Who am I ? And why am I here? Two big questions. Hard to find anything bigger. You may know them in different forms: Why was I born? What’s the purpose of my life? How should I live? Essentially the same thing. I think about these questions from time to time. Life changes. I change. It’s good to assess. When I run out of answer pathways, I ask other people. But they usually have nothing for me. That is to say, you can’t get any closer to your answers by asking other people how you should live your life. How would they know? I mean, really.
These questions came up again for me just recently at the annual Holiday Folk Fair International in Milwaukee. This festival of ethnic heritage is a spectacular celebration in song, dance, food, ritual, history, and of course, craft. Although not as big as in recent years, it’s still an amazing collection of people sharing their culture. And these people have culture in droves. They are living it right before your eyes as they play music, cook, speak, sing, dance. It’s one of the best places to see needlework, too, because unlike a museum where you can observe a costume behind glass, people are wearing their ethnic costumes. It’s craft in action. Alive.
The festival describes it this way: “folklife . . . is the living expression of culture woven into everyday life – anyone’s culture – learned and passed on informally from person to person. It must be alive and current to be folklife, even though it may have existed over long stretches of time.”
To give you some example of this living expression at the festival:
Below is an example of Uzbek suzani, a traditional embroidery done entirely by hand using silk thread on a cotton/silk cloth. Traditionally, a woman began embroidering her daughter’s bridal bedspread as soon as she was born. The demand for these handmade pieces has gone up since the fall of the Soviet Union brought more travelers to Uzbekistan. From what I have read, new pieces are just as well made as vintage ones. An excellent example of a craft revival.
You can see it is handmade by examining the back. Machine work never looks like this. These pieces are made in long strips so that more than one woman can work on a bedspread. When they are finished, women sew them together and then embroider along the seam to hide it.
The pieces above were for sale in the bazaar. Many other people simply set up shop to show others their craft. Here is a woman in Pomeranian dress demonstrating weaving on a table loom.
And Darinka Kohl demonstrating the intricate techniques of bobbin lace.
When you see so many people celebrating their culture together, you realize something important about the Big Questions. Correction: I learned something. I learned that I’d been asking the wrong questions. Instead of asking “Who am I?” I should be asking “Who are we?” It’s the community that provides identity, direction, vision. It’s the community that sustains. If you want to know who you are, you simply look to your community; they will tell you where you came from and where you are going. You once ate this food. You once sang this song. You once survived this war. If you want to know who you are, learn how we do things: take up this needle and thread, carve this spoon, speak this language, repeat after me.
And after you learn these things, look around and see that all cultures have their versions. The egg roll is the burrito is the crepe.
Who am I? And why am I here? I am because we are.
To learn more about heritage crafts still practiced in Wisconsin, click here.