The traveling exhibit Weavings of War: Fabrics of Memory was displayed at the ICR Gallery from October 27, 2006 – January 13, 2007. Curated and circulated by folklorists from the Michigan State University Museum, the Vermont Folklife Center, City Lore in New York City, and independent scholar Ariel Zeitlin Cooke, the show highlights traditional textiles made by women from a wide variety of ethnic groups who have experienced recent war, strife, or forced exile. Included in the exhibit are 58 textiles such as arpilleras from Chile and Peru, story cloths from the Hmong people of Laos, embroideries from Viet Nam and South Africa, rugs from Afghanistan, and more, all of which use imagery of war and dislocation. While the exhibit deals with conflict and trauma, its central theme also demonstrates that art, narrative, and tradition can have a healing effect on those who have suffered through strife.
Hartford was the only showing of this exhibit in Southern New England. The project provided an opportunity to directly involve local immigrant and refugee communities who are eager to tell their stories and interact with the general public. CCHAP collaborated with members of several local ethnic groups whose histories are depicted in the exhibit, to present a series of educational activities and events to accompany and interpret the exhibit’s subject matter. Their advice kept our activities solidly grounded in their traditions, and they were instrumental in promoting the project through a wide variety of community networks as well as recruiting artists from their ethnic groups. We were particularly concerned to maintain a respectful approach to the very sensitive and painful events depicted in the textiles, events that many of the advisory team and
their communities have directly experienced. The advisors helped us to develop powerful narrative activities where survivors told their personal stories while referring to the textiles on display. In the Bosnian event, audiences asked many searching questions of the women during an intense talkback session, and although this was difficult for them, they enjoyed the connection to people they otherwise would not meet. Careful discussion and preparation, as well as the involvement of their trusted ESL teacher beforehand, helped to make this a valuable experience for both audiences and speakers.
The exhibit was beautiful to view, with many colorful textiles of very different techniques and countries of origin, all of extremely high quality. The aesthetic appeal of these contrasted to the often horrific war-related events and motifs depicted. In my public remarks about the exhibit I drew attention to this contrast, and to the importance of expression of fear and pain through art and narrative—especially for those who do not read or write. This was a challenging show for audiences, one that really required contextualization, even beyond the excellent signage texts. I spent a lot of time talking to visitors after they had viewed the exhibit, since many wanted to discuss their impressions and the issues raised.
The exhibit and programming stimulated a high degree of interest from local audiences. Over 1000 people viewed the exhibit, and over 800 attended the events. Evaluation forms given to audiences, and conversations with visitors, indicate that people appreciated the depth of information available in exhibit texts, interpretive activities, and the discussions we fostered on the difficult themes and topics. In fact, the project was so successful that it demonstrates a real need for more programming that addresses important current or historical issues expressed through art, brings audiences face to face with artists and cultural leaders, and fosters real dialogue in a comfortable, supportive, enjoyable setting. For instance, for the memorable Chilean poetry and music evening at La Paloma Sabanera Bookstore there was a standing-room only crowd (of about 55). Celebrated writer Marjorie Agosin read her poems and memoirs of the Pinochet dictatorship, and then held a discussion with the audience almost as with friends – the intimate space and the power of her words created an atmosphere of intense connection and empathy. This is how deep understanding can take place.
- Exhibit Opening (10/27/2006) featured a performance by Cambodian court dancer and Khmer Rouge survivor Somaly Hay. Food from local Afghan, Laotian, and Peruvian restaurants was served, and members of the project advisory team spoke about the importance of the exhibit to their community.
- Traditional Crafts Marketplace (11/4/06), in conjunction with Hartford Open Studios weekend, presented demonstrations and sales by local artists from the Hmong, Peruvian, and Ukrainian communities.
- Narratives of War Forum (11/11/06) presented the personal stories of members of the project team who have experienced war and dislocation, talking directly about the events displayed in the textiles. Two panel discussions explored the effects of strife on health issues for refugees, and the process of healing trauma through art. Tibetan flute player Lakedhen Shingsur brought the event to a close with his traditional melodies.
- Afghan Event (11/18/06) at the new Shish Kebab House restaurant in West Hartford, featured an Afghan feast and a discussion with one of the owners about his family’s experiences leaving the country during the Russian occupation, and some of the cultural effects of the conflict.
- Unitarian Church Speakers’ Series (11/19/06) brought Howard Phengsamphone of the Lao Association to Ethel Walker School in Simsbury to discuss his experiences during the war in Laos.
- 2 Chilean Events (12/2/06) – an afternoon workshop at ICR taught children to make arpilleras (story embroideries), and we presented Chilean food and music. An evening musical performance and poetry reading featured renowned Chilean poet Marjorie Agosín at La Paloma Sabanera coffeehouse, with music by Chilean musicians Juan Brito and Roberto Clavijo and a talk by Judy Dworin on her collaboration with women in Chile on a history and dance project.
- Peruvian Event (12/9/06), held at La Casona Restaurant, presented speaker Olga Gonzalez-Castañeda on textiles made during the era of the Shining Path. Hosted by Pedro Espinoza, editor of Los Andes newspaper, the event included performances by local dance groups Danzas Peruanas and Negrura Peruana, and a traditional Peruvian dinner.
- Southeast Asian Event (1/6/07) – presentations of food, music, dance, and traditional stories from local Laotian, Hmong, and Cambodian dancers, musicians, and textile artists.
- Bosnian Program and Exhibit Closing (1/13/07) – presented women (many of them war widows) from this large community in Hartford telling their stories, demonstrating weaving, and offering traditional foods and crafts for sale.
The Connecticut showing of Weavings of War and the associated programming was supported by the National Endowment for the Arts; the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism; The Edward C. and Ann T. Roberts Foundation; the Knox Foundation; the Connecticut Humanities Council; the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving;
the Ensworth Charitable Foundation, Bank of America, Trustee; and the Greater Hartford Arts Council, through its Greater Hartford Arts Council, through its campaigns.