Contested Threads: Interview With Christopher Miller on Ukrainian Textiles and Mountain People

By Ülvi Gitaliyev

As the war continues in Ukraine with no end in sight, a new exhibit titled “Contested Threads: Textiles, Resistance & Identity Work in Western Ukraine” appeared in the Appalachian Center. It captures the art of thread weaving in Western Ukraine and its effects on the Carpathian Mountain culture and beyond. The exhibition includes real textiles, carpets, quilts, other materials from Western Ukraine and photos of the people in the region living their daily lives. Christopher Miller, the Associate Director at the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center and curator of the exhibit, sat down for an Interview with The Berea Torch to discuss his experiences in Western Ukraine and why he decided to set up the exhibit.

Miller himself does not have Ukrainian heritage, so his first experience with Ukrainian culture came in 2006.

“Back in 2006, a vice president from a university in Western Ukraine… was traveling through Appalachia because he’d heard that Appalachia was similar to the Carpathians and a friend of mine at Dalton State University, down in North Georgia, was one of his hosts partly, because both of their communities had were carpet manufacturing communities. And so, there was a connection there and they were trying to see if they could create a collaboration around the carpet industry in both areas. That didn’t ever work out, but he came to Berea and he did a very brief presentation about the Carpathian Mountains and what their students were like and what their university did.”

Miller spoke on how after this presentation, he became interested in Carpathian mountain culture and visited the region for the first of many times in 2008. During his visits, he would teach classes on tourism, meet with local textile makers and study aspects of Carpathian and Western Ukrainian culture. Many of the crafts shown on the exhibit were brought to Berea from Miller’s travels to Western Ukraine, though he tries his best to avoid goods made specifically for tourists.

When asked why he decided to open the exhibit, Miller said, “There’s just a teachable moment. People are interested in Ukraine. We have this material. We hadn’t been using it much recently. And then, I also felt strongly that sometimes people, because they may just listen to the news, they only hear about things like NATO or economics with Russian gas and energy and whatever that there were other dimensions to the conflict… And so because I do of the way I work, I produced this visual ethnography with images of people using textiles to do what I call identity work. If people use lots of patterns like how you have on your shirt today, you may have thought about it or maybe not, but you have some collection of them that you’ve acquired over the years during that period. Maybe you don’t even know why you like it [the pattern] or someone gave it to you or it’s a gift or whatever. But as a collection they do kind of represent things from your existence and from you. And so, I think what the images down there [the exhibit] are trying to do is just show that there’s an identity side of this conflict.”

Miller went on to clarify that his goal was a museum exhibitor is to boil down large passages into smaller, concise messages that is easily consumable for the public when they come in for a viewing. He says, “As a person who does museum exhibits and not academic papers as my primary mode of expression, my goal is usually to try to distill it down rather than expand on its complexity… It [the meanings] is much more complicated than that.”

Miller also spoke on the rise of global mountain studies, where the culture of mountain people, not just from Appalachia but all parts of the world, are analyzed. He notes there are differences and similarities between different people from different mountain regions.

“There are people who are shifting in a direction of global mountain studies, whether there is some similarity between highland peoples all around the world… It’s not lockstep. Geography is not destiny. Sometimes things don’t play out the same in different regions, but nonetheless, people from mountain regions often are stigmatized by the people outside that region as ‘backwards.’”

Lastly, Miller commented on how the people of the Carpathians view their relationship with the Soviet Union and recent history. He said, “Western Ukraine had a different history than Central or Eastern Ukrainian relative to Russia within the Soviet Union. Western Ukraine didn’t become part of the Soviet Union until after World War II… Other parts of Ukraine became part of the Soviet Union during the 20s. Western Ukraine was technically under Poland during the periods between World War I and World War II. They have a different experience relative to the Soviet Union than most and that really came out when I would travel the region and talk to people. They were very aware that their people have deeper roots in that area than other people who were displaced there from other parts of Ukraine. And so, there’s a mixture, both historically, and even in the contemporary; they were aware that their connection to the Soviet Union was different.”

The exhibit will stay open throughout the summer and into the first few weeks of the Fall 2022 semester. If you wish to learn more about the current exhibit, you can visit the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center website and read more here!

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