Tcheu SIONG<br/>
<em>Chao and the Three Spirits</em> 2009 <!-- (recto) --><br />
<em>(Yawm Saub Chao)</em><br />
cotton (thread, applique)<br />
221.0 x 283.0 cm<br />
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne<br />
Purchased with funds donated by The Spellbrook Foundation and Bill Nuttall, 2021<br />
2021.22<br />
© the artist. Courtesy the artist and Niagara Galleries, Melbourne

Tcheu Siong Chao and the Three Spirits (Yawm Saub Chao)

Tcheu Siong is an artist of Hmong ethnicity who was born in northern Laos in 1968, during the Laotian Civil War (1959–75) and Vietnam War (1955–1975). In the late 1990s the Laotian government’s campaign to eradicate opium-poppy cultivation and the resulting eviction of Hmong villages from their traditional lands led Tcheu Siong and her village to relocate to the outskirts of the historical royal capital of the Kingdom of Laos, Luang Prabang. 

Hmong women practise needlework, weaving and dyeing from a young age, and develop great skills with embroidery and appliqué techniques using hemp or cotton that they cultivate themselves. In the early 2000s Tcheu diversified from producing traditional costumes and accessories, such as shoulder bags, and began producing large, figurative works that she sold at roadside stalls to discerning travellers. Her new and visually dynamic works were recognised by Project Space Gallery in Luang Prabang, where she started to exhibit as a professional artist in 2010. She was then selected for the Singapore Biennale in 2016, the 2019 Asian Art Biennial in Taiwan, and the Gwangju Biennale in 2021. 

Tcheu’s large-scale textile works capture her dreams and visions associated with Hmong ancestry and spirituality and plot the infinite pantheon of characters populating the Hmong spirit world. In the artist giving presence to the unseen, she gives agency to the active and complex role of spirits in everyday life, such as those for fertility or good health, to those who invoke punishment for harming the land, to elder spirits who train future generations how to govern fairly. 

The subject of Tcheu’s 2009 work Yawm Saub Chao (Chao and the Three Spirits) is central to Hmong animist nature worship and is an important story in Hmong culture that is transmitted verbally between generations. The work tells the story of the immortal spirit who gave birth to the eighteen family names that comprise Hmong identity. Chao meaning heavenly lord, does not appear in the work because Chao is like a ghost that few people can see, but Hmong people believe guides the process of building and creativity that comes from the heart. The three large figures are the three happy sister spirits. 

Each sister is wearing the traditional Hmong hair-tie style (pav plaub hau Yiv Tws) and is represented by Tcheu as strong, tall and powerful. The two figures on either side of each sister are defender spirits who protect the sisters from evil, and the small figures inside each sister are body spirits to maintain good health: if absent, you will be sick or unwell. The two squat figures above the heads of the sister spirits are known as smaller head spirits (Me Nyuam ntsuj plig). They support clear thinking and inner peace. The two small plump figures between the sisters are hand (or arm) spirits (Plig tes plig taw) while the tiny figures around the border emphasise the Hmong belief that in order to be protected from evil, every house should be surrounded by a ‘spirit fence’. The idea of spirit protection in Hmong beliefs is clearly indicated with each spirit being surrounded by additional protective spirits. Throughout the work Tcheu uses hearts to represent the happy and joyful nature of the three spirit sisters.  

The acquisition of this important early work by Tcheu Siong diversifies the NGV’s representation of ethnic groups throughout Asia and enhances our ability to represent storytelling and cultural belief systems through contemporary Asian textiles. 

Wayne Crothers, Senior Curator, Asian Art, National Gallery of Victoria