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Textiles of War

03/16/05 12:00AM By Caleb Daniloff
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(HOST) Commentator Caleb Daniloff recently spent time at a powerful exhibit, one that speaks volumes about the human condition.

(DANILOFF) They say history is written by the winners. But in my book, it's the vanquished who tell the most compelling tales.

This was brought home in a big way recently when I checked out the current exhibit at the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury. On the walls of the small gallery hang a collection of unusual rugs, quilts and tapestries, all of them stitched by hands that have trembled with pain and violence. The woven images depict blood, flight, destruction, torture and the instruments of death. The show is called "Weavings of War", and visitors will see documentaries unlike any captured by pen or camera.

At first, the images against such non-traditional backgrounds feel jarring. But, like any successful art, it forces us from our normal perch. Violence is the perversion of normalcy, and this juxtaposition of war and domesticity speaks volumes. One Afghan carpet is stitched with a cookbook-style instruction: "Heat to War." Underneath are geometric images of a helicopter, jet, tank and bald eagle.

The artists are mostly refugee women from around the globe. Some of their work had to be smuggled abroad. And no detail is too small for their needles - from the black masks of Shining Path guerillas, to a refugee giving birth on the run, to miniature rows of decapitated heads.

Included in the exhibit is clothing woven with war images: a multi-colored skull cap stitched with helicopters, sarongs depicting fighter planes. Cloth as the medium is an integral part of the message. Cloth covers the body, the primary target of aggression. It can be both innocent and sinister - used for uniforms or masks, to swaddle or strangle, hoisted up flagpoles and draped over coffins. This is folk art at its finest and perhaps most powerful.

While pictorial carpets have been around for ages, a surge in war textiles took place during Vietnam and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. These alternative historians were the displaced and dispossessed living mostly in refugee camps. Their work not only allowed for the navigation of trauma and preservation of culture, but found a market. Many are indeed stunning, though tempered by the realities they depict.

In a colorful South African wall hanging, one panel shows a man in blue pants and red sweater being "necklaced" - an apartheid-era practice where tires were placed over victims and set on fire. Stitched tears fall down his face. Another story cloth shows an elaborate scene of Hmong villagers chased across the country by the Viet Cong, retaliation for collaboration with the U. S.

In the late nineties, I visited several refugee camps in the former Soviet republic Azerbaijan. In most cases, the only things people had left were their stories and the urgent need to tell them, no matter how tragic. Violence always needs an audience.

Vermonters would be wise to spend some time among these unique weavings. Over the past decade, Vermont has resettled hundreds of refugees - from Bosnia, Vietnam, Sudan, Chechnya, the Congo. Each arrival a physical vessel of life-altering narrative. The Green Mountains their safe harbor at last.

While history textbooks are designed to instruct the mind, these folk narratives go so much further. They penetrate and capture the heart.

This is Caleb Daniloff of Middlebury.

Related Link:
Vermont Folklife Center

Caleb Daniloff is a copywriter, book reviewer and freelance journalist.
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