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Arts & Life

New Iowans Explore Memory, Home In 'Shifting Ground' Art Collaboration

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Kate Payne/IPR
Adija Sinumvayaha was inspired by memories of her home in Burundi, creating this piece as a part of the Shifting Ground project.

A collaborative art project in Cedar Rapids is helping immigrants and refugees explore the meaning of home by working with clay. The Shifting Ground project grapples with identity, memory and relocation as new Iowans from Central Africa and Latin America make lives for themselves in the U.S.

Over the past two weeks, new Iowans from Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Honduras and Mexico have translated some of themselves into clay.

Shifting Ground is the vision of Lisbon, Portugal-based artists Paula Reaes Pinto and António Gorgel Pinto, and their collaborator Jane Gilmor, an emeritus professor of art at Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids.

The Pintos describe their work as social art and have organized a slate of projects specifically designed to help disenfranchised and displaced communities hold on to their history and culture as they find their way in their new homes.

“This kind of social art and social engagement art, I think it’s important,” Gorgel Pinto said. “Art can help people and boost their inclusion in their new societies. It’s our way of thinking about art.”

Under the guidance of the Pintos, participants focused on memories and objects from home, blending their heritage into their new way of life, and molding it in to clay.

Ester Mwamikazi is originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and has been in the U.S. for three years. In that time she says she’s taken great comfort in the biblical story of Noah, who found safety and connection even while he weathered the storms that destroyed his home. This week Mwamikazi built her own ark.

“The good story of Noah in the Bible is very, very important. The boat and the many people inside,” she said as she described her piece. “It’s necessary…connected here in America. The many people…”

Mwamikazi says she and her children have found their own community in Cedar Rapids, which they sought out for its diversity of immigrants and refugees. In Iowa she can once again speak with friends and neighbors in one of her many languages.

“Connection is very good. I’m happy because, me speaking five language in Africa. And today I’m happy because, speak English is the sixth language,” she said. 

The Pintos hope the project gives this group of new Iowans a stronger voice in their new society.

“To give them the opportunity to have a voice, choosing what way they want to work,” Reaes Pinto said. “Have a voice in the new environment, yes that’s it,” Gorgel Pinto adds.

Ellen Kleckner of the Iowa Ceramics Center and Glass Studio helped put on the project as well. She says clay is an ideal medium to explore something as malleable and changeful as memory; the artists can take experiences that may be scarred by trauma, and create a new story, literally setting it in stone through the firing process.

“We’re working with earth in itself, and we’re also talking about the literal difference between people’s earth where they’re standing, where they are from, being different places,” Kleckner said. “I think it’s a really beautiful use of material to be talking about memory and sort of building your own new memory and we actually turn it into this permanent object.”

Some artists made an intricate clay weaving of a net, to capture the feeling of a very first soccer goal; others made an elaborate clay skirt, recalling sewing skills developed in refugee camps.

Adija Sinumvayaha is originally from Burundi. After ten years in Cedar Rapids, she simply wanted to recreate her home near Bujumbura.

“When she was in Africa, she was (sic) a house like this. That’s why she likes the house,” an interpreter for Sinumvayaha explained. “That can be the memory for her.”

Gilmor says the memory that the artists chose speaks to their diverse experiences before coming to Cedar Rapids.

“Shifting Ground is about shifting localities, too. Most of them have been relocated several times. This might be the third place they’ve lived, and I think that really comes through in the memory they’ve picked,” Gilmor said.

An exhibition of the Shifting Ground project will take place this Saturday July 27th from 1pm – 4 pm at the Iowa Ceramics Center in Cedar Rapids, with another exhibition planned this September at Mount Mercy University Gallery.

Next year the Pintos will recreate the project with another group of immigrant artists in Evora, Portugal.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story misspelled a subject's name. She is Ester Mwamikazi, not Esther.