Behind the art with Josh Van Thang
As a boy, Van Thang often sat in the cold morning air and drew on the large boulders outside his home. Using charcoal from the fire pit or vines he’d collected from the fields that had been burned for farming, he would sketch as the sun rose over his village, warming the people and the land. He started out drawing stick figures and animals he had seen on the farm, but as he grew older and more skilled, he created scenes of village life or his latest hunting expeditions. Van enjoyed seeing people stop to admire the art and try to figure out what he had drawn. Living in the mountains of Chin State in Myanmar, Van had never heard of Leonardo DaVinci, Andy Warhol or Georgia O’Keefe. There were no paintings or drawings hanging on the walls of his home, or any other homes in his village for that matter. In fact, the idea of someone working as an artist for a living was completely unheard of. That reality would not be known to Van until he was a teenager living in Malaysia, after he and his family fled as refugees to escape the military conflict in Myanmar.
We connected with Van at Chin National Day last year. Though he previously lived in Amarillo, Van was at that time finishing up his BFA at Eastern New Mexico University, having majored in Visual Arts and Graphic Design. We happened to be looking for artists from Myanmar to illustrate stories as part of our Heritage Language Storybook Project. Despite getting ready to graduate, preparing to take his citizenship exam, and move to Indiana, Van wanted to do the artwork for a story we had collected from a woman named Naw Klein.
Though Naw Klein is part of the Karen ethnic group, and Van is Chin, their experiences living in fear of the Burmese military were quite similar. He didn’t have to research what she had gone through to come up with the artwork: “Naw Klein’s story is very familiar. I can relate to that. Those kind of events are very hard for some of my [American] friends to imagine…I have seen things like that with my own eyes, so imagining is not very hard.”
I had the privilege of interviewing Van a couple of weeks ago about his art, on what happened to be his 26th birthday. Van, who also goes by Josh, currently lives in Indianapolis, working a temporary job as an Eligibility Navigator for WindRose Health Network. He’s helping Chin people connect to healthcare services in his area, but of course his real passion is creating art, and through that, educating people and spreading awareness about the situation still happening today in Myanmar.
Van ended up producing eleven ink pen and watercolor drawings for us. A Long and Weary Road: Memories of a Brave, Young Village Leader (working title) is set to be published later this year, and recalls the years Naw Klein spent as the mediator between the military and the Karen people in her village. Each picture Van created is a testament to the insecurity people like his family and Naw Klein lived with daily. His favorite image in the story speaks to this tension. The illustration, pictured above, is of a woman keeping watch at the doorway of the house while other women sleep inside. Two men in military uniform can be seen standing nearby at a campfire. The woman is Naw Klein’s mother, who would stand watch at night to deter soldiers from raping young women who were forced to serve as porters for the army.
Van explained, “That is what is happening almost every day, right now. It’s been happening for a very long time, we’ve always been insecure about our situations. The military can come anytime in the house or in the village and someone could die at any moment. We always have to stay alert and protect each other and look out for each other. That is what they go through. Living like that, that is what my whole life has been like until I came to the United States. Even in Malaysia, we were hunted and called zeros.”
Van never even touched typical art supplies until he was 17. It was then, as a refugee awaiting resettlement, that he decided that his talent and future success was in making art rather than pursuing medicine or law as many refugee parents encourage their kids to do. Van likes to dabble in a little bit of everything – some photography, watercolors, pencil sketches, and especially mixed media projects. Thinking back to his early days in Myanmar, Van recalls that photographs were the only print art he was exposed to as a child. For very special occasions people would hire a photographer from Hakha City, the capital of Chin state, to come out to the village and take a family portrait. It would take a very long time to get the prints back, and then they were carefully slotted into an album and locked away for safekeeping.
His dream is to one day run his own art business, centered around graphic design and helping people understand the current climate in his home country. I asked Van what he hopes his art will accomplish with this story. “One of the goals is for understanding…Because we live in a war zone and we come here from that, we are behind in almost everything.” For the Western reader, Van hopes for a deeper understanding of the situations refugees come from and how those traumas affect them. “It might be in education or the way we work or in our families, even in our communication or our relationships or friendships. It might affect us in so many ways. It is not because we really choose to be like that, but it is because of our environment and what is going on around us so much that shapes us the way we are. It will take a while for us to go back to normal, because mentally many of us are affected.”
After years of living in that kind of uncertainty, with bombs being dropped on innocent people and executions happening without warning, it’s no surprise that there are major struggles and hurdles to overcome for the relatively small percentage of people that are granted resettlement in the US. Van hopes that for other refugees that see his art and read stories like Naw Klein’s, that they will be encouraged to remember. “My goal is for us to always remember our histories and where we came from. It’s what I tell some of my Sunday School kids as well: ‘Always remember your history, know your history well and never forget the people you left behind, the land you left behind.'”
Van could never have imagined that his drawings would be seen by more than the few people who wandered by the stones and walls he sketched on in the village. Now he’s an artist, working hard in a crowded city to serve as a vital link between his community and the wider world. He has hope for the future, one where his community thrives and there is an end to the suffering of minority groups in Myanmar. And for himself? Van wants to do art full time, pouring his creativity into meaningful work that helps others understand and remember. Luckily, that’s a future that’s not hard to imagine.