An exhibit containing art from the Hmong people is currently on display in the basement of the Brauer Art Museum. The Hmong are an ethnic group from East and Southeast Asia, who artistically are known for their textiles and silver.
The exhibit was arranged by Professor Nina Corazzo, made up of works from the private collection of Bonnie and Bill Dehoff, close friends of Corazzo.
This display is located in a section of the Brauer which serves as a prep room for the rest of the museum. Here, curators ready works for use in the museum, and show art pieces that aren’t currently on display to visiting classes.
For instance, an economics class once visited for an activity regarding the pricing of artwork. In this case, the visiting class is studying a novel relevant to the Hmong.
Corazzo teaches art history and a Core class which is currently reading “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down,”which follows the struggles of a Hmong family in America.
“The whole book sort of centers around what happened when the Hmong, who have very strong traditional ideas about the treatment of illness, focusing on the soul, versus what was happening when they took [their] young girl to the American medical community,” Corazzo said.
According to Corazzo, the Hmong are “a people who have been persecuted for centuries,” and so have fought hard to retain cultural traditions such as their work as silversmiths and with textiles.
Some art of the Hmong is important to their spiritual ideals, such as what are known as “spirit locks.” There is a Hmong spirit lock in the exhibit, and Corazzo explains that it would have been worn about the neck, keeping the spirit locked inside the body so that the wearer doesn’t become sick or suffer misfortune. Spirit locks are removed upon death to allow the soul out, and so the original wearer of the spirit lock in the museum would probably have died long before it came into the Dehoff’s collection.
Other work by the Hmong is their handmade, detailed textiles, which are made with a technique called applique. In applique, rather than embroider most of the details, patterns are made of small pieces of cloth. The edges are then tucked under and carefully hand-stitched, creating often symbolic designs on the fabric.
Corazzo has made information panels for the display which explain some of the processes used in making the art, but also some of the symbolism contained in the art.
“What might look like an abstract shape is really an elephant's foot. And then the elephant's foot is symbolic of the family and other things,” Corazzo said, in reference to the work. “Or another motif is this the spiral of the snail. And that's your background, where you come from, your trajectory. So you start with your ancestors and then move out. And then the snail carries its shell on its back. It’s home on its back.”
The importance of learning about other cultures and their artwork to Corazzo stems from our place in a global society and our ability to understand other people.
“We really need to take an interest in people who are not from our culture, not from our country, not from our religion,” Corazzo said. “And we need to open up the possibilities that we could enter into a good discussion with them and that we could in that way, alleviate possible tensions or fears and ultimately reduce the possibility for any kind of war or violent interaction.”
Art is another means of communication. By teaching the book on the Hmong, Corazzo hopes students will expand their horizons and see overlap between themselves and people from other cultures through art.
“It just opens their whole their horizons in terms of, maybe this is somebody I could get to know and like,” Corazzo said. “I like are they like art, we could become friends, we could have discussions. So that's really what I think is the purpose: to make the ‘other,’ that person who is different or strange to you accessible and understandable and somebody you could relate to, and have compassion for, and who could relate to you and make you a richer person.”