Lodians can see colorfully woven fabric on display at the San Joaquin Historical Museum as it presents “Cloth as Community: Hmong Textiles in America,” an exhibit of bold contrasting colors and perennial geometric shapes highlighting Hmong culture.
The showcase is part of a traveling exhibit curated by Exhibits USA, a national division of Mid-America Arts Alliance and The National Endowment for the Arts.
The exhibit features textile works that Hmong women traditionally produced using ancient abstract designs to create embroidered flowers known as Paj Ntaub.
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.
“The Hmong people did not have a standardized written language prior to immigration to the U.S. There were a variety of failed attempts to establish a language,” said Phillip Merlo, the museum’s Director of Education.
The cloth textiles were used as a means of communication according to Merlo, who said embroidery was used to tell stories and preserve history.
Each textile piece illustrates the profound relevance of textiles in Hmong culture — an art form that dematerialized as new generations assimilated to western culture, according to Carl Magnuson, a cultural anthropologist who curated the textile collection for Exhibits USA.
“Women produced complex clothing that established clan identity through abstract geometric designs in the textiles, created by embroidery, appliqué, reverse appliqué, and indigo batik. The designs reflect a deep animist philosophy inspired by nature,” a statement by Exhibits USA said.
The exhibit features 28 textiles — flower cloths and embroidered story cloths — sewn together to tell ethereal stories of nature and Hmong culture.
Merlo stated it was important for the historical museum to highlight art collections that represent the diverse San Joaquin community.
“It is important to recognize a group that is not often in the spotlight,” Merlo said. “These pieces are important because it was the way they (Hmong people) transmitted culture and history.”
The historical society will host an opening showcase Saturday that will feature a documentary called “Threads of Survival,” which tells the history of Hmong immigration to California.
The opening will also feature Hmong historical literature, along with a quilt station and a coloring book with Hmong textiles that guests can color.
“We will have Hmong cuisine available for guests to try, including a Hmong version of papaya salad — which is a traditional Southeast Asian dish that people really enjoy,” Merlo said.
The historical society has worked with Hmong community organizations throughout San Joaquin County, including a few Hmong community groups to launch a cultural experience for the opening showcase.
The show runs now through Oct. 20. Tours for the show are available from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The cost to attend the scheduled tours is the standard museum admission price, which can be found online at www.sanjoaquinhistory.org.