In a description of current work, McKnight Fiber Artist Fellow Ka Oskar Ly shares, “The Hmong language has no word for ‘art’ or ‘queer’, yet these are undeniable parts of my identity and work as a nonbinary textile and multidisciplinary artist of the Hmong diaspora.”
Ly’s work in clothing and fashion, in the context of community is celebrated in this fellowship award. “The truest nature of textile application in the Hmong cultural context is through clothing, its relationship to the body and spirit. Worn on the person brings its meaning to life. This is why my work looks to represent bodies and people, particularly to bring a direct visibility that has been perpetually erased because of patriarchy and colonization. Retaining the Hmong identity has been vital; elders remind us daily to hold on to our culture. At the same time, my parents who are Hmong Lao refugees, can rarely speak of their past, let alone our people’s history, due to trauma stemming from the American War in Vietnam and trauma to generations before that. Kinship, rituals, language, and clothing are some of the most recognizable ways we express identity and culture.”
In describing their work and influences, Ly continues, “We were long left out of history books despite our alliances to the US and France so like many minorities in this country, I never had the chance to learn about my people. Proof of our people’s journeys and existence lives through our survival. Our community stories reveal that we are a hill tribe ethnic minority from Southeast Asia and Southern China who for generations have fled persecution. Because of displacement, we carried only what was on our person. Textiles have been a lifeline; we made everything we used, transforming seeds into fiber, into clothing. When our books were burned, our women hid our stories and language by embroidering them into our clothing.”
On their creative practice as community organizer and cultural influencer, Ly speaks of their artistic practice as being grounded in community organizing that promotes fuller identity, community, and culture. “I’ve had to produce alternative platforms that would present and contextualize my work to be seen and understood as a Hmong person. This is of high importance because I faced many cultural and systemic exclusions because of my identities. Yet, coming out allowed me to more fully and proudly embrace Hmong and queer aesthetics moving more fluidly from conceptual art to wearable art, which in turn has inspired my communities to embrace more complex identities.
“My textile work is inspired by the Hmong traditions of handmade garments–making much like couture–and the vibrancy of unapologetic queerness. Channeling my ancestors, clothing as a multidisciplinary form has been a powerful tool for me to politically reclaim culture through a living lens to be our fuller selves. I center gender queerness, race, and body affirmation. Each work dives deeper in decolonizing and dismantling of gender norms, stereotypes, and biases through counter narratives that confront multifaceted tensions.”
Ly’s integrated practice of both creating the platform and the work has enabled them to mobilize their community towards creating social and cultural change. “As I move forward, my work will stay true to facilitating cultural innovation rooted in ancestral practices and centering the role of people power to fiercely build and manifest wildly imaginative community futures.”