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MMAA Exhibit Glimpses Into Lives of Hmong Farmers


Minnesota Museum of American Art
MMAA's Project Space. Photos by Nina Hagen.

Although it has undergone many transitions over the decades, the Minnesota Museum of American Art has always prided itself in showcasing work by local artists—whether that’s paintings by George Morrison, photos by Wing Young Huie, or pottery by Warren MacKenzie. Re-branded from Minnesota Museum of Art in 1992 and housed in the Pioneer Endicott building since 2012, the small but ambitious museum works to bring the local community together by showing the work of aspiring and up-and-coming artists alongside industry professionals.

Their current exhibition is Seeds of Change: A Portrait of the Hmong American Farmers Association. Mike Hazard’s multimedia project chronicles a year in the life of farmers working on a HAFA-run farm through photos, video, and a book, We Come from the Flower. Hazard’s work aims to express the significance of farming within the Hmong community, both in financial and cultural terms.

Formed in 2011, HAFA was created for the purpose of ensuring that farming can be a financially viable way of life for Hmong families. Although farming began for many Hmong refugees as a way to make a living, the practice has become an inextricable part of the community. According to the HAFA website, “Hmong American farmers account for more than 50 percent of all the farmers in [Twin Cities] metropolitan farmers markets.” Indeed, the Hmong community’s presence in local farmers markets has grown significantly over the decades, bringing with it an exposure to non-native plants and farming practices.

In many ways, the practice of farming grows more onerous due to everything from the price of farmland to a lack of access to necessary farming equipment. HAFA works to combat these disadvantages through educating farmers on business models, facilitating monetary transactions between farmers and landowners, and modernizing farming techniques. Hazard’s photos encapsulate the human side of HAFA’s work, to powerful effect.

minnesota museum of american art

Hazard’s photos first and foremost highlight the manner in which Hmong farmers work. Every member of the family is involved in the farming, with older generations teaching the younger generations (many of whom were likely born in America) traditional Hmong farming practices. At the same time, these traditional, by-hand techniques are balanced with technology-based techniques that utilize American tools. The juxtaposition between these practices mirrors the Hmong immigrant way of life—keeping in touch with Hmong customs whiles embracing American culture.

The pictures provide a window into a way of life that to many of us may seem foreign or unfamiliar. Multiple pictures showing family members working together or children engaging in farming practices point to a powerful connection to the land. One photo, a close-up on a pair of weathered hands rinsing lemon grass, vividly captures the toil of farm work while others show farmers proudly displaying the fruits of their labors.

It’s clear that Hazard greatly respects his subjects, contrasting the backbreaking labor of farm work and the farmers’ pride with a sense of playfulness and fun. More than anything, though, his pictures are indelibly human.

Seeds of Change runs through July 31 at the Minnesota Museum of American Art
141 E. Fourth St., St. Paul
For more information, visit mmaa.org

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