The Pick Museum of Anthropology opens exhibit


Bayan Abuihmoud | Northern Star

The Pick Museum’s current exhibit “Performing Southeast Asia” opened on Sept. 8.

Collaboration, harmony and revitalization are the defining principles of “Radical Verses of Hmong Revitalization” by Tou SaiK Lee. 

On Sept. 8, NIU’s Pick Museum of Anthropology, in partnership with the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, opened their Performing of Southeast Asia exhibit with Lee’s presentation of this work. 

Lee is a hip-hop artist and spoken word poet born in a Hmong refugee camp in Thailand and raised in the Frogtown neighborhood of St. Paul, Minnesota. He is known for founding the group Street Stops and Mountain Tops, which connects and teaches artists and organizers from the US to work with Hmong students in villages and orphanages of Southeast Asia, said Dr. Micah Morton, an anthropology professor at NIU who introduced Lee. 

Lee discussed collaborations he made with his late grandmother. The idea was to combine ancient oral traditions with modern hip hop to create a beautiful harmony. He then shared documentary-style clips of their work together and of his previous experiences. The goal of this is to promote the revitalization, or rebirth, of the Hmong language with song and poetry. 

He recounted the story of how he began working with his grandmother. “She said,’Tou, I don’t know what you said in English but it seems like, what you do is just like what I do.’, … I never felt like I could relate until this moment when grandma said these words to me. This could be a continuation of an oral tradition, what I do in spoken word can honor what she does with Kwv Txhiaj.” 

Through the wisdom of the elders, he vows to learn the ways of his people, to help teach and educate the next generation, and to enrich and keep the culture alive. 

Lee also performed a couple of different spoken word pieces. These powerful pieces were charged with his life experiences and the trials he and his people have endured. He also had the audience participate by clapping and repeating the Hmong phrase “ntiaj teb koom tes,” which translates in English as “unified worldwide.” This is also the title of his first Hmong language album. 

He went on to share an excerpt of his book, “My Grandma can Freestyle: Intergenerational Origins,” a touching memoir of his grandmother and his life experiences, which was well-received by the audience. 

 This performance fit perfectly with the spirit of the exhibit, and the missions of the anthropology department, Pick Museum and NIU’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies. 

According to Rachael Skog, the CSEAS’s outreach coordinator and undergraduate advisor, Lee’s performance fit right in with the exhibit’s ideas and goals. The thought process was to promote student involvement and collaborations and to show the power of performance, with a focus on Southeast Asian countries and Asian-Americans. 

Collaboration and teamwork were essential in the planning and execution of this exhibit and the hard work of all involved is evident. This exhibit will be open until May 13, 2023. The Pick Museum of Anthropology is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Friday, in Cole Hall 114.