Why immigrants value art: Stories from Mia’s “Global Movements” artists

On May 11, Mia opens Global Movements, a four-day series of programs on immigration, migration, and the arts. Among the presenters are several Twin Cities artists, and we asked them how art has been important in their lives and work. Here are some of their responses.

Cy Thao


Thao during an appearance on TPT’s “MN Original” series in 2010.

A Hmong painter and former state legislator whose epic 50-painting series The Hmong Migration recalls the journey of Hmong immigrants from war-torn Laos to Minnesota. Thao will talk about the series at Mia on May 13.

I came up with the idea for the series when I was a sophomore, a time when I was trying to figure out where I fit in. I actually saw the Jacob Lawrence migration series at Mia and it really impacted me. After college I decided to fully engage with this idea and paint my own series.  I did research, visited Laos, and talked to people who had expertise and who had fled the war.

I painted the series for three reasons: First, to satisfy myself and find out about my own culture.  Secondly, to pass down what I learned to the younger generation of Hmong youth. When you come from a minority culture, and your culture is not taught about in school, you’re really yearning for it, to know more about where you come from. So I hoped that my paintings would help them. Lastly, I painted it for people outside the Hmong community. For people who wanted to know more but didn’t have a way in. Art is such a good way to accomplish that. When you come to a museum, you are willing to open your mind. You don’t judge, you just receive and experience what the artist is putting out there.


Saleh performing at the Loft Literary Center in 2015.

Lula Saleh

An Eritrean-Ethiopian American multidisciplinary artist and founder of the East African Diaspora Artists Initiative (EADAI). Saleh has curated an afternoon of storytelling and performance by East African artists, held at Mia on May 13. 

As a writer, poet and singer-songwriter my art is the primary outlet for documenting my and my family’s unique migration and transnational experience. I am the first generation in my lineage who has had the opportunity, time, and space o begin documenting our experience as Eritrean-Ethiopians in the diaspora, and also my unique experience as a third-culture kid born and raised in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Art is the vehicle through which I can document our experience, and also how I try to make sense of our continuous navigation around home, homelessness, citizenship, and constantly being in transit between nations, borders, and cultural identities.

Top image: Detail from painting number 37 in Cy Thao’s 50-painting series The Hmong Migration, 1997–2001, from the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art.