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The Heart of Human Perseverance Beats in 'Kosova24' and 'The Welcoming Table'

By Robert Faires

JUNE 26, 2000:  A young girl helps her mother pull a large eggplant out of the refrigerator in preparation for the family's evening dinner.A young boy stands on a city street corner, a bright grin spread over his face as he balances a box on his head.

The images belong to everyday life; they show us people in familiar settings engaged in activities that are simple and common, bordering on the mundane. And yet, when the circumstances of their subjects' lives are opened to us, we recognize that in some ways these photographs transcend the routine. The mother and daughter live in Austin, Texas, but they are Indian by race, and the meal they are preparing is a traditional dinner from the Konkani community of India. The boy is a six-year-old Kosovar whose father was killed in the war in his homeland; the box on his head contains packs of cigarettes which he sells on the streets of Prishtina to help feed the surviving members of his family.

In one image, you have members of a family living half a world away from the land of their ancestors, from the culture that lives in their blood, and despite this they are managing to preserve part of their centuries-old heritage. In the other, you have a child suffering through the tragedy of war, the heartbreaking loss of a parent, and ongoing personal hardships, and still he is able to find happiness in the world. These are not just snapshots of daily existence; they are testaments to humankind's ability to weather traumas of an extreme nature -- cultural disruption, geographic dislocation, poverty, violence, genocide -- and cling to those things that matter to them.

The two exhibitions in which these images appear -- "Kosova24: Life After Wartime," currently on view at Flatbed Galleries, and "The Welcoming Table," currently on view at Texas Folklife Resources -- were organized for very different reasons and document radically different experiences. One is focused on a corner of Europe and attempts to show the aftermath of war there -- the destruction and pain but also the newfound freedom experienced by its survivors. The other concentrates on Texas and strives to capture a handful of the myriad cultural traditions that are maintained by the immigrants to this state and their descendants. One show documents divisions among people, divisions that lead to profound human tragedy, and is frequently sobering. The other records customs that unite people, that unite them across space and time, and is primarily celebratory. Still, both exhibits share a sense of life in continuance, turning from season to season, generation to generation, persisting even in the face of dramatic upheavals. Life goes on, and within both these exhibits lie found portraits of human resilience and perseverance.

Boy With Gun, Stantėrg, by Martha Grenon

"Kosova24" is clearly the more dramatic of the shows. Its 51 photographs offer a glimpse at life in postwar Kosova as recorded by 24 photographers, all but one of them natives of the Yugoslavian province and most of them young people between the ages of 12 and 22. The exhibition is the result of an ambitious project by Austin photographer Martha Grenon, who has been traveling to and documenting life in the Balkans for the past eight years. With a grant from ArtsLink Collaborative Projects, she teamed with two of the region's photographers, Afrim Hajrullahu and Naim Shala, to help two dozen ethnic Albanian students capture their world on film. The students were issued Holgas -- inexpensive plastic cameras -- and film procured with grant funds and told to shoot whatever caught their eyes. The photos they returned with ranged from scenes of bombed-out buildings to tranquil landscapes to domestic celebrations.

Devastation figures heavily in the images, some of it physical, some emotional. In the first of two photos by Bekim Shehu, a rural scene is dominated by a huge pile of rubble, all that remains of a house. As photographed by Shehu, the mound of timber and stone, with its bleached materials and shadows, sets up an intricate pattern of shadow and light, so intricate, in fact, that the one small human figure in the frame -- a white-haired man in a white shirt and black pants standing amid the rubble -- almost fades into the ruins. In the second photo, Shehu shoots another damaged home, albeit one that is still standing, in front of which stands a child wearing a gas mask. The effect is eerie, as if a ghost or some inhuman creature is all that still inhabits this ruined place. Equally disturbing is Mustafë Javori's Trauma, which depicts a boy seated in a horse-drawn cart; what is at first an innocent pastoral image is turned on its head by Javori's accompanying comments: "This boy was in Kosova during the war and now is suffering deep mental trauma. Before the war, this boy was very normal, like his friends. He could play, speak, sing like them and now he is silent and does only what others tell him."

Rebuilding in Free Kosova, by Burim Cena

Not every image in the exhibit is so heart-wrenching, however. For example, Safet Kabashaj contributes The Water of Freedom Is Sweet, a charming image of a young girl straddling a fountain to get a drink. Her legs are barely long enough to span the distance from the fountain's edge to its center, and her blond hair shines in the sunshine, with her short pigtails flowing off her head like the water from the spigot. Two Beauties From Turkey, by 12-year-old Albulena Maliqi, is similarly endearing; it shows a boy and girl extravagantly dressed for the boy's birthday party. Her gown, choker, and swept-up hair ringed with flowers and his uniform, scepter, peaked cap, and feather-trimmed cape suggest a playful dress-up party or a young princess and prince plucked from a fairy tale of old. For all the tragedy that has befallen this region and its people, joy survives. If anything, these scenes of happiness are doubly affecting because of the environment we know they spring from.

Carrin Patman, Santa Lucia Day baking, by Ella Gant

While "The Welcoming Table" may lack this kind of drama, it is not without a similar fascination. Photographer Ella Gant has based her show in Texas' wealth of ethnic communities and selected four families with distinct traditions related to food and family that she could record on film. In 52 images, she takes ethnic groups ranging from Swedish to Mexican, Indian to Czech, and covers events as varied as a weekday evening meal and a once-a-year family reunion. Each community is represented by a separate series of photographs in which a family is documented practicing a tradition they sustain.

As might well be expected, the individuality of each tradition is engaging; whether it's the Reyes family's communal filling of tamales during their Christmas tamalada or Anuradha Naimpally sautéeing red chiles and garlic in her "seasoning pot" for the evening meal, the customs and preparations have an appealing exoticism for those of us to whom they may be unfamiliar. And Gant is careful to tell the story of each family, to detail who these individuals are and where they come from and how they relate to each other, so as to draw us into what may be foreign traditions. Her photo of the whitewashed wooden hall where the Kallus family gathers for its annual reunion conveys a sense of the building's age and the heritage that goes with it, but in a helpful gallery guide the photographer further notes that the 88-year-old structure was built by Czech immigrant Alois Joseph Kallus, father of the oldest family member at this year's reunion.

Kallus Family Reunion, by Ella Gant

But Gant has also managed to convey the universality of these traditions. In every image of food being prepared, we can see a care on the part of the cooks that cuts across cultures. Marcelia Reyes' diligent stacking of tamales in her molcajete and Carrin Patman's meticulous braiding of dough as she shapes the Lucia buns are of a kind -- and a kind we all should be able to recognize, no matter our ethnic background. And for those who don't log enough time in the kitchen to pick up on that, surely Gant's photos of family members savoring these meals will spark some recognition. In the series on the Kallus Family reunion, an unidentified man is caught on the food line, loading his groaning plate with the care of a man building a house of cards; this spread is so appealing that he's determined to get every morsel he can. He is kin to Ruben Reyes, whom Gant captures in mid-bite and whose face radiates the relish he takes in this family feast.

When you push away from "The Welcoming Table," what you come away with is a sense of tradition being handed down, from mother to daughter, from father to son, from country to country, across years and years and miles and miles. It breeds a sense of awe that we as a race are able to preserve so much of our heritage that has meaning for us. And it's not all that different from the awe that is left by "Kosova24": an awe that people can suffer so much and still go on, like the shopkeeper in Burim Cena's photo, stooping over the steps before his business that was destroyed by war in Kosova, who is nonetheless rebuilding it, restarting it, going on.

Reyes Family, Christmas tamalada, by Ella Gant

The image that may best capture the spirit of these shows, the qualities of human perseverance and the continuity of life in the face of great change, is one of the few that doesn't feature a single human in it: Zana Bajrami's Flowers of the Sun, from "Kosova24." Tall stalks of wild sunflowers dominate the foreground of the photo, with the long, straight stems, profusion of dark leaves, and full, round blooms ringed by bright petals so large and lush as to be almost mesmerizing. Lurking behind the flowers, however, so obscured and indistinct as to be nearly unrecognizable, is a building that has been bombed, with massive shadowy holes in its walls and roof. Bajrami has provided a line of text to accompany the image: "They have grown even in the war."

Indeed. Blood will be shed, walls will crumble, people will be forced from their homes or abandon them for distant places, but the earth will continue to turn and the sun to shine and somewhere the flowers will continue to grow -- and little boys will continue to smile, and little girls will help their mothers cook the same supper that her grandmother helped her mother make. Life goes on. La la, how the life goes on.


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