WOMEN’S EMPOWERMENT AT IFAM
By Adele Oliveira
In a world literally and figuratively on fire, what’s the value of making art? In addition to being inherently unanswerable, this question is age-old and often rhetorical. But for women artists who participate in IFAM each summer, the question has practical implications for their day-to-day lives.
For artists at this year’s new Women’s Empowerment tent, craft intersects with life in meaningful ways — through improved financial stability, educational opportunities for their children, the ability to help their communities, and the ability to preserve traditions and pass them along to the next generation. These artists — three of whom are featured here — embody what it means to live alongside art, and to create in times of both levity and darkness. They share an understanding that art is one of the things that can carry us through.
Lesia Ponia, an embroidery artist and head of the Pokuttya Folk Art Cooperative in Ukraine, recalls the morning of February 24, 2022, in stark, chilling clarity. “We all woke up early morning, 5:30 a.m., from hard explosions,” she wrote in an email. “And our life was divided into before and after. First few days we were shocked and feel very hopeless; it’s like you can’t work and are only waiting for news. Then you are shocked and angry — why, for what should innocent people lose their lives, why our kids instead of preparing for — Lesia Ponia, embroidery artist head of the Pokuttya Folk Art Cooperative in Ukraine school exams have to stay in shelters. Then you just accept the reality and start doing your best in the current situation, give your help where possible.”
In times of relative peace, Ponia and her seamstresses make traditionally embroidered garments, such as voluminous peasant-style blouses, plus other textiles and home decor. Embroidery is an ancient folk art in Ukraine; in centuries past, a person’s home region could be determined by the designs embroidered on their clothes. At the moment, Ponia and her team have shifted their efforts to sewing protective vests for soldiers fighting elsewhere in the country. She says that the civilian effort is well organized, with some volunteers helping to move cargo while others assist with things like housing logistics for evacuees.
Currently, Ponia is with her two daughters in Lviv, her hometown, a city in the western part of Ukraine, where the fighting isn’t as bad. Still, it’s dangerous — Ponia noted that seven civilians were killed and another 11 injured by shelling shortly before Easter. She explained that when the war started, she felt paralyzed, unable to think of anything other than news from the front. “I am afraid that the war will not end soon,” she wrote. “Irpyn, Bucha, Kramatorsk, Mariupol . . . hundreds of civilians tortured, raped, killed, hard to believe that humans can do it to other humans.” Preoccupation with
“We all woke up early morning, 5:30 a.m., from hard explosions, and our life was divided into before and after. First few days we were shocked and feel very hopeless; it’s like you can’t work and are only waiting for news. Then you are shocked and angry — why, for what should innocent people lose their lives, why our kids instead of preparing for school exams have to stay in shelters.”
the war and its ensuing trauma was such that for a long time, “I didn’t even take the needle into my fingers.” But “now I can, and to say the truth it even helps not to think about reality, it’s like you have your common life. Art for survive.”
At the time of our interview, in late April, Ponia was planning to come to Santa Fe for IFAM in July. Her situation is in flux and subject to change, but she hopes to travel to the U.S. from Poland or another nearby country. She noted that the “hundreds” of messages she’s received in the past few months from “our whole IFAM family were such a big support, just to feel you are not alone.”
In Egypt, the women of the Tally Assuit Women’s Collective (TAWC), new to the market this year, gather in their homes to weave Assuit cloth, also known as tulle bi telli or al tally. Assuit cloth, named for the city where it originated, is made by weaving cotton or linen tulle with metal thread (tally) into a supple, shimmering fabric that ripples and moves with the body. In Egypt, it was traditionally used in Berber bridal wear. It first became popular in the West around the time of the uncovering of King Tut’s Tomb in the 1920s, when flappers and movie stars alike embraced the fluid, sparkly style. With the advent of polyester thread and its growing popularity during the postwar era, Assuit production declined. TAWC aims to revive and preserve the art form, via women in families who’ve practiced it for generations, handed down from mother to daughter.
Traysi Ewayan, a New Zealander living in Cairo, works with TAWC. She wrote in an email that TAWC provides artists with a stable wage, even during times of political, social and economic instability. “The women suffer through bouts of low tourism and lack of money to buy fabric and metal,”
Ewayan explained. “There has been a big shift in the local market to use the fabric in handicrafts and home wares in high-end stores for Egyptians rather than [from] the overseas market. This has helped some of the bigger tally houses but doesn’t always trickle down to many.”
TAWC provides its artists with materials and orders. They complete the work at home on their own schedules. Sarah, a 20-year-old university student, is among those representing the collective at the market this year. She uses some of her earnings for books and other educational expenses. The 46 women who comprise the collective range in age from 16 to 70 and thus have different life experience and needs, but their connection to Assuit, and the discipline and skill it requires, unites them.
Textile designer Terri Hendrix, based in California, is another TAWC partner. “For many, making Assuit is about both the social interaction and the opportunity to earn their own money,” she wrote. “It generates money for their families, and it’s a way of connecting to their past; their mothers and grandmothers made and wore Assuit.”
The Maasai people, of Tanzania and Kenya, have made beaded objects for centuries. These include jewelry — earrings, anklets and necklaces — and intricately decorated household items and tools, such as walking staffs. Traditionally, Maasai women made beads using what they found around them, in modern times including scrap metal, wire, discarded plastic and leather.
Sidai Designs, a jewelry and home decor company founded in Tanzania in 2011, aims to marry aspects of traditional Maasai design, color, form and craftsmanship with contemporary aesthetics and materials (such as
imported beads and sterling silver) to appeal to a discerning, modern, international market. Using clean, geometric lines and stark contrasting colors (often black and white), the company makes items like elegant beaded leather cuffs and beaded wooden mobiles strung with cowrie shells. What began more than a decade ago as a small business with only a few employees is now an organization with significant reach, one that aims to improve the lives of the women it employs while preserving ancient techniques and art forms.
“Maasai beaders’ market access is often reliant on travelers looking for an affordable one-off tourist buy,” explained Sidai Designs director Eszter Rabin in an email. Sidai pays for materials for pieceworkers upfront and provides them with consistent income, alongside the flexibility to travel home as needed — often to remote villages — and to care for children and fulfill other obligations. Full-time employees get health insurance for themselves and their families, and all beaders have access to a range of social programs, addressing things like women’s health and education. Rabin also noted that the company responds to needs in the community, including providing food for 700 Maasai people during COVID and recently distributing 200 reusable menstruation kits to girls in Maasai villages.
Climate change (including longer, more intense droughts) and capitalism/globalization (including the growth and sprawl of cities and farmland) are two of the powerful, multidimensional forces encroaching on traditional Maasai homelands and ways of life. “Our mission is to preserve this tradition by showing that it is possible for Maasai women to enjoy sustainable employment from their craft,” Rabin wrote. “By using our knowledge of modern design to enhance Maasai beadwork, we create international demand for these handcrafted designs that we hope will ultimately inspire the next generation of beaders.”
Writer Adele Oliveira was raised in Santa Fe and lives here with her family.
Santa Fe New Mexican