Wednesday, March 8, 2017

A Step Forward - A Solola Tale

Several years ago, on one of my many trips to Guatemala, a friend and I decided to head to a cooperative we knew about which was located in the city of Solola.  This workshop was known for the hand-dyed and woven chenille scarves it produced. My intent was (and I did) to purchase gifts for my nieces and business colleagues. While there, we were also shown a series of small pen and watercolor paintings that an artist had left in hopes of possibly selling a few. For that artist, it was an unlikely venue to do so. Cooperatives like this one do not receive a lot of foot traffic. Typically I wouldn't purchase a jumbo postcard sized illustration. But at the time, I knew that if I did, the money earned by this artist could feed a family for a week. I could make a difference.  To this day, I do not know if the artist who created this work is a woman or a man.
I remember thumbing through several small paintings. My friend & I each selected one. I'm certain I chose this "outsider art" piece, because the characters shown had facial features (eyes, nose) and also were wearing traditional clothing of which you could see some details. This image illustrates indigenous people farming. Obviously they are poor - neither character has shoes. At the time, the positioning of the people reminded me of ancient Egyptian art. Although we should be seeing these character's profiles, their eyes stare at us.  We know their feet are moving them toward the left of the frame. But what we see is the top of their feet. Even though the piece is very cartoon-line, it expresses so much. (Do I sound like an Art Historian? I actually earned a B.A. in History of Art at the University of Michigan.) 
And this is where my analysis of this artwork began and ended. Until today. Since the time I purchased it, it has been propped up against some books on the shelves of my library. I glance at it often without giving it significant thought. This morning with International Women's Day on my mind, I approached this piece quite differently. All of a sudden I noticed that the woman is standing behind the man. He has a hat. She is not shielded from the sun. Her hoe is embedded in the ground and her head is tilted as she works the field. He holds his tool, but is not actually using it.  What the painting illustrates to us is the woman is one step behind the man and in this rendition of life in Guatemala, the man is positioned in a superior position. This is a light bulb moment.
I have been traveling to and working in Guatemala since 1989. I've spent years developing a fair trade business that has diligently supported and sustained a community of mostly female artisans. Dunitz & Company has made a difference for this community. Guatemala is a poor country and most farmers and artisans are without opportunity. Often their daily labor is not enough to cover necessities. The painting I have shared above illustrates just that. It was painted by a Guatemalan showing how they see themselves and their daily existence. We know fair trade makes a difference in the way people live. We also know according to the UN and Oxfam, that a majority of those growing and producing the world's food are women. Whether someone is picking coffee beans in Guatemala or tea leaves in Sri Lanka, when you purchase fair trade, you know the people working in the fields are earning living wages and can feed and educate their children. I realize I'm preaching a bit. Nothing changes overnight. By changing our purchase habits, even a small bit, we can make it a better world. If you decide to purchase fair trade cotton sheets next month or fair trade coffee always, these choices will trickle down to improving lives globally. Today is about taking steps to champion gender parity. If you are reading this, I implore you to begin changing your purchase habits...even just a little bit. And I hope next time I find a cluster of small paintings in Guatemala, the woman and man will be shown as equals and they both will be wearing shoes.-ND