Refugees as Artists

The Museum as Sanctuary: Giving Voice to Tucson's Refugees: Now through Sept. 15, Tucson Museum of Art

Like the Sanctuary Movement that started in Tucson in the early 1980s, the Hopi Foundation and its Owl and Panther project help provide refugees a safe haven. The project actually provides a refuge within a refuge by showing refugees affected by trauma and torture how to express themselves through poetry, art, drama, music and creative writing. This summer, the results of their efforts will be on display at the Tucson Museum of Art.

The Museum as Sanctuary: Giving Voice to Tucson's Refugees exhibit is a result of a 3-year-old partnership between the museum and the project. Works by children and families who have participated in the project will be displayed.

"Our refugees aren't typically museumgoers. They've been able to see that this is such a dynamic place; that it changes," said Marge White Pellegrino, manager of the Owl and Panther project.

Bright colors dominate much of the vibrant exhibit. An illustrated version of the owl and panther tale, from a Cherokee creation story, spans one wall. There's also a collage of watercolor desert landscapes.

"This collage comes from our experience at the (Desert) Grasslands exhibit at the Tucson Museum of Art," Pellegrino said. "We saw the exhibit, then we went out, we took photos, we took artifacts from the desert. Then we came back and we became artists inspired by first the art, and then physically being someplace."

The finished product is a collage of the watercolors that includes the photographs they were painted from.

"I'm really surprised that my favorite part is the desert scenes," Morgan Wells, the museum's curator of education, said. "It's really breathtaking. I wasn't sure about it, and how it was going to turn out ... but when it was hung, I knew it was my favorite."

The exhibit also includes self-portraits, photographs of the refugee artists and papier- mâché mystical creatures.

The papier-mâché creatures are animal hybrids, with the creatures given extra abilities. "You'll see a flying lion, a two-headed snake representing the good and the bad," said Marianna Pegno, the museum's community programs coordinator. Pegno researched folk tales from the cultures of the refugees involved in the project. Participants were encouraged to look into their culture's history for their creations.

"It's just really interesting how the ones who took it from their own culture are more meaningful," she said. "I know when I see the kids see it, I'm going to cry."

Museum officials said the most important thing the exhibit does is give the families involved a place to express themselves. "We're really giving them their voice," Wells said.

Pegno said participants, who are refugees from countries around the world, wrote descriptions of their work along with short biographies. "We kept all of that language in, how they wrote them," Pegno said. "I'm really excited to see how everybody else reacts. I really don't even know if I can pick a favorite until I watch how the families react."