During my time as a resident at the Union, I was eager to work with textile arts for the social practice component of this program. Through conversation with Union Director of Programs + Projects Paige Reitz, she connected me to the Refugee Empowerment Center (formerly South Sudan Community Association), where they are working to preserve and promote textile arts traditions with the refugee & immigrant populations in Omaha. Specifically, I was connected to an apartment complex in North Omaha that houses mainly Karen and Karenni refugees, where I could set up a community loom to weave in the laundry room (the only large communal space in the complex, where many women would be sure to visit, and, hopefully, participate).
With my very basic understanding of who Karen people are (as in – they are from Myanmar [Burma], and they have endured over 50 years of civil war with the Burmese government, and they are the largest refugee population in Omaha), I set out with a simple frame loom and some thread, and began setting it up in the laundry room, with some much-appreciated help from Paige. There was some initial excitement from the women in the space when we first started dressing the loom, but as I started to weave, many more women came by with suggestions for how to work faster, or how it needs to be set up differently with other tools to weave it properly. This was all politely suggested, and usually in Karen, translated by a younger person. (Just as a side-note, there are many, many, ways to weave that come from all around the world. None is more right or wrong – just, different.) I wasn’t offended, although slightly discouraged.
Then, I slowly came to understand that SO many Karen women know how to weave in their very specific tradition, to create their beautiful scarves, bags, hats, shirts and skirts that I had admired from the start. I changed my game plan. I did some Googling and found out that they use backstrap looms. I tried to copy one based on photos from backstrap weavers in Bolivia. Seriously – there are like no sources on Karen methods!
The following week, I showed up with my makeshift tools and showed them to some of the women there. One of them began explaining in Karen how they needed to be changed, and a friend translated for me. Well, I asked that woman to teach me how to make the loom, and we went to the hardware store, then we made the parts together. The woman’s name is Sha Wah, and she used to weave for a living while she was a refugee in Thailand. Even though neither of us could speak the other’s language, we somehow managed to make this loom, and then set it up to start weaving. It was so great, communicating beyond words with her and seeing something materialize before us. The project taught me so many other things about Karen culture through my interactions with Sha Wah and her family – their life experiences in refugee camps, and in their new home in Omaha.
From there, Scott Larsen at the Refugee Empowerment Center reached out to the larger Karen community in Omaha to start at weaving club. They meet every week now, to weave, sew, and craft, and they are growing. This group has also led to an opportunity to teach a workshop at the Joslyn Art Museum, led by a Karen woman named Ma Mu, another skilled weaver. Through gathering the tools, making them just right, and finding the proper sources for thread, I learned so much more about Karen culture, even though I still feel that I’m only scratching the surface. I hope that this group continues to make those connections happen between locals and new Americans, as well as preserving Karen heritage for it to be passed on to the next generation.