by Dennis Dalman
Two cultures – black and white – met and, working together, created beauty and conjured meanings as evident in the Hands Across the World: The Journey Continues exhibit now showing at the Stearns History Museum.
The show opened April 6 and will continue through May 24.
The art works in the exhibit include fabric constructions, weaving, ceramics and mosaics – all created by new immigrants to the central Minnesota area from West Africa and specifically Somalia on the Horn of Africa.
Also among the exhibit artifacts are printed stories told by immigrants of the horrific and heart-rending experiences they have endured in their war-torn lands, as well as their dire difficulties in trying to adjust to a new country, a new language, a new culture. Many of the immigrants had come from squalid, miserable refugee camps, making their arrival in the United States even more of a culture shock.
The Hands Across the World exhibit is the result of a long creative partnership that began three years ago between the Paramount’s Education Outreach Program and clients of Hands Across the World, which is a St. Cloud-based agency that helps new immigrants and refugees.
The collaboration involved local artists sharing their skills as teachers with the immigrants, helping them express themselves creatively in a number of art media. The first creative session took place in 2012-13, the second in 2013-14. From the beginning there were many barriers to overcome, not the least of which was language. However, working together those barriers were eventually overcome as the participants learned to communicate in the universal language that is art. While creating art works, other barriers, too, were lowered or overcome, including fears, misunderstandings, lack of self-esteem and confidence, and misconceptions – all of which can happen so easily when people of such widely varying cultures interact.
The art works in the HAW show are clearly evocative of the West African culture, with elements of village folk art, bright colors, intricate designs and an intimate feeling for the natural world. There is also a practical aspect to the art, such as a display of handbags done in striking woven abstract patterns, with many earth-tone colors predominating, reflecting a closeness to the land of which Somali lifestyles have always been so dependent.
A series of bright, colorful mosaic panels by artist Lee Ann Goerss, also reflects folk images of West African culture.
Besides the joy of creating art and redefining a sense of identity in a “new world,” the HAW collaboration also involved development of skills that could be adapted to income-producing jobs, along with language skills, social skills and building relationships of trust across a cultural gap – in this case among the artists-teachers and their students.
Jane Oxton is the director of education and outreach for the Paramount Theater and Visual Arts Center. She expressed the collaboration this way: “If we are to serve the art needs of the community, we need to know all those who are part of this community. The Paramount hopes to gain more information about the artists’ traditions of these newest residents in order to serve them better and in hopes of discovering the artists among them who can, in turn, begin to teach us.”
The HAW exhibit is a traveling show that has been seen at the River’s Edge Convention Center in St. Cloud, the Elk River Gallery, the St. Cloud Library, at a St. Cloud Chamber Music concert, the St. Cloud Hospital and the Stearns History Museum.
The show’s curator is Carol Weiler, an artist-photographer from Sartell who coordinated the entire project from start to finish.
Participating local artists-teachers were Dan Mondloch, watercolor; Solveig Anderson, stitched work; Jeri Olson-McCoy, weaving; Goerss, suitcases and mosaics; and Melissa Gohman and Laura Ruprecht, clay works.
Also involved were Brianda Cediel, executive director of HAW; Anne Meline, chief executive officer of the Stearns History Museum; and Adam Smith, the museum’s curator of collections.
Funding for the HAW project and its exhibits was made possible by the Central Minnesota Community Foundation, the Minnesota State Arts Board, the Central Minnesota Arts Board, the Otto Bremer Foundation and several other local organizations.