Exhibit of immigrant artists’ work weaves cultures

MIDDLEBURY — As rich cultural music from Somalia dances out of one room of the Vermont Folklife Center in downtown Middlebury, other rooms display colorful woven fabrics and crocheted lace draped from the ceiling by thin wires. In a corner, a Mac computer showing a Bosnian dance group performing captivates visiting guests.
It’s all part of the “New Lives/New England” exhibit at the Folklife Center that ends its two-month showing here on Feb. 8. It is a touring exhibition that, according to the Vermont Folklife Center website “features the work of New American traditional artists in Maine, Connecticut and Vermont — Bosnian rug weavers, Somali Bantu musicians, Karen Burma textile weavers whose artistry is an emblem of identity that bridges state boundaries and links communities in diaspora.”
Center director Gregory Sharrow said, “The exhibit explores the role traditional arts play in helping newcomers create a new home in New England. Central to the exhibit is the idea that continuing to practice familiar artistic traditions, as well as sharing them with new neighbors, is an important part of the acculturation process, especially as people negotiate and shape new roles and identities.”
The exhibit, Sharrow added, brings together text, handcrafted textiles and objects, video and photographs “to explore the stories of these artists and their communities through the lens of traditional arts.”
Sharrow, Kathleen Mundell of Cultural Resources in Maine, and Lynne Williamson of the Connecticut Cultural Heritage Arts Program in Connecticut, have joined together to direct the “New Lives/New England” exhibit on its tour throughout the region. The trio took on the project, Sharrow said, because they wanted to present an exhibit that looks at communities and cultures.
Part of the effort behind the exhibit is that they will continue to hold artist group get-togethers.
“We want there to be a benefit for the artists,” said Sharrow, noting there was weaving in the gallery during the exhibit. Karen weavers visited the gallery to lead a discussion and show how they create their pieces.
“Weaving is often used as a metaphor for life, each experience a thread, which added to others creates something greater than its parts,” reads the literature about the exhibit. “Weaving a rug, applying henna at a wedding, or playing a drum at a community celebration, these traditions and their longtime practitioners remind people of who they are and where they came from, helping to create new lives out of whole cloth.”
While Sharrow was initially concerned about slow traffic to view the exhibit during the colder winter months, he’s been pleasantly surprised by the high traffic — mostly because the gingerbread houses were on exhibit during the holiday season.
“We get a gazillion people through here to see the gingerbread houses, which are upstairs,” said Sharrow, “which means that a gazillion people are exposed to this exhibit as they are walking through.”
Bob Hooker, the administrative assistant at the center, estimated about 2,000 visitors have been to the VFC since the exhibit opened on Dec. 6, with the highest foot traffic count during the holiday week. Hooker also commented on the abundance of multimedia that the exhibit used. The site has nine projectors connected to computers accessing a specific set of multimedia for that day.
“NEW LIVES/NEW England” showcases the art and music of refugees and new immigrants that are now living in Connecticut, Maine and Vermont.
Independent photo/Alex Munteanu
According to Andy Kolovos, co-director and archivist at the VFC, the actual pieces in the exhibit are not for sale, but other pieces done by the artists in the show are. Products from The Sewing Project and the Burmese Karen weavers are on display in another room in the Vermont Folklife Center and these pieces can be purchased right at the center.
Of the exhibit’s message and the center’s mission, Sharrow said both help “to make people visible to one another. Culture is at the very heart of who we are as people,” he explained. “The center focuses on new and developing communities and lends a window into artistic dynamics. … An American, for example, can go to a foreign country and not know anybody, but still be connected through holiday celebrations and religion because those things bind people together; cultural needs anchor people. These are details we pay attention to.”
The “New Lives/New England” exhibit leaves Middlebury on Feb. 8 and will then travel to Hartford, Conn., and Lewiston, Maine.

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