fall 2004
table of contents
Letter from the Editor
Articles Online

Scandal Patrol
Daughters Helping Working Mothers
Republican Women for Choice
Pregnant Women Murdered
San Francisco Women's Building
Sisters Who Sip


Haitians Fight Despair
Matenwa's Artists
Women with AIDS
Spanish Women in Charge
Gandhi Power
Afghan Women's Vote
Networking Corner

Cover Story
It's the Women, Stupid | Ellen Hawkes
Why the Gender Gap Matters | Eleanor Smeal
Fighting Words for a Secular America | Robin Morgan

More Features

The Unreal World | Jennifer Pozner
Virgin Territory | Camille Hahn
A Family Affair | Gillian Kane
Liv Ullmann: A Ms. Conversation | Robert Emmet Long
Liberating Mary | Bob Lamm


Where's That Smoking Gun? Sex discrimination is getting harder to prove | Pamela Haag

The Breast Cancer Divide: Why the disease kills so many African Americans | Michelle L. Smith, M.D.

A Feast of Feminist Art
"The Dinner Party" finds a home in Brooklyn | Carey Lovelace

Jamesey, Jamesey | Ursula Hegi
Intersection | Roxana Robinson

God Says Yes To Me | Kaylin Haught
| Donna Masini

Touching History
Encounters with women of renown: Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Hillary Clinton and Mamie "Peanut" Johnson

Book Reviews
Bob Bledsoe on The Finishing School by Murial Sparks; Valerie Miner on The Falls by Joyce Carol Oates; Samantha Dunn on The Doctor's Wife by Elizabeth Brundage; Carey Lovelace on Full Bloom: The
Art and Life of Georgia O'Keefe
by Hunter Drohojowska-Philp
; Patricia Cohen on Nightingales: The Extraordinary Upbringing and Curious Life of Miss Florence Nightingale by Gillian Gill

Plus: Fall Must-Read List

Save the Courts | Donna Brazile

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GLOBAL NEWS | fall 2004

The Artists of Matènwa
Painting scarves brings rural Haitian women money, pride and hope

Matènwa's scarf painters draw their imagery from history, mythology, the Bible, Vodou and memories of vanished flora and fauna / photo by Ellen LeBow

Life is very hard on La Gonave, a small off-shore island northwest of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Recent uprisings have severely reduced the supply of food, water and medical supplies, where they had barely existed at all.

Small plots of land that have been farmed for generations are slowly being destroyed by deforestation. Even the fish in the surrounding waters are dying as a result of land erosion. Women, who find themselves doing much of the labor as more and more men leave for the capital and other cities to find work, walk for miles to gather cooking sticks and to collect water from the few tapped springs across the island.

Thousands of children receive no schooling, or even a daily meal. But in the midst of all this shines a tiny splinter of hope: the artistic creations of the women of Matènwa, a tiny rural community buried in the island’s majestic mountains. With the help of American artist Ellen LeBow and the Matènwa Community Learning Center codirector, Chris Low, the women of Matènwa, known as Atis Fanm Matènwa, began making exquisitely colorful silk scarves for sale in the United States.

When they started this groundbreaking project, LeBow, Low and the women artists wanted to use local materials for their artistic creations. But the scarcity on La Gonave meant that anything that was remotely salvageable was already being used for survival.

The fact that the island can be reached only by rickety sailboats or ferries and a long ride up a rocky road also meant that they had to find materials easily transportable both to and from the tiny village. This led to LeBow and Low’s brainstorm of bringing silk from the United States for the women to use as canvases.

“The goal was to encourage self-respect and independence,” says LeBow, “using methods of self-sufficiency without upsetting a fragile balance, or using up limited natural resources like firewood and water.”

The project also gave the women — who were often too consumed by the rigorous struggles of daily life even to rest, much less spend time on aesthetic endeavors — a chance to learn a creative skill, which they could then teach to others.

Thus began a small, locally run artisans’ collective in which a group of women began to handpaint their own visions on picturesque silk scarves.

“It is low-tech,” says LeBow, “an excellent vehicle for artistic expression, not breakable or heavy to ship. And scarves are a traditional accessory women in Matènwa wear and understand.”

The women artists of Matènwa draw their designs freehand, which sometimes leads to small imperfections that make even the more sedate scarves highly original.

photo/Ellen LeBow

The designs are drawn with a clear liquid resist on 100-percent silk, then painted with nontoxic silk paint, which is set with the same type of charcoal-fueled irons the women use in their own homes. The images on the scarves are drawn from Haitian history and mythology as well as from other spiritual sources, such as the Bible and the island’s indigenous religion, Vodou.

The women also use images of Haitian fauna and flora, some of which has long since disappeared. As a result of the project, many of the women who might have left their homes for an even more difficult life in the slums of the capital are staying with their families. Many of the village youth are now considering careers in craft-making and other visual arts, as the Matènwa Art center continues to expand.

Consequently, some young adults have started making jewelry, sequined Vodou flags and children’s silk outfits, which are sold in the United States by LeBow and Low through a network of friends, art shows and craft fairs. The women artists use some of the proceeds to help their families, while also stimulating the local economy with their newfound ability to buy from local vendors.

They can now provide such basics as food, water, shoes, medicine and school books for their children, of which they were in dire need. The rest of the proceeds are then reinvested into the art co-op, so that more art materials can be purchased toward new projects.

“I hope that women around the world will flaunt these scarves and jewelry with pride, to support the efforts of their Haitian sisters and to increase the pride these Haitian women are starting to feel as newfound artists of Matènwa,” says Low.

“I was happy when this project reduced hunger in the lives of these women, but I was even more moved watching their selfconfidence grow as capable women. I’ll never forget the day a group of visitors came to the art center and bought several scarves. Once the group left, the women re-enacted the scene, exclaiming, ‘Did you see how they ran to our scarves!’ and ‘Before I was nothing. Now I can say that I am an artist!’”

To order a scarf or participate in this project as a volunteer artist or teacher, please contact Ellen LeBow or Chris Low at Lbo@cape.com or chriswlow@aol.com.

Edwidge Danticat was born in Haiti and came to the United States at age 12. She is the author of several books, including Breath, Eyes, Memory, an Oprah Book Club selection, and Krik? Krak!, a National Book Award finalist. Her most recent novel, The Dew Breaker, was published in 2004.

Also in this issue, Jacqueline Charles reports on Haiti's poverty and the status of women.

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