July 12, 2017

Hmong: Missoula Art Museum Hosts Exhibition “From Flower Cloth to Story Cloth”

Photo courtesy of Missoulian.com

The Missoula Art Museum –located in Montana, United States– is currently hosting an exhibition on traditional Hmong textile embroidery, exploring the meaning of colors, symbols and patterns as represented in traditional embroidered Hmong textiles. Titled “From Flower Cloth to Story Cloth”, the exhibition will be on display until 20 September 2017. It is composed of textiles donated by Missoulians who helped Hmong families adapt to life in the United States. Susie Miller, a textile scholar and friend of the Missoula Hmong community who donated 239 textiles to the museum, reminded of the beauty of multiculturalism in a statement last Saturday, 8 July 2017: “It’s pretty amazing to have people of other cultures in Missoula. They share so much.”

Below is article published by Missoulian.com

Though Susie Lindbergh Miller doesn’t speak the same language as one of her Hmong friends in Missoula, she understands the language of textiles, and the power of symbols.

When Miller’s friend created a green and white “flower cloth” using a tedious and precise reverse applique technique, Miller used a translator to understand what the design meant to her friend.

The geometric, symmetrical zigzags represent mountains and valleys, she said. A small cross in the center represents home. In the Hmong tradition, the center post of the house is the most important part. The border represents the greater Missoula area, and the center represents her home. Not in Laos, but in Missoula. Miller was overcome with emotion.

“You think about all they’ve given up in their lives, and then they come here,” Miller said, standing beside the flower cloth Saturday at the Missoula Art Museum. “It’s pretty amazing to have people of other cultures in Missoula. They share so much.”

Miller's presentation marked the the opening of the museum's most recent exhibit, “From Flower Cloth to Story Cloth,” which displays traditional, embroidered Hmong textiles to showcase the intricate techniques and symbolism in traditional patterns.

This is the museum’s third time presenting an exhibition of Hmong textiles, though the current collection showcases more personal, home-oriented items in addition to larger “story cloths,” which express legends and true stories by embroidering a sequence of events.

Traditional embroidered baby carriers, shirts, hats, collars, and large textiles demonstrate the techniques the Hmong have used for generations to create clothing and tell stories. The flower cloth, a green and white textile with geometric, symmetrical zigzags, represents mountains and valleys, with the home in the middle.

During Saturday's presentation of the different textiles on display, Miller, who worked for many years with the Hmong community and donated her textile collection for the exhibition, explained the importance of the household in Hmong culture.

When a baby boy is born, Miller said, the placenta is buried at the center post of the house to symbolize his role as the center of the family. 

It is believed that when a man dies, he is reincarnated into his former family. When a woman dies, she is reincarnated into her husband’s family as well.

Death and rebirth are the most important transitions in Hmong tradition, Miller said, and many of the textiles on display are connected to that, either through symbolism or ceremonial function.

Intricately patterned baby carriers hung on display, demonstrating both embroidery technique and traditional Hmong lifestyle. Because the Hmong were farmers, women tied their babies to their backs while they worked. The baby carriers almost always have red, Miller said, because it is a protective color. It deters malevolent spirits who might prey on vulnerable infants.

The exhibition is composed of textiles donated by different Missoulians who helped Hmong families adjust to the United States. Miller donated 239 textiles in 2011, which she gathered through purchases and commissions from Hmong elders, and as gifts from close friends.

More than 60 other Hmong textiles have been donated to the museum since then.

Author and historian Gayle Morrison co-presented the exhibit with Miller, telling how thousands of Hmong came to the United States and Missoula in the 1970s, after being persecuted by communist forces in Laos for their loyalty to the anti-communist U.S. government. Today, about 200 Hmong still live in Missoula, she said.

One of the story cloths on display chronicles their experience fleeing persecution and war from China through Burma and Laos, across the Mekong River and into refugee camps in Thailand.

After teaching English to Hmong refugees in southern California, Morrison began working for refugee resettlement agencies, and later visited Hmong refugee camps in Thailand. When she realized how little information there was about the Hmong, she began conducting oral histories. She has published two books that compile those stories.

Morrison said she and Miller met about 15 years ago after writing letters to each other for 20 years. They are both trained weavers, which drew them to the Hmong textile techniques and styles. Morrison said it’s becoming more rare to see traditional textiles at markets, and these exhibits help to preserve that culture.

“This is just part of the wealth that any and every refugee community brings to its new home,” Morrison said. “This is part of the wealth and the tradition that the Hmong have brought, but that’s true for every refugee group. So I think that would be a wonderful reminder. A reminder of how our own lives can be expanded by interacting with new and different cultures.”

The artist statement at the exhibit’s entrance connects Missoula’s history with Hmong refugees to more recent local refugee resettlement and world conflict.

“The exhibition is a timely reminder of the value of art and creativity to the human experience, and coincides with the recent arrival of Eritrean, Congolese, and Syrian refugee families to Missoula through the help of the International Rescue Committee and Soft Landing. The topic of refugee resettlement is relevant in light of rising nationalism and a recent proliferation of hate speech nationwide. MAM firmly stands in support of these new members of our community and is committed to being a free, accessible institution to everyone.”

Entry to the Missoula Art Museum is free, and the museum accepts donations. “From Flower Cloth to Story Cloth” will be on display until Sept. 20. On July 19, Gayle Morrison will discuss her most recent book, “Hog’s Exit: Jerry Daniels, the Hmong, and the CIA,” at the MAM at 6 p.m. On July 26, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., the museum will hold a “family-friendly celebration of Hmong culture,” with traditional Hmong dancing and food, and a Hmong elder demonstrating embroidery techniques.