By JOHN HOWELL
You can’t help but smile at a smile.
This one is wide, curling up at the corners of the mouth. You know this is a joyous smile. It’s reflected in the shape of the opening for the eyes. This is a mask, yet it is too small to cover a face, even a child’s face. It’s the size of a saucer. What was the artist thinking? What was he or she seeking to tell us? Was it simply to get us to smile; was it like music to carry us to some inner understanding about ourselves?
Justin Bibee believes this mask – and the scores of masks and figurines he has collected from the years he served in the Peace Corps and the United Nations in Tanzania and bought from estates, thrift stores, the internet and has been gifted – have the power to break down barriers, create bonds and open communications… to foster peace. He is bent on expanding and sharing his collection of ethnographic art to raise awareness of other cultures. There are some restrictions, however.
His wife drew the line when Bibee learned of an 11-foot statue for sale in New York. Where would they put it? Renting space wasn’t in the family budget.
Bibee is all about showing his collection.
“When we share culture, we have the potential to change negative attitudes and stereotypes – contributing to a more peaceful world. As well, I simply want to share the art that I find so intellectually and aesthetically captivating with my community,” he writes in an email following a recent interview at the Warwick Public Library. Bibee, a 2006 graduate of Cranston East who initially pursued engineering and quickly learned his passions lay elsewhere, blindly emailed libraries throughout the region inquiring whether they would host a sampling of his collection. He made it clear the library would bear no responsibility should a work be damaged or stolen, All he was seeking was an opportunity to share the power of these works. The Warwick Library was the only one to take him up on his offer. The display covers a wall and tables beyond the information desk.
It is extensive. It can’t be missed.
Bibee can’t be overlooked either. He stands a thin six feet seven inches tall.
Peace Corps service in Morocco
But first, before talking about the art, some background on Bibee. After attending CCRI, he went on to earn a degree in Justice Studies from Rhode Island College and then moved to Brattleboro, Vermont, in 2013 to attend graduate school at the School for International Training (SIT) where he studied peacebuilding. As part of his master’s degree, he served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco where he taught and founded Humanac, Morocco’s first-ever volunteer-based human rights organization. Morocco is also where he met his wife where she taught Americans Arabic and local culture and customs.
“I remember seeing her smile my very first day in Morocco, but we didn’t speak to each other until six months later when we both had training in Marrakech. There I asked her if she wanted to go for a walk, and we’ve been together ever since. We got married in Morocco in 2015.”
In 2017, he served an internship with the United Nations in Tanzania where he worked with Burundian and Congolese refugees on financial inclusion, establishing savings groups where refugees are able to pool their money to use as small loans amongst themselves, and also connecting refugees to banks in their host country – protecting their money and contribute to the local economy. Bibee spent time in the Nyarugusu, Nduta and Mtendeli refugee camps. Nyarugusu refugee camp is the third largest refugee camp in the world. While working with refugees, he wrote his thesis and graduated from SIT in 2018 with a master’s degree in peacebuilding.
On returning to Brattleboro, he worked with people experiencing homelessness and was elected to a three-year seat as the District 3 Town Meeting Member for Brattleboro. But Bibee was called away early in his term. In 2019, his human rights work took the couple to Hawaii where he worked with people living with HIV/AIDS.
After returning to Vermont in 2020, Bibee continued working with people experiencing homelessness as a statewide director for a homelessness intervention program funded by the CARES Act.
The opportunity to return to Rhode Island came the following year when his wife was offered a job at RISD and he landed at Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island as a refugee resettlement case manager. He works with Afghan, Syrian and Cambodian refugees. Concurrently he is a PhD student at Durban University of Technology in South Africa.
Power of art
Art and now collecting art speaks to him.
“I just love art,” he said with a sweep encompassing the library display that includes a giant porcelain blue and white vase from Japan that is juxtaposed between multiple carvings mostly of men and women. Some are rough cut; others are delicately carved including their clothing and head dresses. At the end of a table are what appear to be two ebony sticks about four feet high and smaller than a broomstick. Canes? Bibee urges a closer look. One is a male figure, the other female.
“Fertility,” suggests Bibee. He said many of the pieces are centered on fertility used in ceremonial rituals. Others have ancestral significance or are tied to times of the year – the harvest, for example – and to celebrate spiritual and culturally important dates.
“I’ve spent most of my early human rights career living in other countries conducting fieldwork. I’ve lived and worked in some remote places. While on human rights missions, I’ve always kept my eye out in search of local art. I have spent most of my career in different countries in Africa, so I’ve naturally been drawn to African art. I think it was more intuition than intellect. I think this because I am instantly captivated by ethnographic art for its aesthetic beauty. That will always be the first thing that captures my attention. Learning about the rich culture behind each piece is a privilege -- and that is the intellectual captivation,” Bibee said.
Bibee understood he was fascinated by art and how it could cross political divisions, language barriers and transcend cultural biases, but it wasn’t until the pandemic that he looked at his collection in a new light. It was more than a hobby, although he thinks of his collecting in those terms, it was also an entity that could be greater than a sum of its parts. It was a collection that when taken in its whole provoked insights and emotions. To use the analogy, it was a symphony with all pieces playing a part. He thought of composing that symphony and bringing it to the public. What’s more, he sees the display as a means of sharing culture and building peace.
There are also stories to each of the works. In some cases there’s scant information to the works other than how Bibee acquired them and where. He is looking to document the works and if possible their provenance. Bibee is hopeful of lining up additional displays, saying he’s willing to risk even losing pieces so as to share them.
“This is my addiction,” he confesses. “I have a problem; I love art.”
The library exhibit is on display until May 31.
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