Koua Mai Yang

Koua Mai Yang

Artist Name: Kuab Maiv Yaj, Koua Mai Yang

What do you consider yourself? Artist, illustrator, painter, designer, other?

I am currently going through an identity crisis and maybe this is what it is like to be an artist, where my ideas of art is either constantly changing or getting more defined and specific. I attended my BFA for drawing and painting, however, have since been using a variety of mediums and methods that do not immediately associate with drawing and paintings.

What kinds of work do you currently do or projects you have done in the past?

Drawing and painting was a different way to explore what it means to be Hmong. I was very interested in visual politics around what Hmong looks like and to also challenge the rhetoric around identity and culture loss. Since graduating with my BFA, I have been looking at exploring my ideas conceptually through installation and using found everyday objects that remind me of home, creating a performative space. Recently, I have also been thinking about performance and photography as a way to document and explore behaviors towards traditional dress and the female body.

Could you talk about how you got into art or doing what you do today? What’s your story? What made you want to pursue this path? Were there any challenges you had along the way?

I was interested in drawing and painting at a young age. A lot of teachers continuously encouraged me to pursue art in higher education. My art teachers consistently submitted my artwork into scholastic art competitions and I began receiving cash rewards. My parents saw potential in me when I sold a drawing for $150, at the age of 16 years old.

I was a huge weeaboo, anime person and wanted to become a game developer/animator. This was during the time when the internet was still dail-up, I remember watching anime on VHS. Ranma ½ was my favorite show at that time. I loved cartoons and wanted this to become my occupation. With a small group of friends, we started the first anime/manga club in our highschool, it’s still active today.

Did you attended art school or majored/minored in Art or Design in college? If so, what were your experiences with it and did you think it helped you become a better artist? If you did not attended college or attended but did not majored in anything art-related, what helped pushed you to pursue art or improve your craft?

Against my parent’s will, and with my own money, I moved to Illinois, I applied for an Arts Institute college to study animation, and dropped out after 3 weeks because it was super expensive program, and I met several students (undergrad and graduates) who were disillusioned by a dream to work for Nintendo, Dreamworks and etc. The introduction classes were not challenging enough, and the drawing courses only focused on the human figure. I realized very quickly that I did not need to major in animation and conceptual digital drawings, I was already doing the work on my own without classes. I knew that it’d be a waste of my time and money to stay in an institute that prioritize money over student learning. There were lots of online opportunities to learn and ratherly quickly, the love for animation shifted to fine arts.

I moved back to Wisconsin, and continued into the BFA program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. I graduated in 2012 in drawing/painting. During my time at UW-Milwaukee, I joined the Hmong Student Association as the cultural chair, and coordinated programs to engage in conversations and discussions on Hmong identity and culture. I wanted to explore these topics collectively with other Hmong students, to find different ways to express ourselves and learn more from one another. It became a small community of support, but I felt it wasn’t enough for me. I utilized the art program to do my own research on identity. While in my undergrad, I began a series called the Hmong American Experience Series, which at the time, interrogates what it means to be Hmong in America.

The body of work was a series of drawings, paintings, and sculpture that documents moments when I felt Hmong and American. It was autobiographical and observes my family and experiences at home. I was conceptually concerned with representations of Hmong in the mainstream and locally in the Hmong perception of ourselves.

Throughout my educational career, I supported myself and my younger siblings through school. I remember my first semester at Milwaukee, it was a difficult time because I barely had enough money to feed myself everyday. All of my income went towards rent and classes.

How do you balance art with work and life? How do you make time for art?

After I graduate with my BFA I moved back to Sheboygan, WI and began a 1 year fellowship where I help coordinate two artist residency programs and maintain the programing in a drop in collaborative art space. My dream that time of the fellowship was to one day open my own art space for underrepresented communities like the Hmong. I felt that there was not enough spaces to allow for play and exploration and learning from working with an arts center was the first step to understanding what can happen in a creative space that was community driven.

While in this fellowship, I was under a lot of stress, literally running around to meet deadlines, and maintain a certain kind of professionalism. It was difficult to continue my own artist practice because I was constantly thinking about my job, which was also creative and involved in making art, and instituting different kinds of art theories and methods to engage all ages and abilities at the art spaces. I stopped having a studio practice and my job became my creative practice. I felt my interest in making art slipping because I had no mentorship and guidance during this fellowship. I didn’t know how to say “no” to projects, I didn’t know how to set my own boundaries, to stop bringing work home.

After this fellowship I feared that I was started to hate art. My experiences at the institution was a humbling experience. It was extremely difficult, but it finally clicked that the white box and museum space was unwelcoming to several communities. For a whole year, I hardly saw Hmong people and people of color. The main constituents were white people. I began to see art differently, and slowly began to understand that art means something different in the Hmong identity. The methodologies practiced at the institution was trying to be inclusive but the reality was that it was exclusive and have been this way for decades.

I took another one year break after the fellowship. I need to have some life work experience and applied for a data entry position. For a year I worked in an office, and while working in the office, I was able to separate my artistic practice from my day job. The boundaries were clearer than my fellowship, and seeing boundaries, I was able to prioritize my life differently. During this one year of not creating art, I began to slowly bring back my studio practice because I wanted to apply for a MFA program to continue my exploration of identity. I truly believe that I could work an office job and change my interest, but the job became boring and not challenging. If anything, I think I’m cursed and blessed at the same time. I cannot see myself doing anything other than art. My body starts aching and itching to create something, and I am never satisfied with just a drawing or sketch. I want to build something, I was more interested in the future, possibilities in the conversations that comes with art and explorations in identity.

Do you make money from your art? If so, how?

Money, I do not make money from my artwork. I have sold works, but I have issues trusting people who want to own my art. It’s hard to part from the objects that I create because the work is so personal. I am invested in different forms of consumption and support for the arts. Is purchase and money the only way to support artists? I am not interested in making a living off my artwork because it will cause me too much stress to merge money and art. Will I be truly living if my art becomes about surviving? There are other ways to sustain my practice such as grants, of course donations are welcomed :D.

Prior to my acceptance in the MFA program at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, I held a part-time job that was 40hrs a week and I was able to have a studio practice when I was not working the 8-5pm job. I was mostly working from my bedroom (the size of a closet), and I spread into the living room. My practice has shifted to adjust to the lifestyle and space. It was hard work, but when you care enough about something you fight for it in unimaginable ways, and you also hope that people will support your vision along the way.

Where do you get your ideas from?

Everything and yet specifically from memories. Inspiration comes to me in many ways. Much of what I select also relates to the concepts that I am exploring so my art materials change quite often. I tend to want to exhaust whatever I can from the materials that I find.

I often walk and thrift for inspiration. I am interested in objects and how they come into the world, and how value is placed on them. I also believe that pre-owned things suggest that they-the objects- were loved and cared for intimately, and this is something that attracts me. My work is largely exploring my identity, therefore my ideas come from my memories and own experiences of my domestic upbringing.

People inspire me. There’s a lot of rich ideas and visual things all around.

What kinds of tools do you use to make your work? What is your typical artistic process like?

My practice always begins with a drawing, sometimes they are representational drawings or writings that record the drawings. I think that everything I make is a drawing. I often take notes on my phone, just abstract ideas or fragments.

I tend to zone out completely when I’m making something. It always begins with me engulfing myself in music, repetitively doing the same thing over and over again. For example, sewing, screen printing the same image over and over again. It often starts with tedious little hand gestures and movements and slowly develops into other repetitive things like installing objects in a space.

I often work with objects that can be easily stored, things that can be transported in the small car that I own. Things that remind me of my home, my experiences, particular to my memories. They are often domestic objects like handkerchiefs, table cloths, and associated with womens work or femininity. I also tend to recycle or reuse objects that I already own. Much of what I create are not complete ideas, they are fragments, and I like that they are not complete because they stay in a state of contradiction, where ideas can make sense and not make sense at the same time. This state is something that feels Hmong, but also human.

Are there any artists you look up to or find inspiring?

Hm… I want to have a big list, but honestly I do not do a good job keeping track of artists. I take notes on artists that others recommend to me. I’m not sure If I am inspired by artists, I’m definitely inspired by the people around me.

Hmong people:

I respect people like Pao Houa Her, and learn a lot from others like Victoria Kue, Vanghoua Vue, Jennifer Tshab Her, Maikue Vang, Oskar Ly etc. I speak often with artists who are of Hmong identity and continue to practice. I am surrounded by people who are also not visual artist like writers, poets, etc.

I am good friends with Laichee Yang, Magnolia Yang-Sao-Yia, Lee Xiong, we often speak about art.


Deborah Willis: The Black Female Body: I started reading this book but didn’t finish. I’m particularly interested in the way that Dr. Willis speaks about building scholarship on the lack of history of black photographers.

Kerry James Marshall

Fred Wilson: I’ve been particularly interested in the way other researchers “discover” the Hmong and utilize space/museums and exhibitions as a platform to bring visibility to the Hmong American history and yet oftentimes these museums excludes Hmong voices. I think Fred Wilson is interesting in particularly how they addresses space and the museum.

Carrie Mae Weems

Seitu Jones: I’ve heard Jones speak on a number of occasions and I think Seitu is an interesting local artist and educator. I am particularly interested in Jone’s CREATE, the Community Meal piece.

Wing Young Hue: I attended one of his photography workshops at In-Progress. It was a good experience. Wing also owns a gallery space here called the Third Place Gallery. I’ve attended one show there. His photographs of Lake Street and of University were where I saw Hmong people in photo. At least through a different kind of lens compared to the photos of Hmong in academia, history books and national geographic.

Do Ho Suh: Some of my work have been investigating dress and home. Do Ho Suh’s usage of Korean silk, architecture and more “feminine” and domestic materials is interesting. Suh’s High School Uni-form, 1997 was also interesting as I have been looking at how others engage in embodied knowledge and history through dress.

Tania Bruguera: Behavior artists particularly are interesting. Bruguera’s politically charged works are interesting as they are performed in gallery and outside gallery spaces.

Rirkrit Tiravanija

Hank Willis Thomas

Tomas Vu-Daniel

Nick Cave

Chris Ofili

Reginald Baylor: I had the opportunity to hear Reginald Baylor speak about their work while I was an undergraduate student. Baylor spoke about having an open artist studio concept where people can drop by to see what is happening. They also spoke about grounding the self in creating and to constantly keep productive. Lorna Simpson

Binh Danh: Interpreting the Cambodian Genocide through chlorophyll printing on leaves. I’ve been thinking about memorials, alters and healing, I found out about this artist through an academic anthology called Southeast Asian Diaspora in the United States: Memories and Visions Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow edited by Jonathan H. X. Lee. The article is titled “Alter Art: Binh Danh and the Cambodian Genocide,” written by Isabelle Thuy Pelaud.

Dinh Q. Le: Dinh Q. Le was introduced to me through a conversation with an artist friend Vanghoua Vue whose information is linked below. It’s interesting to see how others make sense of their history and culture, especially interesting to see them merging in art making.

Marina Abramovic

Ifrah Mansour: Was in a show with Ifrah’s work at Public functionary.

Essma Imady: Was in a show called Selected Works at Public Functionary. Essam’s blanket was on displayed and it really caught my eye.

Wangechi Mutu: Was an artist who on of my BFA professor referred me to on multiple occasions when they had one-on-ones with some of my drawing and mixed media collages.

Anida Yoeu Ali

Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan


Do you have any favorite books, apps, movies, resources, or art tools that you recommend?

Mm… I’m not that great at recommendations! I often follow a few websites and check them once in a while. I typically send people websites and information when I think it’s appropriate.

They do a good job looking at contemporary art in Vietnam and other places of Southeast Asia.

I’m on instagram quite often doing searches https://www.hongkiat.com/blog/

I visit this map whenever I have to give a talk in specific places, or do installation. I think it’s important to consciously do individual research on where we are residing on and learn a bit of brief history.

Look up some artists from this show, really on-point with things I’m interested in: https://hyperallergic.com/434498/upending-cliches-about-nationhood-asylum-and-living-through-war/

Is there any advice you would like to give to young artists or people just starting out?

Just do it, and do it well. Live to the fullest, make the mistakes and allow yourself to learn from it.

If you truly care about something, spend time to learn more about it, and do this until you have exhausted the process.

Invest in other people’s visions, show up at their shows, performances, etc. Show up for yourself, go to experience things for yourself. Dig a little deeper, an idea becomes more interested when you keep digging.

Learn when to say no.

Surround yourself with like-minded, but with people who know how to be respectful and critical of your work and ideas.

Criticism is not hate.

People can be critical and still celebrate.

The more you know about who you are, the closer you are to understanding what you want to do next.

Who would you like to collaborate/work with or work for, if anybody? Could be a person, another artist, or company.

I often collaborate with my good friends Magnolia Yang-Sao-Yia and Laichee Yang. I am looking forward to meeting new people and doing work that is meaningful. Collaboration for me is hard because all members have to be on similar wavelengths. I’m not sure who to collaborate with next, but I’d love to do something with the women in my family. Maybe make something with my grandmother and mother?

What is your ultimate dream project or something you’ll like to accomplish in your lifetime (could be art or non-art related)?

I’m not sure about ultimate dream, but I am dreaming about an ongoing long term project that involves building trust among other artists of the Hmong identity globally. Collectively doing research on contemporary art in the Hmong identity, collectively having more critical conversations about identity, and hopefully collectively self-curating a show, a biennale of somesort.

Are there any current projects that you’re working on or in the near future that you want to tell us about?

Hm, I’m currently a grad student, so ya’ll are welcome to follow me on instagram :D. I’ll occasionally update with things that I’m thinking about or working on. Do check out my website, sometimes I update it.

I have been currently exploring Hmong traditional dress and the traditionally clothed female figure in photo and textiles. It’s been taking over my world. I have been wearing traditional clothing for over 100 days and it’s definitely changing the way I felt about Hmong clothing. It’s still in the beginning process so I do not have anything yet, but I imagine that I’ll continue this project for a long time.

I don’t have any shows that I’m planning. My thesis show is coming in 1.5 years look out for it.

What is the best way to get a hold of you or view or purchase your work?