Sunday, July 24, 2011

desert sky :: new mexico

i love mixing my long international trips with shorter visits close to home. so this past weekend my husband and i flew to santa fe and taos for a mini vacation. after landing at the aiport in albuquerque stepping out in the heat felt like stepping in the oven, 109 degrees. oy! it’s dry desert heat and not nearly as oppressive as the east coast heat combined with humidity. still coming from san francisco where the summers are freezing, it took us a while before we could breathe again.

we spent satuday at the international folk art festival. it’s an incredible gathering of artisans from around the world, the creativity and quality of work was just breathtaking. but to me one man stood out above all others. aboubakar fofana is a malian textile artist, using ancient african traditional weaving and dying techniques to create contemporary designs. the result is exquisite. beautifully simple fabrics, with small but lovely details, stunning dying patterns and color combinations. i’m beyond excited to visit his studio in bamako this december.

on sunday we left santa fe behind and drove to taos. the simplicity of the desert landscape was a welcomed relief from the busy visual and sensory overload of the market. the sky is ever changing, each time i looked up the clouds formed a new pattern. behind us dark clouds were forming and for a while the sky became as dark as if it was dusk. within minutes rain started pouring and witnessing a storm in the desert is an awesome experience.

driving from santa fe to taos takes one by el santuario de chimayo, a magical place steeped in history. for many, it’s an annual pilgrimage with the promise of curing all ailments, both physical and spiritual. for us, it was a place of wonderful traditions.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

cape town to port alfred :: south africa

cape town is beautiful. i have seen pictures of it before i arrived, but they didn't do justice to how majestic table mountain is, how nature is an integral part of the city, the little bays where beach after beach sprawl with white sand. the fog sits above the city and it cascades over the mountains, much like in san francisco. the presence of wealth is clearly visible by the huge villas on the hills overlooking well tended parks and beaches.  one wouldn't know it's africa at all, cape town on the surface looks affluent and peaceful. yet not a second passes without feeling the violent undercurrent of south africa, violence takes place here on a daily basis. each and every window has bars on it, the security measurements are out of control. everyone has a story and although some are more violent than others, none of them end well. 

i spent the next two weeks visiting job creation programs in cape town and up along the western coast. i visited different townships, farms and people's homes where mostly women have the opportunity to rise above poverty through the means of artisan projects.

as i made my way on the coast from cape town up to port elizabeth and then to port alfred, the scenery became more and more captivating. it's not unlike the california coast, at times i felt i was driving on hwy 1. as we veered away from the coast, the inland areas reminded me of europe in many places, except the occasional tall acacia trees that are so distinctly african.

most of these job creation programs are started by white women, women who for some reason or an other feel the need to help others. some may do it to better themselves or create a business, but most do it because of their innate need to help the less fortunate. what is also fascinating that these programs are almost all focused on creativity, be it knitting, beading, woodworking or weaving.

one common story that is told over and over again, is that when many of the women first show up asking to participate in a program, they are dirty, skinny, and overall miserable. after working for a while, earning a bit of money and being valued really changes them, they clean up, they hold their heads up high and they are proud of themselves because not only they are no longer invisible to society, but they are able to provide for their families and educate their children.

at the end of the two weeks, i was amazed and inspired by the perseverance of these women. the difficulties they face often seem unmountable, their situations seem hopeless, yet they find a way to get up each and every day to make their way to work and create beautiful objects and on most days with a smile on their face. we could certainly use some of that optimism and strength in our daily lives.

Monday, July 4, 2011

recycle, reuse, remake! :: ethiopia

i knew i wanted to visit the tribes of the lower omo valley in ethiopia for a long time, but what I didn't know was that one of the most memorable part of the visit was going to be their jewelry. after days of driving from addis abeba, honking through countless villages, herds of cattle and goats, winding our way through the mountains with unbelievable vistas, arriving to the edge of the great rift valley where one is humbled with seeing humanity's birthplace, then just driving on a dirt road in the heat of the valley, our excitement grew by the minute as we caught the first glimpses of the people.

our first stop was the tiny village of the dasenech tribe. nothing could have prepared us for the ambush that we received. as we got out of the car, we were immediately surrounded by what seemed like the whole entire village, young and old, man and women, the children and for good measures, some dogs. each of them wanted their pictures taken, all we heard, "me, me, me - photo, photo, photo", while dragging us in different directions, we were pinched and pulled and pushed, some more gently, some demanding. at times we just wanted to escape back to the safety of our car. but as the initial excitement died down and our guides were able to command some order, we were able to look at our hosts more carefully.

it was when i first noticed the incredible headdresses, necklaces, earrings they all wore. each piece was created by the force of imagination and creativity, using what they have available. and that is what makes this so unique, taking objects like beads, safety pins, old metal watch bends, bottle caps, metal rings, tops of cans, buttons, nails and mixing it with what nature offers in their land; shells, tusks, plants, feathers and bones. the result is unbelievable, each design is a distinct art piece that could stand on it's own. talk about the combination of ingenuity and creativity, not to mention recycling and reusing! after a couple of hours in the village, we left completely exhausted, a bit shocked but mainly exhilarated with anticipation to see more tribes.

for the next couple of days, we crissed crossed the lower omo valley, visiting the hamer, the mursi, the arbore and the ari tribes. each of these visits transpired very similarly to our first, the complete mayhem at the beginning and the eventual order that gave us the opportunity to spend some time with the villagers. when i asked if there are artisans who work in these places, i was told that each woman comes up with her own designs.

along the way, i also came across some of the women who were hammering away on a stone. they were working on the metal beads they use to stud the edge of their skirts and some of the pieces they wear on their chest. the studded edges reminded me of calleen corderos's beautiful work. the traditional clothing is mainly done from goat skin and they keep it soft by treating it with butter. if someone's skirt is not soft enough, it's frowned upon by other women. what i didn't ask was if wearing this jewelry was comfortable. looking at the women i couldn't help but wonder how incredibly uncomfortable if not painful wearing some of these things seem. but then again, we westerners also put ourselves through plenty of pain just to look beautiful.

the minute we left, i couldn't wait to return. i want to sit with the women so i can witness the process as they fabricate these unforgettable pieces. having traveled across africa, i'm well aware of the abilities and the beautiful work of the beaders throughout the continent. their beaded jewelry takes skill, patience and a large amount of creativity. the resulting work is exquisite. yet i can't help but feel that the creations of these tribes and the way they combine the traditional beading patterns with the modern materials as well as the objects from nature is perhaps without equal and is well worth a visit to these remote areas.