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  • Shawn Gilliam

Revealing Threads: The Backstory from Tia Keobounpheng

Entrance to the MAEP Gallery spotlighting Tia Keobounpheng, "Revealing Threads" exhibition. Credit: Minneapolis Institute of Art

The artist shares how relatively recent—and complicated—discoveries inspired her latest work.

For the past 15 years, Tia Keobounpheng’s artistic side mostly took shape through Silvercocoon, her jewelry design business. “I started in fine art in college, but when I was 20 I kind of took a detour based on some not necessarily dishonest—but also not helpful—advice from a weaving instructor that I had back then, thinking there wasn’t really a way or a place for me to be an artist,” she says. But six years ago, she course-corrected that detour, moving back into weaving and, along the way, learned a world of new information about her family and herself. Her show, Revealing Threads, is latest in the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program (MAEP), open until October 29 in the U.S. Bank Gallery.

Interior MAEP Gallery of Tia Keobounpheng's "Revealing Threads" exhibition. Credit: Minneapolis Institute of Art

Her works’ backstory is beautiful but complicated. She shared highlights for Mia Guides.

We guides are really excited about your exhibition. Tell us about your move, not all that long ago, from jewelry design back into fine art and weaving.

When I turned 40, I got my first state arts board grant and had this huge shift back toward art. And it was really based on an emotional internal need to express myself differently than just making nice-looking things, if that makes sense. I started with responding to an aching void within me of not knowing either of my grandmothers, both of whom died within a year of my birth. So I didn’t grow up with female elders. And then I also had this very emotional connection to weaving. I learned how to weave when I was an exchange student in Oulu, Finland, in 1995. I spent one day in a community weaving center with two old Finnish ladies. I didn’t understand a thing they were saying, and we didn’t really talk to each other, but we spent hours on the looms, each of us weaving our own piece. And you know, some 20 years later when I turned 40, I realized that that experience of sitting with those two old ladies was essentially like sitting with my grandmothers and doing handiwork. So my hypothesis is that something about that experience made weaving extremely emotional, and it tied to the absence of grandmothers in my life. And through that, I started researching an experience of my maternal grandmother.

Photo: Rik Sferra

Yes, tell us about that and what you learned.

My maternal grandmother had an emotional traumatic experience with her family when she was 15. They had left the U.S. to go to Russia with this huge wave of Finnish immigrants during the Great Depression. And she never spoke about it, but thousands of them were not able to leave Russia, and many of them were murdered while they were there. Her family was able to get out, but I know it was a traumatic experience, from researching it and because she wouldn’t share anything about it, even with her children.

So that’s how I started with the ancestral research on As I filled in other parts of my family tree, I noticed that my maternal grandfather Helmer’s grandmother, Wilhelmine, was listed as being born in Norway—the northern coast, north of Finland. And you know, I was raised culturally as Finnish—we were told we were 100 percent Finnish, which I’ve since learned is kind of like a cover-up.

That research led you to travel to Finland, Sweden and Norway last fall, right?

Yes, I flew from Helsinki to Oulu, in northern Finland, and I drove straight up into Norway, to the birthplace of my great-great grandmother, Wilhelmine. I went to the village where they lived, and I spent three nights nearby, in an Airbnb. Serendipitously, right before I left on my trip, I discovered a blog post entirely about my fifth great-grandfather, a reindeer herder in northern Sweden. I had been looking at Wilhelmine’s parents, but it was her grandparents and great-grandparents who were the clue for me to actually prove that this family line is Sámi. I am now connected with relatives who still live in our ancestral village in Sweden. Wilhelmine’s father’s and grandparents’ names are in the Gällivare Samesläkter, a regional Sámi genealogy book that complements Swedish colonial church records. (The Sámi are the only recognized Indigenous people within the European Union.). I know now that being “100 percent Finnish,” was a cover-up for people with Sámi lineage in the United States, but I suspect those patterns go back even further to Sápmi. It was a way of protecting themselves from the forces of the church and nation state.

Who Do You Think You Are? no7. Family Portrait

What did that discovery mean?

Well, at this point in time, I think this discovery is ultimately about what it can explain about me, for me. There are layers to it. Personally, there are aspects of my lived experience that I’ve kind of started to see as old wounds that have triggered coping mechanisms and behavior patterns that hold me in a performative place. I think that I’ve needed to put myself into this broader context of lineage to try to make sense of my own issues. Knowing this family line complicates the narrative of who I am in ways that also feel a bit like explanations. Needing to perform or conform to fit in has kind of been a way of protecting and hiding and not feeling safe to step out as I am. Knowing the history—but also the present life of my relatives, too—I believe my ancestors began learning these patterns six or seven generations ago out of necessity and survival.

Who Do You Think You Are? no8. Artist Self Portrait

At the same time, from an identity perspective, I am a white woman in the Midwest, in Minneapolis, where George Floyd was murdered. I am the wife of an ethnic Lao man who came here as a refugee when he was eight, and the white mother of two mixed kids. So I’m examining my whiteness in the context of those I love the most, and in the city where I live.

I’m really careful and sensitive about not claiming something that isn’t mine, and yet there is something here for me to claim. I feel like I am touching on something that is really old—this sounds weird, but something that is deep in my body that I can’t really grasp—and bringing it to light. For my lifetime, it’s about me learning to let go of the colonial structures that demand conformity of me, of my behavior and biases and instincts—which really just means that I want to be free from really practical stuff like emotional eating disorder behaviors or obliviously othering my spouse, for example. But, I mean … it’s so much bigger than that because it stretches back into history and forward to my kid simultaneously. So this all comes through in the work—because the work is literally me, my body, working through my experience, my identity, and my life.

Photo: Rik Sferra

Wow. So the significance in your work is huge. Explain that.

So, if Geo means earth, then geometry is reflective of the natural order of the earth. I use geometry as a formal guide, a language spoken abstractly, to express this emotional negotiation within myself. I measure everything out in pencil by hand, I drill the holes by hand, I color the wood by hand, and I stitch the threads by hand. There is this body connection to the work, where I am essentially practicing seeing myself as belonging to the natural order and belonging to the earth. I’m trying to awaken this knowing within me. If we all come from the natural order, we all belong to it and so I try to express how this all-inclusive system allows for complexity and diversity to exist simultaneously.

In weaving, you have the warp, which is usually what’s on the loom. And then the weft is the single fiber that we weave up and down, over and under and through. So I think of the warp as the threads of time and lineage, and I think of the weft as our learned behaviors that are molded and formed and held in place by these warps of time. This is why I call my works “unwoven tapestries,” because I’m loosening and removing the weft-fibers of my behaviors in order to recognize the warp, the history and structure, that’s defined me.

Photo: Rik Sferra

Fascinating! And yet, your message is universal, yes?

As you look at these works from different angles, you start to see different patterns emerging, and your eyes begin to be able to decipher the difference. So it’s really about seeing complexity and allowing multiple, even conflicting, things to exist together. And in that regard, these threads can speak to anyone … and about everyone.

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