2021 McKnight Fiber Artist Fellowship Exhibition

Virtual Exhibition

Joan Mondale Gallery • January 18 – April 9, 2022

Ka Oskar Ly’s Room for New Worlds remains on view at HmongTown Marketplace, through October 2022.

Textile Center is proud to present the work of our 2021 McKnight Fiber Artist Fellows: Sarah Kusa and Ka Oskar Ly.

Kusa creates sculpture and installations dealing with themes of human vulnerability and interconnection, and the precarious relationship between vulnerability and power. Currently, her work has coalesced around the theme of anxiety, both collective and individual. Using simple gestures and systems in repetition and materials that are in themselves, vulnerable, her works in this installation address physical and digital containment strategies, to prompt responses from the audience and from herself as maker.

Ly is a queer Hmoob/Moob (Hmong) American artist and cultural producer. Their newest installation uses Hmong dress and painted dreamscapes as movement building and organizing tools, to hold space in an exploration of community, culture, and identity, serving to redefine Hmoob aesthetics and queer cultural futures. The installation spans two locations, with the “portal” at Textile Center connecting to a “portal” in a second mural at the Hmongtown Marketplace, located at 217 Como Ave in St. Paul.

“Textile Center is thrilled to present this new work by our 2021 McKnight Fiber Artist Fellows. Their installations resonate with messages of interconnectivity—human to human, human to culture, and humans to time. The work is exciting, fresh, and new, and represents exactly what these fellowships are intended to support—time to explore, reflect, and expand their creative practices,” says Tracy Krumm, Textile Center’s Director for Artistic Advancement.

(Featured artwork: Work by Sarah Kusa [left] and Ka Oskar Ly [right])

Funding for this program is provided by the McKnight Foundation. Textile Center is honored to be a McKnight Artist Fellowships program partner.

In the Gallery

Photos by Rik Sferra

Sarah Kusa

Photo by Rebecca Slater

A vein of vulnerability runs through all of my sculptures and installations, reflecting my questions about being in the world as a creature with human limitations. I am curious about the precariousness of vulnerability and power — how the two closely coexist, even when one might seem to eclipse the other. Using abstraction and a spare material language, my work investigates how we embody these traits through what we attempt to hold in, what we aim to keep out, and what ties we keep.

My work ranges from abstract bodies that stand in for our own, to thread drawings about interconnection, to delineations of space where bodies may or may not belong. Across this variety of forms, there are constants to be found: simple repeated gestures, elements of the body, and materials that are themselves vulnerable in some way — that can be crushed, unraveled, or torn. My most urgent ideas surround questions of connection and disconnection, limits and barriers, both physical and psychic. Increasingly, I see my art as a practice of empathy.

In recent months my work has coalesced around themes of anxiety, both my own and our collective anxiety of the moment. Worry has reached overwhelming levels, especially concerning our physical bodies. In response I am currently obsessed with containment strategies — physical restrictions, cage forms, and the abstracted grid as a building block of confinement. My work asks: can we contain the things we fear, our flaws, and/or our infirmities as a way of coping? What happens when our strategies for doing so are weak, slack, or wobbly?

The fellowship year has been generative toward multiple new bodies of work in progress, and I am deeply grateful to the McKnight Foundation, Textile Center, and Springboard for the Arts for their extraordinary support.

Slack Cage
Sarah Kusa
Therapeutic resistance bands, copper tubing

Visitors were invited inside this piece

Anxiety Questions
Sarah Kusa
Tracing paper, ink, recent predictions from Google autocomplete

How do private moments of anxiety intertwine with our collective anxiety as a society? To explore this, I composed a set of open-ended “what if” phrases that can be associated with worry. Using those phrases as search prompts, I typed each one into my internet browser to see what topic searches were suggested via Google’s autocomplete function, which makes predictions based on actual search trends across Google users. The resulting lists are a particular day’s top predictions in order of popularity. These suggestions change as often as daily, forming a snapshot of collective-yet-individual anxiety, often about the body.

Ka Oskar Ly

Photo by Teeko.co

Room for New Worlds is an ongoing personal re/search on longing, grieving, and healing of my becoming; from where I began, who I am now, where I/we go from here, and futures beyond this realm. It is a first interpretation of learnings from life-changing travels through some of my ancestor’s homelands which were cut short due to the global pandemic unfolding.

Exploring textiles has been a connection passed down to me through my mother and elders. Traditionally making our Hmong clothes from seed to cloth, we created Paj Ntaub story cloths capturing our experiences and history during the U.S. War in Vietnam while waiting in refugee camps. Sewing and making have allowed me to forge my own path to reclaim truth and cultural ways where societal norms have distanced, displaced, or denied me. Embracing Hmong dress, after pushing it away as a child trying to assimilate, became a channel where I could hold space as an adult. It’s been a powerful movement-building and organizing tool to dream up and manifest queer cultural futures beyond patriarchy and colonialism.

Throughout this installation period, I felt guided by ancestral instincts to shape the exhibit. The layers of this installation were shaped organically, with each piece informing the next. I was compelled to make room by making worlds where this dress exists in dialogue here and out there – through portals and painted dreamscapes traversing past, present, and future continuums.

As you witness the threading of my life, reflect alongside. What’s your journey?

Can you see me?
Ka Oskar Ly
Vinyl, aluminum wire

This Hmong dress, shaped into a vitreous sculpture, speaks to simultaneous complex narratives of identity and belonging inside and out. At what point do we no longer recognize ourselves? We are caught in between erasing ourselves to blend in and an undeniable calling to pursue our cultural through lines. Hmong clothing is changing rapidly due to its commercialization. In the Hmong community, handwoven and embroidered textiles are now a rarity because of printed fast-fashion. Globally, non-Hmong designers continue to appropriate our work and capitalize, without us. On a sociopolitical level, as Asian Americans, we are made as invisible as are our struggles. We are called a model minority and seen as perpetual foreigners. Conversely, we are hyper-visible, targeted as scapegoats for the pandemic. We are not all the same. We are more than meets the eye.

Portal (am i yet?)
Ka Oskar Ly
Acrylic paint, metal, glass, led light, words painted in my mother’s hand lettering

The mural painted dreamscapes lead to a mirror, representing a portal that seeks to create a moment of intimacy with the self between soul searching, escaping excessive photo filters and Zoom meetings, and learning to recognize masked faces by their eyes or voices. I created it as a reminder to pause and embrace looking at my full self in this realm and beyond. The question painted in my mother’s hand lettering is where the mural character is headed. She is me, my elders, my ancestors. I imagine their responses inform mine, yet are different. The meaning of the statements on the mirror portal vary on how you read it and changes when you incorporate the hand lettered phrase, perhaps revealing a path you’re on.

Viewers were invited to photograph themselves in front of the (am I yet?) portal. When was the last time you embraced looking at your full body and self? What reflections does this bring you?

Room for New Worlds
Ka Oskar Ly

Viewers were invited to journal reflections on the window’s glass with a dry erase marker and follow the companion installation to Hmong Town Marketplace.

(Video courtesy of Ka Oskar Ly)

Hmong Town Marketplace
Ka Oskar Ly
Audio loop, including song “Pua Yog Koj”

The song is about an elder auntie who encounters her first love by happenstance at the marketplace after a 42-year lost connection following the war. I composed it as part of a musical play I wrote in 2015. It speculates on the life of Hmong LGBTQ, from the homelands of Southeast Asia to here, a long denied truth attributed to becoming too Americanized.



About the McKnight Fellowships for FIber Artists

Founded on the belief that Minnesota thrives when its artists thrive, the McKnight Foundation’s arts program is one of the oldest and largest of its kind in the country. Support for individual working Minnesota artists has been a cornerstone of the program since it began in 1982. The McKnight Artist Fellowships Program provides annual, unrestricted cash awards to outstanding mid-career Minnesota artists in 15 different creative disciplines. Program partner organizations administer the fellowships and structure them to respond to the unique challenges of different disciplines. Currently the foundation contributes about $2.8 million per year to its statewide fellowships. For more information, visit mcknight.org/artistfellowships.

Textile Center is honored to be a McKnight Artist Fellowships program partner.