Arts & Entertainment

Past and Present Meet Through Art at University of Chicago

C.J. LindThe Welcome Blanket exhibit at the University of Chicago's Smart Museum of Art seeks to highlight the struggles of immigrants in the United States.

Walking into the brightly lit corridor of the exhibit hall and being greeted with the vibrant array of quilts and blankets covering the walls, I assume I’m experiencing somebody’s local handiwork.

At one of the tables lays a few lonely strands of red yarn, several of which are collected to form various shapes and designs. But on the corner of the table sits a book opened to the entries of numerous people. It’s dozens of letters sent by families who share a similar story about history, hardship and finding home in America.

These are the forgotten masses that have defined America’s culture for generations – shaping and molding it into the melting pot that describes our country today. Their quilts are all handmade by contributors telling their own stories. Each letter shows the love that people of different backgrounds and traditions have for each other. Thousands of stories lie before my eyes, and I realize that this is the message “Welcome Blanket” is communicating.

“Welcome Blanket” is an exhibit at The Smart Museum of Art created by feminist artists Jayna Zweiman and Judith Cohen. Zweiman was previously responsible for a similar crafting project, which distributed thousands of handmade hats to the participants of the Women’s March on Washington last year. Cohen has had a powerful artistic career, developing works such as “The Dinner Party” and “The Holocaust Project.” Though both of these women are active feminist artists, their work doesn’t solely focus on the rights of women, but, human rights as a whole.

“Welcome Blanket” is a project that surrounds the immigration crisis and the injustice of geographic relocation. It features the art of thousands of families in America that have donated brilliantly colored blankets, accompanied by personally written messages describing their family’s immigration stories. These messages are the blanket-makers’ way to have a conversation with the immigrants to which these blankets will eventually be sent. Visitors can also write their own message on a notecard to be displayed in the museum. To those artistically inclined, you may sew your own creation. According to Cohen and Zweiman, the amount of string among all the quilts will reach up to 2,000 miles by the end of the project, which is the proposed length of the border wall between Mexico and the United States.

Cohen and Zweiman created this exhibit not only to communicate the severity of the immigration crisis today, but to emphasize human rights and civil engagement and educate those visiting the museum. With only a handful of immigration stories making the news, sometimes this information is hard to come by on the internet. The most powerful way to learn more about these issues might be through first-hand stories, which this exhibit showcases.

Witness a visual history that features a collection of more than 3,000 handcrafted quilts — of which more are being sent — and immerse yourself in a show that brings the global issues surrounding immigration into one cohesive experience.

“Welcome Blanket” is a free exhibit and is open through Dec. 17. The Smart Museum of Art is located at 5550 S. Greenwood Ave. on the University of Chicago’s campus.

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