On Wednesday, September 14th, the exhibit, “Welcoming the Stranger”, a collaborative project by Jo Israelson that brings awareness to the immigrant experience, opened in the center atrium gallery at Hege Library. I found the exhibit very interactive and inviting. There are chalkboards asking us to write down how we welcome the stranger, and there are looms out for us to contribute lines of fabric and yarn to a few ever-growing tapestries- all of this happening under the soft shade of a 50-foot long tent woven together by the hands of thousands in Maine. The tent, entitled Abraham’s Tent, is inspired by the parable of Abraham welcoming three strangers into his home, teaching us that we should welcome strangers of all races and backgrounds into our communities.
Jo Israelson, a Jewish and Quaker artist, spoke at the event about the Jewish word, Bashert, meaning, “meant to be”, and the Quaker saying, “The way opened”, both of which perfectly capture the essence of this exhibit. Originally a sight specific installation at the Maine Jewish Museum in Portland, artist Jo Israelson decided to bring her project to Greensboro after experiencing the Guilford connection (sharing a friend with Terry Hammond). The opening date coincited perfectly with the National Folk Festival (meant to be!), where Jo hosted a “Weave the Tent” event, inviting festival-goers to contribute to many small woven tapestries, which are displayed on the library walls surrounding the tent. Also, how perfect is it that an art exhibit highlighting the immigrant experience sets up tent (pun intended) at Guilford, the birthplace of the Every Campus a Refuge movement? SUPER meant to be!!!
A little bit of background info about the instillation:
All the wool used in the tent was donated from around the world and spun into yarn by hand. The actual weaving of the yarn was completed at community weaving events in Maine. Jo said, “What I want to emphasize is that this is an artwork of a thousand people whose hands touched the wool first and spun it, and then the people who wove it together, and every single one of those people was interested in finding a way to welcome the stranger.” In a sense, this exhibit is very different from other shows Guilford has hosted. It’s not one artist making art to influence a community, it is a community making art to influence it’s grander self.
Jo talked about how Maine’s recent influx of refugees from around to world influenced the creation of this project. During the opening, audio played of Jo interviewing cabdrivers in Portland, Maine, all of whom are refugees, asking them “what were you before”, receiving answers such as “teacher, doctor, engineer, professor”. “Why are you here?” she then asks, receiving the unanimous response of “for my children, so they will have a better life.” She also asks children on Peaks Island in the audio, “What’s an immigrant?” One answer particularly stood out to Jo. A nine year old considered “it would be very sad to leave the place I know, with all the people I know, to go someplace where I don’t know anybody.” Listening to this audio and looking up at the huge tapestry overhead, seeing each strand of woven wool, seeing the countless hours of work, and the countless number of people involved, all I can think about are the stories and conversations about welcoming the stranger that these people must have shared while weaving. It is a piece that holds a history, based on it’s unique production, as well as a future, for its influence has the power to change people’s outlook on society and how we treat the strangers that we encounter in our lives. This exhibit encourages us to change the word “stranger” into a temporary state, and transform it into “friend”, “neighbor”, and “citizen”.
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The weavings on display from the National Folk Festival’s “Weave the Tent” event are currently on sale, with all proceeds benefitting Greensboro’s FaithAction International House Stranger to Neighbor Initiative. You can purchase them by contacting Terry Hammond. Also, the weaving currently in progress on the floor loom in the library will be added to the Abraham’s Tent piece after the show is taken down on October 30th.
Images in cover photo by Elena Sippel. Collage by Kate Mitchell.
Recently, some not so welcoming statements were drawn and written on the “How Do You Welcome the Stranger?” chalkboards in the library. These occurrences gave a face to a side of our campus that I naively left out of my article. I talked a lot about inclusivity and celebrated our college’s progressive outlook, but it was made true through chalk that a culture of hate exists on our campus. I don’t have a remedy for this. I don’t have a grand statement that fixes everything, but I have to say something. If I say nothing, it’s like it doesn’t matter, and it does matter. So I have a question: How should we respond to voices of negativity and hate? I invite anyone to speak their mind in our comment section below or on our facebook page where this is also posted. We need to start an open discussion if we want to progress as a campus.