Heather Layton and Brian Bailey have embraced the import and export of culture.
Layton, 36, a senior lecturer in art at the University of Rochester, and Bailey, 41, an assistant professor of adolescent education at Nazareth College of Rochester, are getting ready to pack their bags and head to Pakistan. Their mission: to establish long-lasting bonds over art and culture.
This is the couple's second journey abroad focused on cultural exchange. The trip to Karachi, Pakistan, echoes a trip they made in 2010 to Nagaland, India.
Layton had presented her work to a group of seven artists from South Asia who visited Rochester through a professional exchange program run by the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. The artists came from places she had heard of-except for Nagaland. Determined to learn more, she scoured the Internet.
"It really started with curiosity, I would have to say, and our conversations," Layton recalls.
Right after the presentations she spoke with Theja Meru, president of Rattle & Hum Music Society in Nagaland, who invited her to visit.
Layton agreed, but with much trepidation. U.S. government travel warnings listed Nagaland among the most dangerous places to visit. "On a scale of 1 to 10," she recalls, "it was always a 10-avoid all travel."
Switzerland of the east
Set against a backdrop of verdant rain forests, Nagaland is a state in northeastern India. Bordered by the state of Assam on the west and Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, on the east, it is inhabited by 16 major tribes and other subtribes. Each of these groups is distinct from the other in dress, customs and language, which finds its roots in the Tibeto-Burman linguistic group. Its people are musical and today are mostly Christian, moving away from the traditional Naga religion of animism.
The region has been isolated, historically and politically, from the rest of India. The state of Nagaland was created in the early 1960s; many Nagas believe it has subverted their right to independence. India's Armed Forces Special Powers Act, giving Indian armed forces extensive powers including the right to shoot to kill with legal immunity, led to bloodshed in the region. Cease-fire agreements were reached in the late 1990s, signed by some but not all groups, and now reports say Indian officials are open to peace talks.
As an Indian who grew up with close ties to the Naga people, I am distressed by how conflict can create big rifts. I have never thought of them as a separate group, seeing them as open, loving individuals with whom I sang in the choir, camped, went to dinner and shared laughs. My parents have close friends across tribes, and as professors they have taught many Naga students. Our home in India is filled with mementos from that area. But I know that many Indians have not had the experience I have, and perhaps there are Nagas who don't share this point of view.
Into this setting stepped Layton and Bailey, armed only with restricted-access permits, which allow stays for up to 10 days, documents that arrived just days before their flight to India.
Looking back, Layton finds her fears and misconceptions ridiculous, though she admits to finding it difficult to see men with machine guns.
"We'd be driving on the roads, and every so many miles there would be two men with machine guns, and out in the jungle," Layton says.
Aside from that, Layton and Bailey are exuberant about their experience. They attended several events and toured the area; Layton gave talks on her work to students and faculty at Nagaland University in the capital of the state, Kohima, and had an art exhibition. With a background in painting and drawing, she works across different media, but she also is known for her work in social intervention. It is a form of art that she describes as one with political undertones, designed to incite compassion and fuel change.
"It was overwhelmingly welcoming," Layton says of the response and the reason for the tears she shed on the last day of their trip. "It raised our bar for hospitality; we didn't know that people could be that kind."
Bailey, whose expertise lies in filmmaking as a form of literacy, discussed his research and took films made by Rochester youths across the border. He was instrumental in organizing the Glocal Film Festival, which showcased works by finalists from the 2010 Rochester Teen Film Festival, another Bailey brainchild, alongside creations from a group of young filmmakers called the Naga Head Hunters Entertainment Group.
"The Naga films were really incredible, some of the 3-D animation that they were doing," Bailey says. "We didn't expect to see (such) sophisticated filmmaking techniques in a place where we didn't know if we were going to be sleeping on dirt floors."
Rattle & Hum's Meru hoped Bailey and Layton's visit would continue to strengthen their friendship and the desire of the Nagas to have cross-cultural exchanges between India and the United States.
"My dream came much sooner than later, when (five) Naga filmmakers were invited to the USA last year to attend a film fest in Rochester, thanks to Brian and Heather," Meru says. "I hope this type of exchange only continues to grow."
Bailey hopes to expand opportunities for young Nagas here and to take young people from Nazareth to Nagaland to experience its annual cultural melange, the Hornbill Festival, which now features the Glocal Film Festival.
"To me, a cultural exchange is learning about other cultures and keeping an open mind about other cultures and teaching people about your culture," Bailey says. "That's the value of all this, and I think it's really important that we do more of that-engage the world in different ways other than just military and economics."
Thirst for more
Bailey and Layton hope to replicate their Nagaland experience in Pakistan. Once again, the couple will discuss their work at a conference, this time at the University of Karachi; they also will meet Pakistanis and invite them to visit here. Layton is working on a project titled "Letters to a new generation," which will feature 100 to 500 tan, bland fabric pouches one after another, hung on ropes, offering people a chance to write a letter to the next generation. Individuals can place letters in these pouches, but first they will need to turn them inside out, exposing colored fabric from different parts of the world.
"The idea is that little by little, one person, one wish at a time, we could transform the whole space from all bland to full of color," Layton says.
She adds: "Right now all the conversations are military and we feel even if it's dangerous for us to go, that it's our responsibility. We'll make only a tiny, tiny bit of difference. ... But that's better than nothing, I think."
Relations between Pakistan and the United States are strained. Though Layton and Bailey did not encounter any anti-Americanism in Nagaland, they might encounter it in Pakistan. Still, it does not shake their resolve.
"When there's unrest or there's strained relations, I want to be a representative of the United States who shows that we're a peaceful people and that we respect all religions and that we acknowledge that sometimes our government acts in its own self-interest and not always in the best interest of people all over the world," Bailey says. "I don't want to run away from that. ... I want to be someone who engages and tries to make the world a better place."
Smriti Jacob is associate editor of the Rochester Business Journal. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 585-546-8303.2/24/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email email@example.com.