Diplomatic Pouch / September 19, 2014
By Larry Luxner
Latvian tapestries made with amber threads and traditional Sami handicrafts from northern Sweden competed for attention during a binational art exhibit that opened Sept. 3 and continues through Sept. 21.
The free show, open to the public at Washington’s House of Sweden, is a joint effort to mark the selection of Latvia’s capital, Riga, and the Swedish city of Umea as the 2014 European Capitals of Culture.
“Every year, two European cities are designated by the EU as European cultural capitals, and this year, Riga and Umea won,” said Björn Lyrvall, Sweden’s ambassador to the United States. “This is an opportunity to shine a light on the cultural life of these particular cities. There are concerts, festivals and conferences, and various new buildings erected to show the diversity of European cultures.”
Yet Latvia and Sweden are bound by more than just geography and the Baltic Sea.
“If you go way back in time, 400 years ago Latvia was actually part of the Swedish Empire, and Riga was the largest city in Sweden,” Lyrvall told the Diplomatic Pouch. He spoke to us following prepared remarks delivered at the exhibit’s inauguration party, which was attended by about 300 people. “Thousands of Latvians found their way to Sweden during the Soviet occupation of Latvia, so we have lots of personal and political contacts. We’ve also been supportive of Latvia’s membership in the EU.”
Sweden’s exhibit, “Sami Crafts of Soul, Hand and Mind,” features hand-sewn garments, footwear and jewelry made by the indigenous Sámi peoples who inhabit northern Norway, Finland and Sweden, and parts of Russia. It also includes a short documentary by Swedish artist Maria Axelsson and filmmaker Oskar Östergren describing the textile culture and the eight seasons of Sápmi — the land of the Sámi peoples.
The Latvian exhibit, titled “Vibrations of Amber Threads,” showcases the work of textile artist Iveta Vecenane and is part of the Latvian Embassy’s Riga 2014 cultural program. Last year, she wove the world’s first fabric made of amber threads, creating, in her words, “a vibration that cannot be expressed in words.”
Vecenane, 52, studied at the Latvian Academy of Art and is a member of the Association of Latvian Textile Artists. At the House of Sweden, 15 of her tapestries are on display, bearing colorful names such as “Veiled in Fog,” “The Awakening,” “Meadow” and “The White Horse.” Her work has also been exhibited throughout Latvia as well as in the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Lithuania and Russia.
“It’s very enjoyable to have two northern European embassies in Washington cooperate on an exhibit,” said Andris Razans, Latvia’s ambassador to the United States. “Our two countries have been very closely tied for centuries. Sweden financed the translation of the Bible into Latvian, and we also extended loans to Swedish kings. Today, we have extremely close political and economic relations.”
The event happened to coincide with a speech by President Obama earlier that day in neighboring Estonia, where he won a sustained round of applause from Baltic leaders after declaring that “the defense of Tallinn and Riga and Vilnius is just as important as the defense of Berlin and Paris and London.”
The European City of Culture program was launched in 1985 with Athens chosen as the first title-holder, followed by Florence, Amsterdam, Berlin, Paris, Glasgow, Dublin and Madrid. In 1999, the program was renamed and expanded to include more than one city per year. Former recent European culture capitals include Turku, Finland, and Tallinn, Estonia (2011); Guimarães, Portugal, and Maribor, Slovenia (2012), and Marseille, France, and Kosice, Slovakia (2013).