Ka Oskar Ly Creates Connections and Understanding

As a kid growing up in France, Ka Oskar Ly wasn’t sure how to define “being Hmong.” Their parents were refugees, having fled Laos after the Secret War. “My parents didn’t talk about who we were,” Ly says. “They just said, ‘You have to be Hmong.’” Now, Ly lives in St. Paul, along with an estimated 60,000 other Hmong Americans. She says being around other Hmong people — seeing them on the bus or at the park — makes a huge difference to her. In fact, Ly says, visibility and “this continuous search for understanding who I am” are “the whole reasons why I do my work.”

Hi, Ka! Please share a little about your creative practice.
I consider myself a cultural worker/producer. A lot of the work I do is through the lens of my cultural understanding, and also in connecting with other peoples through our cultures.

As a Hmong French person, I had a very different experience than Hmong Americans. Moving to St. Paul, I felt like I was at home, finally, so to speak. As Asian Americans, we were fearing for our safety. My parents always told us that we can’t be outside, we can’t play. And so the idea of playing, the idea of creating, the idea of being out in the world — all those are things that as an artist [and] as a Hmong person, I am defining and redefining.

In my work, I’m organizing in community, even if it’s through an artist’s lens. And that means creating installation work that invites people to have an experience through cultural understanding.

I’ve done a lot of fashion work, too. In my fashion work, I’m creating clothes, and I’m redefining gender and redefining how I express my queerness. [Asking], how do you create more liberation for people wearing the clothes, and also people witnessing that? I think that the way we express ourselves is an opportunity to politicize ourselves and to say what we care about.

Fast forward, I started working on Little Mekong Night Markets. And then I worked with Hmong farmers, and did [an] artist’s residency, and we highlighted some stories on social media.

How did you start working with Springboard for the Arts?
I was part of Center for Hmong Arts and Talent. They had a relationship with Springboard and were looking to serve Hmong artists, as well. And I started taking some workshops.

Then, I was one of [Springboard’s] first Artist Organizers with their program called Irrigate. I organized a bunch of artists doing different creative interventions to bring attention to [what] is now the Hamline Station housing development [in St. Paul]. Now there’s people living there, but before, it was a vacant automobile site. So it was really about curating these different types of activities and getting people to engage and respond to what it means for them to be home.

Ua Si Creative

What are projects that you have going right now or an idea in the making? What’s a project you’d like to see happen?
I started a collective agency with Ua Si Creative, which are two other Hmong women [Teeko Yang and Christina Vang]. “Ua si” means “to play” in Hmong.

We’re working on this commission for Springboard, actually, for their new site for their watershed filtration system. We’re creating that an installation that will highlight and educate people about the system. We’re featuring poetry from Black, African American, Cambodian, and Ojibwe poets on the installation, and then we’re also conducting a water walk, which is a celebration and ritual to bless the water and to honor water, with an Ojibwe elder. Those are the ways that like, they’re not necessarily like my culture, but we’re trying to understand and create these connections with people.

What’s something you wish others knew about you?
I want to build community. I hope people feel like they can approach me. And I care about the success of artists.

Springboard Resources
Artist Career Consultants, available for virtual consultations: https://springboardforthearts.org/consultants/
Workshops & Events Calendar: https://springboardforthearts.org/events/
Work of Art and Handbook for Artists Working in Community books: https://springboardforthearts.org/buy-books/
Ready Go roster of mobile artist tools: http://readygoart.com/
Read Ka Oskar Ly’s first Creative Exchange feature – https://springboardexchange.org/oskarly/

Editor’s note: As the national platform for Springboard for the Arts, Creative Exchange has long been a platform to highlight the artists, resources, and efforts in our national network. In this pandemic, as Springboard for the Arts’ work is increasingly online and accessible nationally, we’ll be turning the spotlight on Springboard staff and our Artist Career Consultants, to share more about who we are and the work we do. Enjoy!