The baggage we carry

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Still from the film “Detachment,” part of Catherine Kennedy’s installation “The Baggage We Carry” at Pillsbury House in Minneapolis.

Imagine having to flee your country because of war, move to a completely foreign land where you don’t speak the language, and try to survive. How would you keep your sanity?

For artist Catherine Kennedy’s grandmother, who fled Liberia’s civil war and ended up in Minnesota, the answer came in the form of a regular gathering with other similar women. Each month they came together for what was almost a spiritual ritual, cooking food, singing and sharing stories all night, all dressed in white and thanking God for their salvation.

They appear very poignant about their source of strength, God first and each other. They are each asked to shower prior to joining their peers in the designated space of a gathering. Their use of white clothing per their words goes hand in hand with their belief that God is holy and in order to stand before Him to thank him, one must be cleansed. Further, the color of the fabric signifies purity for them, new beginnings.

Kennedy was fascinated by her grandmother’s gatherings with her friends, and the stories of the suffering they endured in Liberia. Many were raped, witnessed the killing of their husbands; their children were kidnapped and forced to become soldiers in the war. What she learned about their lives formed the basis for her body of work “The Baggage We Carry” which is now on display at Obsidian Arts, located in the lobby of Pillsbury House in Minneapolis.

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“The Baggage We Carry” at Obsidian Arts

Kennedy says creating this installation was a way for her to grieve the death of her grandmother, while also trying to better understand her.

She was not one to give up easy on anything. Although she was not a literate woman, my memories of her was a courageous and virtuous woman who would do whatever it took to see her children succeed in life. She went from selling crops prior to the war to running transportation and becoming an indigenous governor to her region in her lifetime. The war wiped her to zero forcing her to move not once but several times in other countries seeking refuge before even settling in the USA. In Minneapolis, her confinement to the weather and language barrier and personal struggles with brain injury, depression amongst other health issues did not stop her from co-creating the group.

Some of the images Kennedy creates are distorted stills from videos of these monthly gatherings. Much in the same way a foreigner can’t truly understand the rituals of another culture, the viewer can’t see clearly what is going on, and only gets hints or glimpses of the event.

In one video installation, called “Detachment,” Kennedy removes a number of bandages from her face. She winces in pain as she takes them off her eyes and from her cheeks. It’s a striking visual metaphor for how the healing process can in itself be painful, leaving us fragile and tender.

Obisidian Arts director Roderica Southall says Kennedy is one of the most talented emerging artists he knows, carefully presenting her ideas from a number of different angles.

She tenderly tells a really horrific story. It’s a delicate way of treating a really serious subject. And one of the results is that it really put into focus the comfort in which the rest of us reside.

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Throughout the lobby of Pillsbury House, Kennedy has placed bowls she made for people to pick up and examine. The color of gristle and bone, the bowls are a gruesome reminder of the hunger and suffering of refugees, as well as the spiritual emptiness that is left in the wake of tragedy. Kennedy says if these Liberian women taught her anything, it’s that there are no limitations to a person’s ability to cope.

Their faces are filled with sweat, their eyes closed, and smiles across their faces create such a strong energy as you stand in their presence. A vibe of sincerity, conviction and sense of purpose simmers in the air as they stand for what they believe. These women evoked for me a sence of sustaining personal worth belonging to a group of tribal women with a common thread… they share language barriers, illiteracy, culture shock, post traumatic stress… and they are able to be joyful about it.

Kennedy says the experience of studying these women has allowed her to look at her own deeper sense of worth and tap into questions surrounding life, death, religion and culture. She says if she wants viewers of her work to take away anything, it’s the knowledge that even lives that have been marked with immense pain and trauma can find new hope, beauty and love in the right community.

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Catherine Kennedy will give an artist talk tonight at Pillsbury House, and will be joined by art historian Suzanne Roberts and professor Patricia Briggs. “The Baggage We Carry” runs through April 23.

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