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Minnesota's welcome was frosty in other ways, too. Thao's family was part of the first wave of Hmong immigrants to the state, and, with wounds from the Vietnam War still raw, the racism they faced was both virulent and omnipresent. Thao remembers his school days as being punctuated by playground fistfights: "One: We looked different. Two: We were poor. Three: We didn't speak English. So you had two choices: You could take it, or you could fight back. Every now and then, I'd fight back."
Thao's paintings reflect this painful adjustment. In one, a Minneapolis housing project is represented as a lawless free-fire zone, with gangsters shooting it out in the streets and anti-Hmong graffiti defacing parked cars.
Thao's description of his childhood follows the outline of a classic, first-generation immigrant narrative. At home, he was a dutiful son helping to raise his younger brothers; at school, he was a scrapper and an Eagle Scout. But Thao wasn't the only one making a hard transition. Thao's father, once a governor in Laos, took two jobs, working on an assembly line during the day and as a library janitor at night. Thao and his brothers would often pitch in to help with the latter. That his father was able to swallow his pride and do what was needed to support his family made a profound impression on Thao. Many other Hmong leaders and veterans found such work too much of an indignity to bear.
"As a young guy, my dad and I talked a lot about issues important to the community," says Thao. "I understood the importance of public service from him--that sense of responsibility to the community around you."
At the University of Minnesota in Morris, Thao studied political science. But, after an internship at the state Capitol left him somewhat soured on politics, he began taking art classes as well. After graduating, he worked with a variety of community arts organizations, including the Hmong theater group Pom Siab Hmoob. Thao started with the troupe as a scenic designer, but eventually found himself acting in productions as well. It was while on tour with Pom Siab Hmoob that Thao met his wife.
Thao likes to say that politics drove him to art, and art drove him back to politics. He already had experience as a fundraiser for Pom Siab Hmoob. Running for public office, he reasoned, would be a kind of trial run, a way to engage the community in the political process. During his first bid, in 2000, Thao achieved limited local celebrity with his homemade "Cy the Cleaner" television spots, in which he chased prostitutes down University Avenue while waving a broom. "You have to create something crazy to catch people's attention," he says with a slightly sheepish grin.
Thao lost that first election, though by a closer margin than anyone had expected. Two years later, he ran again and won, becoming only the second Hmong politician to take a seat in an American legislature.
While still in college, Thao happened across Tragic Mountains, journalist Jane Hamilton-Merritt's account of the Hmong genocide. He was affected, in particular, by one of the book's illustrations, a sketch of Pathet Lao soldiers raping and decapitating Hmong villagers. This unspeakably brutal scene is actually eyewitness testimony, described by an illiterate Hmong survivor of the massacre. Printed neatly beneath the tableaux of torture and murder are the names of the victims.
The drawing immediately reminded Thao of a Hmong story quilt. It was in the refugee camps that Hmong women first began stitching images of the war, he explains. Traditionally, paj ntaub embroidery had been decorative, a vocabulary of colorful geometric patterns woven into Hmong clothing. After the exodus from Laos, Hmong women, having no language in which to write what they'd seen, used the old art of the "flowering cloth" to record their recent history.
At first, they were encouraged to sew scenes from the war as a kind of therapy; later, when those images proved too gruesome for the Western aid workers who bought the tapestries, the women turned instead to producing pastoral scenes of village life. "They think, 'What can I do to sell?'" Thao says. "In the camps there's no other way to get money, so they just do what they have to to survive."
Thao's first paintings were heavily influenced by these quilts. One, a scene of Communist soldiers burning a village and murdering Hmong children, even borrows elements from the drawings in Tragic Mountains. Though Thao's family left Laos relatively early, before the worst of the atrocities, he was able to reconstruct key events both from his own memories and from those of the survivors he interviewed. What emerges in "The Hmong Migration" is a collective memory of the war.
Although Thao began by painting scenes from the conflict--the Gordian knot that binds the Hmong diaspora--his ambition eventually widened. "I started off with the stuff about the war in Laos, but as I tell one piece of the story, I feel the need for two more pieces to connect with it. It's like a puzzle."
In 1996, Thao spent five months in China studying Hmong history and folklore. Then, in 2000, he received a Bush Artist Fellowship that allowed him to spend a year working exclusively on his magnum opus.
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