The activity of weaving is to the Karenni community from Burma (currently Myanmar) what home cooking, cleaning and checking email is to most Houstonians — it's just something everyone does. Young girls learn the technique from their elders starting at 5 years of age as a form of play, at first beginning by completing a scarf, then moving on to more intricate patterns.
The handmade cloth is fashioned into garments, blankets, head coverings for protection from extreme weather, shawls, baby carriers and food containers for daily use. The dye is brewed from natural elements, seeds, leaves, tree bark and spices — the rationale for why much of what is worn is either black, white or red, the Karenni's favorite color and a symbol of courage.
And it is that courage and struggle for survival that forced many Karenni to flee their homeland amid the instability of civil war, racism, corruption and violence. Many took flight and found refuge in Houston.
"Burmese soldiers could just arrest you or kill you if they suspected you. There weren't any prisons for those arrested. We don't know where some of those prisoners are, or if they are alive."
One of them is Oo Reh Sor, a young man who left his village for educational opportunities in a larger city in Burma. But when he returned years later, he was treated like a stranger — too much had changed. The new regime didn't know who he was, and his relatives had not recorded his name as a member of the family.
"We, the Karenni people, we didn't want to leave our home, but I had no choice," Reh Sor explains while recounting stories of living in the jungle, befriending Karenni fighters so that they would steer him through difficult terrain and around mine fields in search of refugee camps.
"Burmese soldiers could just arrest you or kill you if they suspected you," he continues. "There weren't any prisons for those arrested. We don't know where some of those prisoners are, or if they are alive."
Diversity may be one of Houston's greatest assets, but many refugee communities remain hidden from public view. We have this vision of the Bayou City as welcoming, warm and inviting, and for many, that's the Houston experience. But a large city is overwhelming, intimidating and isolating, particularly for those who long for home and are foreign to the language and customs.
Weaving is what the Karenni know best, so with the help of micro-enterprise The Community Cloth, a subsidiary of Our Global Village, the women have re-purposed this household practice for the western market. Using vibrant colors, fashionable patterns and trendy textures, the sales of scarves, table runners, day packs and purses supplement their income and preserve their heritage and cultural values.
Daily Craft As Art
"We didn't see it as special or as art. We didn't know how to show our beautiful culture to others."
Weaving Home: Textile Traditions from Houston's Karenni Community opens Thursday and runs through July 6 at the Houston Arts Alliance Gallery. As part of the Folklife & Traditional Arts Program — an initiative that unearths the music, dance, crafts, storytelling, language, religion, occupation and other forms of expression of the city's "peripheral" communities — the exhibition chronicles the refugee journey and recognizes it as essential to the Houston identity.
"A big part of the work of the Folklife program at the Houston Arts Alliance is really taking a good look at the cultural riches that are all over the city," Pat Jasper, program director, says. "But one really invisible part of the city is the increasing refugee communities that are flying into Houston.
"The Karenni are emblematic of a very broad set of communities that have come here. Their weaving tradition is emblematic of the kind of art forms that all those communities bring with them."
When Reh Sor browsed the walls of the exhibition for the first time, he was overwhelmed by what he took as ordinary being celebrated as something that holds aesthetic worth.
"We didn't see it as special or as art," Reh Sor says. "We didn't know how to show our beautiful culture to others."
"Communities like this reminds us that we do have a special skill set that doesn't get delivered always to us in the form of a book or classroom."
Weaving Home maintains that there's beauty even in the face of conflict and hostility. Although the objects on display reveal a hidden slice of local life, they also reflect on urban complexities that distract from valuable resources ignored in favor of modern luxuries.
"When you work in these communities and you really get to see what people's traditions are, you realize they are resources, strategies for self-sufficiency, to retain identity and to express heritage," Jasper says.
"How often do we as contemporary Americans who live in a modern urban setting overlook those things in ourselves? Communities like this reminds us that we do have a special skill set that doesn't get delivered always to us in the form of a book or classroom.
"It comes through our elders and the people in our neighborhood. We need to value that kind of local and community-based knowledge."
This story inspired an "Art & About" video adventure where I chat with Oo Reh Sor, Pat Jasper, peruse the exhibition ahead of its opening and meet Karenni women working on their craft. What the video (above).
Weaving Home: Textile Traditions from Houston's Karenni Community opens Thursday and runs through July 6 at the Houston Arts Alliance Gallery. Several programs, lectures and artist demonstrations further focus on the refugee story. Click here for a schedule.