Common Threads | Artist Profile | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Published September 7, 2005 at 4:00 p.m.

Worlds collide on the Church Street Marketplace every day. This month at the Frog Hollow Gallery, an intersection of people and place takes center stage. The "Somali Bantu Refugee Craft Exhibit" features the work of six African refugees who have recreated traditional wares for their new American neighbors.

Sherri LaPierre, Frog Hollow's operations manager, proposed the exhibit last spring, hoping it would capture "the diversity that the refugees bring to our city," and reveal "the common thread that runs through all of us as artists and craftspeople," she says.

"I could only imagine that, coming from so little and having experienced such hardship, refugees would need to be industrious and make many of the things some of us could just purchase," LaPierre adds. "It seemed a wonderful idea to open up the opportunity for them to show their work in our gallery."

Judy Scott, coordinator of volunteer services at the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, readily agreed. But neither woman suspected it would take a village to bring the craft project to fruition.

The Bantu people have been adapting and assimilating for centuries. But despite a history of displacement, their traditions also endured the journey from slavery to resettlement. Descendants of Tanzanians and Mozambicans taken to Southern Somalia by Arab traders in the 19th century, the Bantus also endured forced labor by Italian colonists in the early 20th century. When civil war broke out in Somalia in the 1990s, the Bantus became refugees.

After more than a decade of enduring impoverished conditions in either the Dadaab or Kakuma camps of Northern Kenya, nearly 12,000 Somali Bantus have been resettled in cities across the United States. Burlington is home to between 250 and 300 -- the exact number is not known, because some refugees initially relocated to other cities have moved here on their own.

Since they began arriving in the Queen City two years ago, the Somali Bantus have faced new hardships, including New England winters and the English language. "What they do every single day is adapt to American culture," explains Scott, who sees the craft exhibit as a chance to make the Somali Bantu culture the center of attention.

She presented the idea to some of the refugees by describing Frog Hollow as "a store with great respect for traditional crafts." Many were willing to share a part of their history with their new hometown. But the rigors of assimilation leave little time for making art. And there was the question of supplies.

Mohamed Bulle Ibrahim, who works for A.C. Hathorne as a roofer, needed hollow wood to make a guraban (drum) and shararro (stringed instrument). His wife, Isha Ali Adbi needed palm fronds, as did her fellow basket-weavers, Changua Jimale Kalmo and Fatuma Bulle.

How could Muslimo Ali Ahmed afford the kind of fabric required to sew indigenous styles when she has five children in need of modern, American clothing? Expert tailor Ali Muse Abdi, now employed by the Vermont Teddy Bear Company, also needed fabric.

Solutions began to trickle in from a variety of community resources. Funding for the project came from an event earlier this summer in Burlington called the Clothing Exchange. Established by Leslie Halperin, a social-mission program manager at Ben & Jerry's, the affair puts old clothes to good use. Instead of just swapping sweaters and such with each other, Halperin and her friends decided to exchange wardrobes for money and donate it to women's and children's charities.

While gearing up for the fifth Clothing Exchange in June, a member of the planning committee who had hosted a Somali refugee in her home suggested sending the profits to support the Bantu women's efforts at employment. The event raised nearly $7500. The VRRP's Judy Scott directed the funds toward securing supplies: African print fabric, thread and elastic for the sewers, and palm fronds for the basket makers. Any leftover money would be earmarked for education.

The sewing supplies presented no problems, but palm fronds were nowhere to be found. Neither were the hollow wood, animal hides or special wire for Mohamed's instruments. (In Bantu culture, people always refer to each other by their first name; there really are no last names per se. Children are given a first name, their second name is their father's first name, and their third name comes from their grandfather's first name. Women do not change their names when they marry.)

Lauren Berrizbeitia, a VRRP volunteer working with Isha and Mohamed's family, was determined to deliver the goods. "I started going on the Internet and bringing photos of African baskets to Isha," she explains. Eventually, Isha recognized the Somali Bantu style in one of the pictures. Later, when she and Berrizbeitia were watching a Tarzan movie, Isha pointed out the exact kind of palm frond she had used to make baskets in her refugee camp. Unfortunately, palm fronds are only available in America for a period preceding Palm Sunday, and it was the beginning of summer.

That's when Muslimo's husband, who works at Gardener's Supply, suggested using the plastic strapping from shipping pallets as a stand-in for the fronds. Although Isha found the material stiff, she was happy to give it a try. And despite a few cuts on her fingers, she managed to fashion baskets in the traditional style. The newfangled versions look more like brightly colored handbags than muted-toned African totes. Still, they retain the intricate weaving patterns that distinguish the handmade from the mass-produced. Isha and the other weavers say they'd like to make mats, too, if "something softer" comes along.

Berrizbeitia also turned her attention to Mohamed's interests. "We went to music stores and he was drawn to the congo drums," she says. "So I called Stuart Paton of the Burlington Taiko Group and asked him if I could bring Mohamed to see his collection -- some of which were made with PVC pipe." When Mohamed saw the drums, he told Berrizbeitia that he had used the same piping to make drums in the camp.

Paton became instrumental, so to speak, in making sure Mohamed could make music. According to Berrizbeitia, he procured the PVC from a plumbing-supply store and got farming friends to donate goatskins. A few more folks pitched in with salad bowls so Mohamed also could make the guitar-shaped shararros. Berrizbeitia provided him with the paint to decorate the neck and body of the instrument; Mohamed dismantled an old bicycle brake cable to serve as wire strings. Both final products are dramatic in their dichotomy. On the drums, the traditional brown hide heads are stretched over a bright turquoise PVC base. The banjo-like shararros range from the simple to the sublime: While one is left in its natural state, another is decorated from its long, wooden neck to its salad-bowl body with fluorescent paint droppings.

Meanwhile, the sewers were fashioning the haute couture of their culture with borrowed sewing machines. Featuring mostly dresses, since Somali women don't wear pants, the collection uses traditionally bold African prints, but are cut in a more typically Western style -- imagine Gloria Vanderbilt working with Kinta cloth.

With the exhibition in motion, another connection provided the final stitch in LaPierre's "common thread" theme. Rose McNulty, a professional photographer and anthropology student at Burlington College, had been volunteering with VRRP when Scott assigned her the task of putting the Bantus' artistic process on film. McNulty describes her contribution to the show as "more portraiture than a full-on documentary," but her color shots beautifully depict a tradition in transition. The images of Muslimo weaving on a North End stoop and Mohamed's daughter playing his PVC drums tell a tale of two cultures. And, like the exhibit itself, they capture the best of both worlds.