After years of seeking the source of my burnout in 2014, I was able to name the forces that pressured me to achieve, fit in, and seek perfection. Only in the last year have I recognized the oppressive system of white supremacy as the unifying thread. The extrinsic and intrinsic messages held me in a gridlock of extreme behavior, labels, and mentality about my worth, and kept me distracted from seeing a bigger picture.
When I first learned about epigenetics, I was struck by the fact that my maternal grandmother (who died before I was born) carried me in her womb as an egg inside my fetus mother. I learned that the lived experiences of our ancestors can affect the way inherited genes are expressed, in some cases as trauma responses that do not always make sense.
If my grandma experienced trauma that she was unable to talk about, might that explain some of my own emotional struggles? This question inspired my first outdoor public art installation.
“Unweaving” explores the ways tradition, culture, communities, and individuals are unwoven when we are disconnected from our ancestral history, when we do not know our stories, or when truths are suppressed, and how a different kind of intentional unweaving can set us free.
I created four temporary structures near the Lakewalk in Duluth, each honoring a family member who lived through the Karelian Red Exodus. The Exodus is a little known period during the Great Depression when nearly 6,000 Finnish Americans left the Upper Midwest and Lake Superior region for Karelia, Russia, to help build a utopian Finnish-speaking society that never came to fruition. My ancestors found a way to return to the U.S. before Stalin’s Purges began in 1937, but they were shamed into silence about those three years.
The hopeful yellow structures are armatures for the woven rag-rug tapestries that are visibly frayed and disconnected from the full family fabric. The swaying strips of weft hang down to define the space within the structure that is at once sheltered and exposed — a place to contemplate one’s history. The structure is a manifestation of the space I created within myself to reckon with what had felt, for years, like my own unraveling.
In knitting, one continuous thread is looped through itself again and again to create a cloth. If that thread is cut at any point within that fabric, the entirety will unravel. Weaving, on the other hand, consists of many threads moving in different directions, creating opportunity for mending.
When I started this project, I sought facts about my grandmother’s Russian story, believing it would draw a line from the unexplained emotions I was holding in my body to the unresolved emotions of hers. Researching her history created a new framework around the unknown, but no new facts emerged. Instead, the physical process of building and weaving this project enabled me to see that I have been unweaving the fibers of my identity for years without grasping a larger context. The same forces of dominant white culture that pushed me to seek a mirage of perfection forced my grandmother to assimilate and bury her story.
By embracing the concepts of epigenetics and ancestral memory, my interpretation of inherited story allowed me to make better sense of myself.
In my experience, knowing wholeness comes from knowing what it means to be un-whole. It is through both the physical motions and the conceptual notions of weaving that I began to understand the complexity of my humanity.
My creative process is a moving meditation where my mind quiets, free from self-judgment, with every skill and experience at the ready. My hands and my body lead the way to resting points of contemplative perspective. A mirror of myself, a reflection of how all of the fibers have determined this moment, and opportunity to adjust again and again.
At a time when the entire world feels broken, when our country is divided, and a pandemic requires that we separate even further, we have an opportunity to get to know our true, whole selves. Face what you want to avoid, surrender to it, and re-evaluate what you thought you knew about yourself. Ask why. Embodying this kind of journey is the hardest and most important work of our lives, and I believe it can lead us to be whole in ways we never knew before.
Tia Keobounpheng (she/her) is a multi- disciplinary artist and co-founder of Silvercocoon. See November’s GoSeeDo calendar for details about her newest work “Past Present.” Details: tiakeoart.com, silvercocoon.com, newstudiogallery.com