Color and Canvas: Finding Unexpected Voices in Public Art

This spring I had the chance to take a road trip to Portland, ME, and spend a day moseying around the city.  Wandering up and down Congress Street, a modern building with large glass panels hanging over the front doors caught my eye. Frosted text covered the windows:

“مكتبة.”  “Bibliothèque.”  “Library.”

Intrigued, my friend and I ventured into the building.  What I saw made my heart happy—an army of public computers, many of them being used; a local archive; a treasure trove of bookshelves; teenagers hanging out in the young adult section.  But when we entered the basement, we found something genuinely astonishing: a gallery of art pieces from Tanzania. The title of the exhibit read: “Zanzibar Henna Artists: Innovating a Cultural Tradition”.

Captivated, the two of us moved about the space, immersed in the bright colors and intricate patterns of the paintings.  The elaborate swirls and curves of henna—usually painted directly onto the body—were emblazoned onto the canvases with obvious skill, and great care.  The talent of the women who painted these complex, intimately detailed designs was evident.

Almost as fascinating as the art is the story behind it: a local artist traveled to Tanzania, taught art classes in Zanzibar, and discovered that her students were already gifted practitioners of the art of henna, which they inherited from their mothers, and grandmothers. Transferring the practice onto a canvas is a unique way to bridge two worlds—it draws from the skills the women already have, while making the usually transient medium permanent, and thus, accessible to a wider audience.  Since the canvases are for sale in the exhibit, they are also offering women a chance to market their skills.  

To me, this exhibit was fascinating, and exciting—a beautiful example of how the arts can be used to tie communities together across the globe.

img_9038Hannah Eckstrom is a Spanish major with a K-12 Teaching Certification.  She decided to join the Fellows to pursue a combination of her academic passions, and community outreach, and is excited to learn more about the culture of Harrisburg as she participates in Fellowship projects.


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