Researching and Revealing the Art of Nomads

In Hope College’s Kruizenga Art Museum, a current exhibit asks an unapologetic and perhaps overwhelming question: What exactly is art?

Is art aesthetically-pleasing work meant to only be seen and not touched? Must it hang on a wall or stand on a pedestal? Or, can art be practical, painstakingly-created pieces made for everyday use?

And who decides?

Once Were Nomads,” on display through May 11, begs reflection on those questions. And here’s a spoiler alert: A life-size, fiberglass camel stands at the center of the exhibit offering insights toward some answers.The scholarly, collective and lengthy work of Charles Mason, Dr. Debra Swanson and junior art major Caleigh White during the summer of 2018 resulted in the winter showcase of “Once Were Nomads.” The exhibit invites viewers to look at the everyday, artistic textiles of the Baluch people, a nomadic tribe from Baluchistan — an area that straddles the modern-day borders of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran — and consider an expanded, moving reality of art.

The harsh, Middle East region of the Baluch people is where those artisans create beautiful works of art that are constantly on the go. Featured in “Once Were Nomads,” domestic items like a bag used for salt storage, or rugs made for sitting or mealtime or praying, or a camel’s “dress” for a wedding ceremony allow museum-goers to marvel at the Baluch’s ongoing creativity and effort.

“In many cultures of the world, art is literally woven into the fabric of everyday life.”

“In Western cultures, we tend to think of art as being painting and drawing and sculpture and photography, but in many cultures of the world, art is literally woven into the fabric of everyday life,” says Mason, the Margaret Feldmann Kruizenga curator of the KAM.

For centuries prior to this one, the Baluch had depended upon various lightweight textiles (lighter than wooden furniture anyway) to sustain and create their households as they moved their flocks of sheep and goats freely within the region. Since the beginning of the 21st century, political and economic pressures have limited that movement and now many Baluch people are confined to “reservations” in Baluchistan. Their original ways of life have been threatened,  and it turns out, scholars do not know that much about them.

“The Baluch people in general have not really been studied and now their lifestyles are changing. As a person who teaches cultural anthropology, this was very interesting to me, and I wanted my students to learn about them too. In doing so, I also wanted them to think a little bit more about what makes art art?” says Swanson, professor of sociology. “So, when Charles said, ‘I have works of art from this group of people who haven’t been studied very much,’ I said, ‘Well, maybe we could do an exhibit as both an artistic and anthropology project.’”

Debra Swanson, left, Caleigh White, center, and Charles Mason, right, and textiles for “Once Were Nomads.”

The Baluch pieces featured in the KAM were donated or loaned to the college thanks to Mason’s friendship with and request to art collectors, Verne and Paula Trinoskey of Eureka, California. White applied for and was awarded a Borgeson grant to begin work with Swanson on the project during the summer of 2018 and in the fall of 2018, White also applied for and was awarded a Dryfhout internship to finish the exhibit with Mason.

A summer trip to Washington, DC and the Textile Museum at George Washington University, as well as at the Smithsonian, helped Swanson and White see how other museums produce anthropological art exhibits. Once back at Hope, the three went about the work of figuring out how the art exhibit in the KAM would tell the anthropological story of the Baluch people. White was especially instrumental in researching more about the Baluch way of life to present on interpretative plaques as well as a 15-minute video that shows more than words can tell about how the textiles fit into the Baluch culture.

“We knew we had to ask and reflect on questions like, What is nomadism? What is the Baluchistan landscape like? The geography of the desert or valley? How do they live? Why do they create such beautiful things?” reflects White. “They have a ground-level lifestyle, and they make it comfortable for themselves through the use of textiles. Amazing textiles.

“I admit I never really appreciated rugs before I looked at these,” White continues. “My favorite part about art is the concepts behind everything and seeing the concepts behind the motifs woven into the rugs is the most important part. We have a whole section about the tree of life, for example. That’s why I really liked working on this project. The concepts and their creation in the rugs are amazing.”

Baluch textiles filled the KAM conference room last summer before filling the KAM walls this winter. Mason and White would carefully select and consider how every piece could be displayed. Flat items like rugs and bags and clothing could easily hang on walls, but how would they display the loopy, floppy essence of the ceremonial animal trappings?

That’s where the KAM-el (get it?!) comes in.

“We were looking at those trappings and we knew they wouldn’t hang that well on a wall and people wouldn’t really get a sense of how they worked on an animal,” says Mason. “So, I was looking around online and actually found a place that had a great model camel. So I ordered it.”

And it looks pretty good all dressed up with no place to go. For now anyway. Eventually, Mason would love to see KAM-el in the Van Wylen Library or the Schaap Science Center or any other academic location where it can easily display its fine-fitting Baluch art. Whenever and wherever it does, KAM-el will continue to educate and remind the Hope community about the definition of art for people who once were nomads.

Other examples of Baluch art in “Once Were Nomads”

Pile rug close-up with stylized floral lattice design. Wool. Late 19th C.
Vanity bag. Wool. Early 20th C.
KAM-el in full dress.
Baluch tunic.
Grain bag. Wool, goat hair, shells. Early 20th C.

 

Flint Water Crisis in the Round

This past Monday night in Maas Auditorium, 13 bottles of water sat on a long table, each provided for one of the 13 people preparing to speak on an interdisciplinary panel about the Flint water crisis. One container of water, though, was not being consumed, nor would it be. Displayed at the center of the dais, a mason jar filled with water from Flint, Michigan, looking as benign and similar as the water in the other 13 bottles, was about to be examined from political, sociological, psychological, historical, scientific, artistic, ethical, and personal perspectives. Though the water in the jar appeared clear, the water crisis and its fallout and solution can seem anything but that.

Though the water in the jar appeared clear, the water crisis and its fallout and solution can seem anything but that.

IMG_2537Organized and implemented by Dr. Julie Kipp’s women’s and gender studies keystone class, the event gave an opportunity for a large audience to consider what has happened in Flint as well as providing a challenge for all to get involved and do something appropriate within their discipline or interest. The panel, made up of one student, 11 professors, and one president, discussed the very tragic, sometimes complex, and always upsetting issues revolving around the high levels of lead in Flint water and those who drank that water for over a year. Delivering their expertise from their various points of view within a five-minute time limit each, the panel continued to cast light upon light upon light onto a problem that has fallen out of the nation’s glare… for the time being anyway. This communal time of reflection also gave hope for understanding next steps in Flint.

“When you think about what a liberal arts college does best, it is learning how to think systemically and critically about complex things where the problems simply can’t be understood through a single lens. It requires us to think in the round.”

IMG_2532
Katlyn Koegel, far left, speaks as part of the 13-member Flint Water Crisis panel.

Speaking from personal experience, sophomore Katlyn Koegel, a Flint native, shared several stories about people she knows from home who are struggling and afraid—a small, thirsty boy who asked for bottled water from her last summer, a woman who may lose her business due negative media attention that has driven customers away, and a pastor who paid a $900 bill for water he was not even using. “What has been most heartbreaking for me is this dichotomy between breaking news and broken structures,” said Koegel. “A lot of facts and individual stories have gone down a chasm between the two.”

Historically speaking, Dr. Fred Johnson, declared that Flint has its proud roots in Native American origins and the founding of a General Motors plant there in 1908. “And many of you may know, it was the site of the 1936-37 GM sit-down strike which basically brought the UAW (United Auto Workers) to prominence, making it a major instrument in the labor movement.” Now, the city’s heritage is  being viewed only through a microscope created by this recent history.

“All politics are local.”

Politically speaking, Dr. Annie Dandavati, reminded the audience that “it’s important for all of us to be educated voters. Even though we sometimes feel that our voices are falling on deaf ears, it’s important to know about issues no matter where they originate—in the state capitol, nationally or globally. All politics are local.”

Sociologically speaking, Dr. Aaron Franken and Dr. Debra Swanson showed that race and socio-economic status are key to making sense of what is happening in Flint. “When looking at kids in Flint, here’s some points that are important and highlight social processes for health: One, if socio-economic status is linked to health, and two, decreased educational attainment is a key link to lower socio-economic status, and three, lead poisoning manifests itself in behavioral changes and in cognitive ability changes and thus a link to decreased educational attainment, and, four, sizable portions of residents (in Flint) don’t leave the area – so residential non-migration – then we’re going to have a potential geographic health issue with a very long memory in Flint,” said Franzen.

“This is a demographic of poor, black moms with kids who get no political attention.”

In 2013, the median household income in Flint was about half of that than in the rest of the state. The state median income is $43,000; in Flint it is about $23,000. Approximately 22% have a household income of less than $10,000 a year. Forty-one percent of those living in Flint are below the poverty line, 56% of the population is black, and 75% of the households are single-parent homes. “This is a demographic of poor, black moms with kids who get no political attention,” says Swanson. And yet those women have organized protests at the state capitol in Lansing as well as a movement with Lead Safe America Foundation, bringing attention to the crisis on Twitter with over three million tweets in two hours on February 4, using the hashtag, #StandWithFlint.

Psychologically speaking, Dr. Carrie Bredow offered one good news/bad news scenario: “We know that certain things can ameliorate some of the effects of lead poisoning (such as behavioral and cognitive disorders) though it’s not reversible. But based on the research, through things like good nutrition, having high-quality early childhood education and intervention, and consistent medical care, the level of its effects can be influenced. But these are the same things that children in Flint don’t have access to. So this is something that needs to be poured into in terms of how we stop this from affecting people in Flint inter-generationally.”

Scientifically speaking, Dr. Joanne Stewart and Dr. Graham Peaslee explained how lead got into the Flint water supply in the first place. “When they switched from (using) Lake Huron water to Flint River water (to save the city money), they had no corrosion plan in place (to keep the pipes from leeching lead into the water). That was one of the real shocking things that happened,” said Stewart. “It depends on which house you’re in (when looking at lead levels),” added Peaslee. “Some people have PVC pipes and no lead, others have lead and more lead in their pipes. It depends house to house what the effect was.”

“It’s comforting to suppose only terrifically terrible or malicious people can be responsible for these things but often it is only ordinary, everyday vice that leads to great evil.”

Morally speaking, Dr. Heidi Giannini enlightened with this: “One thing I think the Flint water crisis illustrates and what our response to it should bear in mind is that it is very hard to be good. However, that is no excuse for failing. The crisis in Flint illustrates at least one way it is hard to be good: we form bad habits (like laziness or self-interest) because most of the time they seem like they are not that big of a deal. When we foster these ordinary, run-of-the-mill bad habits, we foster the opportunity for great evil. We like to think that there is extraordinary vice underlying the horrible moral wrongs of what happened in Flint. It’s comforting to suppose only terrifically terrible or malicious people can be responsible for these things but often it is only ordinary, everyday vice that leads to great evil.”

Dr. Charles Green addressed environmental racism, citing evidence that shows more middle-class black families live in polluted areas than poor white families do. “Let me be clear: race is a real factor here… Black kids are three times more likely than white kids to have asthma (due to living in areas with poor air quality) and four times more likely to die from it. The environmental problems that we have addressed in this country over the last 30-40 years have largely benefitting the white population, and the environmental problems we have not addressed have largely impacted people of color.”

“We have to listen. We have to let our neighbors (in Flint) know that we’re here, not to own or claim the crisis as our own but rather to try to understand it.”

From an artistic standpoint, Rob Kenagy and Dr. Katherine Sullivan revealed how art and activism is giving people a news lens through which to view Flint. “The slam poetry coming out of Flint is hot…It’s important to remember that that art is made by real people,” said Kenagy, “and it’s just not something you can click past. There is a real voice behind it. We as readers have a responsibility (to hear it and see it), especially those of us from privileged spaces. We have to actually accept the trauma and invite it into our lives. We have to listen. We have to let our neighbors (in Flint) know that we’re here, not to own or claim the crisis as our own but rather to try to understand it.” Poetry and art is yet another way to do just that.

Finally, President John Knapp summed up the event this way: “Big problems don’t lend themselves to simple, small solutions. What I’ve really appreciated about this evening as I’ve listened to my colleagues here is that we’ve not only examined this problem from the perspective of art, philosophy, poetry, but also sociology, history, and political science. We’ve talked about biological and medical concerns; we’ve talked about psychological matters and even got into chemistry. Every one of those is important, and more, to really understand the nature of the problem. And what I’ve described is what we are about in the liberal arts at Hope. When you think about what a liberal arts college does best, it is learning how to think systemically and critically about complex things where the problems simply can’t be understood through a single lens. It requires us to think in the round.”