Karenni Women's Weaving Subject of Arts Alliance Program

Weaving has been a cultural tradition of a small refugee community known as the Karenni since they left their home in the mountainous region bordering Thailand. Originally from Burma, the Karenni families escaped a civil war that's been going on there for about four decades. Over time, many of the families had left their villages and gone into the jungle to live for several years before eventually moving into Thailand, where many of them lived in refugee camps.

Now just fewer than 100 Karenni families have moved into Houston, home to a number of refugee communities. As Pat Jasper, director of Folklife & Traditional Arts for the Houston Arts Alliance, explains: "Houston really has the capacity to accommodate refugees in a way that a lot of cities around the country can't."

The city offers a certain amount of funding for things like short-term education and housing for refugee groups that move here, but that has been increasingly limited in recent years. Many of the Karenni women have used weaving not only as a cultural tradition, but also as a way to supplement their income since coming here.

And now their work is being showcased at a special exhibition, Weaving Home, produced by the Houston Arts Alliance Folklife & Traditional Arts Program.

The women have been working with a Houston-based microenterprise program, The Community Cloth, which works specifically with refugee communities to help identify artistic traditions that are practiced that can also be used as sources of income.

Traditionally, the local craftswomen of the Karenni community wove garments such as short skirts, head wraps, belts and capes, for a sense of ethnic identification. Community Cloth has been helping the women of the Karenni families produce items that will not only keep their traditions alive, but at the same time will appeal to the western market. Along with some of their more traditional items, these women produce items such as table runners, scarves and shawls. Community Cloth then sells these items at Kuhl-Linscomb and the Museum of Natural Science, boutiques and home-held events.

The exhibition will include examples of some of the Karenni families' more traditional pieces as well as some of their western-influenced work. It will also explore the way these families have taken their traditions and adapted them to the western influence.

"I'm so impressed by the weaving tradition itself and I think it's also really important to shine a light on the microenterprise aspect of this for the economic and community sustainability," Jasper says.

The exhibition at the Alliance Gallery, 3201 Allen Parkway, will include an opening reception on May 24, at which some of the refugee women will be in attendance to demonstrate weaving techniques. On May 31, a panel discussion will be held which will explore the economics of handmade textiles and the mechanics of microenterprise endeavors. On June 21, people from the different refugee communities will share stories of their struggles. On June 30, there will be a discussion held as well as a demonstration of the weaving tradition. Then on July 5, there will be a reception honoring the community of the refugees that made their way to Houston.

Throughout the events, some of both the traditional and the western pieces will be sold, with all profits going to the Karenni refugee women.

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Crystal Brannen