hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Arts & Culture October 2021


Celebrating the world’s cultures

Collector aims to share art, promote global understanding


Justin Bibee sits among some of the objects from his collection of ethnographic art. He has created a no-cost loan program to display the works at libraries, schools and other institutions. Joan K. Lentini photo


Justin Bibee sits among some of the objects from his collection of ethnographic art. He has created a no-cost loan program to display the works at libraries, schools and other institutions. Joan K. Lentini photo


Contributing writer


Justin Bibee knew from an early age that the exploration of cultures beyond his own was something that intrigued him.

He got his first taste of it growing up in a multicultural neighborhood in Cranston, R.I.
“My best childhood friend was from Vietnam, and every time I entered his house I was introduced to new foods, music, language, art and colors,” he recalled. “It was my first cross-cultural experience. I was lucky to grow up that way.”

Bibee took his interest a step further in high school when he began collecting ethnographic art. Since then, through world travels including a two-year stint in the Peace Corps, Bibee has amassed a collection of more than 200 pieces: statues, textiles, jewelry and ceramics from across the globe.

“I love this type of art,” he said. “It has amazing stories from the cultures behind it. It’s often described as tribal or aboriginal, and most of it is made of wood, though there are ceramics, jewelry and textiles.”

The collection, he said, is an outgrowth of his love of global travel and his work with people of other cultures. And when he has the opportunity, he continues to buy more pieces from local artists he encounters in his travels.

Over time Bibee began to see his collection of art as more than a hobby. He knew it could serve as a bridge of sorts between the United States and obscure parts of the world where most Americans might know little about the local people and customs.

So last year, he set up the Justin Bibee Collection loan program. The project, intended to support education and cultural awareness, loans pieces of art from his collection for display at libraries, museums and schools. The loans are free of charge for several months or up to a year, and Bibee will deliver and later pick up the artwork at no cost to borrowers.

As the Covid-19 pandemic struck early last year, the loan program abruptly stalled before it really began, though Bibee created an online gallery where the pieces in his collection can be viewed.
This fall, though, works from Bibee’s collection will be given their first in-person exhibition at the Warwick Public Library in Rhode Island. The show presents a sampling of African art, including an A-Tshol headdress, a Baule Goli mask, a bronze Ife head and a beaded Bamum mask.

A focus on human rights

After graduating high school in 2006, Bibee earned a bachelor’s degree in justice studies from Rhode Island College. In the course of his education, he decided to pursue human rights work as a career.

In 2013, he was accepted into the graduate program at the School for International Training in Brattleboro on a community service scholarship. In his second year there, he was awarded a United Nations internship to work in refugee camps in Tanzania.

“I was the youngest member on the U.N. team and traveled to refugee camps to interview Burundian and Congolese refugees to better understand their livelihoods and financial needs,” he recalled.

Bibee’s experience in the refugee camps made a lasting impression. He based his master’s thesis on his time at the camps and also wrote two books about his time with the refugees: “To the Camps and Back” (2019) and “The Narrow Dirt Road: An Eyewitness Account of Refugee Life in Tanzania” (2021).

Bibee said it’s a little-known fact outside the culture of refugee camps that many of the residents remain for decades -- and that the camps function as small cities, complete with restaurants and other small businesses.

“Many residents are well off financially but have no support in fiscal management,” he explained. “I helped implement ways to protect the refugees’ money by getting them connected to banks.”
Before completing his master’s degree at SIT in 2018, Bibee spent two years, in 2014-16, on a Peace Corps mission in Morocco, where he volunteered as a teacher.

“I was instantly drawn to the Peace Corps when I learned about the work they do and how volunteers live in the community with the people, eating the same food, speaking the same language, and doing the same work,” he said. “It made me realize that our only differences are in our similarities.”

His Peace Corps mission inspired Bibee to write “Human Rights in the Classroom – A Guide for Educators,” which he said was the first human rights training manual to be accepted into the Peace Corps library and made available to Peace Corps staff and volunteers.

In 2015, Bibee also founded Humanac, a Moroccan volunteer-based human rights organization whose mission is to create better living standards for one’s community through various development projects.

“Through Humanac we were able to raise awareness about human rights with every community development project we implemented,” Bibee said.

Based on his work with Humanac, he has pushed to reform the 1961 law that established the Peace Corps as a permanent international service program.

“I wanted to adopt a strong human rights provision by establishing a human rights committee in every operating Peace Corps country,” Bibee said. “I hoped that Humanac would serve as an example of what a human rights committee would look like.”

He’s currently studying for a doctoral degree, with a focus on peace building and conflict transformation, from the International Centre of Nonviolence at Durban University of Technology in South Africa.

“I’m the only American in the Ph.D. peace-building program,” he said. “My research is focused on using peace education as a peace-building tool in the Western Sahara region, known as Africa’s longest conflict.”

Bibee continues to work with refugees as part of his doctoral studies, this time with Sahrawi refugees in Algeria. He also works at Pathways Vermont in Bennington, which focuses on human rights -- in particular, mitigating homelessness in Vermont.

“I lead a statewide homelessness intervention program called Rapid Rehousing,” Bibee said. “We work in finding short-term and permanent intervention and helped 340 families in the past year.”


Art and a global perspective
Bibee’s ultimate dream is to work at the United Nations.
“It’s hard for me to identify the exact moment I became interested in human rights,” he said. “I learned about the United Nations as a young student, and I knew that is where I wanted to work.”
Bibee has been designated as a human rights champion by the United Nations Association of the United States of America, or UNA-USA, which he serves as a member-at-large. He is a United Nations volunteer, which means he stands ready for deployment on human rights missions.
“As a Ph.D. student, I’m on the Academic Council at the United Nations System, where scholars come together to better understand and address the most pressing global issues of our time,” he said.

With the first in-person exhibition from his collection, Bibee said he is eagerly anticipating more collaborations with schools, museums and libraries throughout New England and beyond.
“The loan program is a way for me to contribute to a more peaceful world -- to raise awareness about other cultures,” he said. “When we share cultures, we have the potential to change negative stereotypes and attitudes.”

Ellen O’Brien, deputy director of the Warwick Public Library, said displaying works from the Bibee Collection will provide a great opportunity for patrons to learn about other parts of the world.
“We were struck by the beauty of the collection and the cultural aspect of it,” she said.
Bibee said he finds the art objects he has collected in other cultures are both intellectually and aesthetically pleasing.

“I’m just so captivated by it that I want to share it,” he said.

Visit bibeecollection.weebly.com for more information about Justin Bibee’s loan program for his ethnographic art collection.