Diversity in the Arts
World Refugee Day
By Maggie Medoff
On June 21, 2019, smells of tabouli salad and Tanzanian samosas filled Market Square as Pittsburgh residents from all walks of life experienced a diversity of food and live performances at the 8th Annual World Refugee Day.
The event, organized by JFCS Refugee & Immigrant Services and sponsored by The Allegheny Health Network, included several speeches; one delivered by Mayor Bill Peduto who encouraged attendees to embrace the diverse cultures that makes Pittsburgh a city for all. There were also two speeches by refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda who provided moving testimonies about leaving their home countries behind in order to create new identities and homes for themselves in the United States.
The space was filled with dozens of vendors and service providers, giving attendees ample opportunity to learn about different communities and immerse themselves in new cultural experiences. The art vendors at the event were kept particularly busy, as attendees flocked to different booths to admire rolled paper bead jewelry, or ask questions about hand woven baskets from different countries.
“I feel like art—just like math—is kind of like a universal language,” said Ricardo Solis, owner of Costa RicArt.
Solis, an immigrant from Costa Rica and one of the artists at World Refugee Day, had only participated in the event once before, but he noticed that something special occurred when all the artists came together to share one space. Solis believes art is capable of connecting people in very powerful ways, especially at events like World Refugee Day.
He also thinks the celebration of World Refugee Day is important for people living in the United States who haven’t spent much time engaging in conversation with immigrants or refugees.
“I’m an immigrant, but I know some stories about refugees who were successful in their countries, but they had to run away and find a way to make the best out of their new homes.”
Solis moved to Pittsburgh five years ago and is now working as a resident at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater while finishing up his studies in graphic design at the Community College of Allegheny County. He creates upcycled art—wallets made from plastic bags and sculptures built from collections of trash—and teaches workshops on making art from found recycled materials.
Mina Aldoori, another artist at the event, has been participating in World Refugee Day for the past four years. She first heard about the event while working as an interpreter for Jewish Family and Community Services.
She used to focus solely on henna tattoos, but after her first time participating in the event, members from JFCS encouraged her to display her own artwork. A few years ago, she began selling acrylic paintings, mixed media, and jewelry, in addition to providing henna at World Refugee Day.
Aldoori was born and raised in Iraq and moved to Pittsburgh in 2010. Her Iraqi dentity still informs a lot of the stories told in her artwork. Many of her canvas paintings include backgrounds and patterns inspired by Middle Eastern and Iraqi cultural traditions.
Aldoori believes art is capable of bringing communities together in educational and inspiring ways, and that events like World Refugee Day allow attendees to learn about traditions and lived experiences very different from their own.
“Art is a great way to communicate with different cultures. During the event, you can see many people from different cultures bringing their traditions and customs to one place, to share with others,” Aldoori said.
While most of the artwork shown and sold at the event was created by artists in attendance, Hilos, a fair trade business founded by Maggie Haislip, displayed imported pottery, woven textiles, jewelry, and handmade clothing of women from southern Mexico.
Haislip first became interested in Mexican art when studying Latin American culture in school. She felt an instant connection to Mexican culture during a two week study abroad trip in Oaxaca. After graduating college, she moved to Mexico and began working with a nonprofit called Fundacion En Via. The nonprofit gives small microloans to women entrepreneurs in Oaxacan villages, enabling them to increase the value of their art and artisan goods.
Initially, Haislip worked for them as a photographer, taking photos of the women who received loans from Fundacion En Via. She eventually worked with those same women again when she was able to start her own fair trade business. She now works with around 10 Mexican women and their families on a regular basis.
“The women are basically their own independent business owners. They make the art, they tell me the costs, and I don’t try to cut deals. I figure they know the value of their own work,” Haislip said.
Haislip also gives a portion of the proceeds back to education, providing women and families with access to business courses, design workshops, and indigenous identity projects for children. Going forward, she hopes to fund even more classes at the families’ requests.
Haislip’s work with artisans and artists from different regions of the world has taught her a lot about creative agency, and how artwork has the power to bring people together, despite geographical distance or differences in cultural identity.
“The direct commerce and power that people have through purchasing is something that is a huge propellor for artisan communities all over the world,” Haislip said. “We all appreciate art and we all appreciate beauty, so it doesn’t matter where things come from. In that way, I think art is a really great way to connect us all.”
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