the river is a teeming camp where blond American aid workers parcel out fate. As is common in Hmong tapestries, called paj ntaub, different events are depicted as simultaneous, so that the same figures seem to be tramping through the jungle and waiting in the camps. Everything seems to be happening in the present tense. This image of refugees crossing the Mekong, Thao explains, is universal in Hmong culture--a shared memory as traumatic as the biblical Exodus or the middle passage.

"That river is the border between Laos and Thailand," Thao explains. "If you made it across the river into Thailand, the Thai government, they won't kill you. Instead of killing you, they throw you into a refugee camp. It was sort of a safe haven to the Hmong community. On the way, many people drowned. Before they got to the river, many were shot and killed. Some Thai officials would send them back into Laos; others would take their valuables first, then send them to the camps."

One of the first scenes Thao painted for "The Hmong Migration" was of the river crossing. The panel, done in bright, primary colors, looks very much like a paj ntaub quilt: The figures are simplified and identical, and the scene is painted in nonlinear perspective, so that there is no background or foreground. The style is direct, almost naively simple. The subject, however, is anything but: On one bank of the serenely blue Mekong, a Laotian soldier fires his gun at fleeing Hmong. On the other, Thai soldiers, also with guns, confront the refugees. In one corner of the picture, a Thai ferryman has intentionally capsized his boat and drowned his passengers, including an infant. Elsewhere, desperate refugees build a raft, or use blown- up plastic bags to try to float across the river. Some of the figures are even clinging to cut pieces of bamboo, seemingly recreating the tragic legend of the lost Hmong language.

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