The Women Artists of Matenwa, Haiti
By Ellen LeBow

Matenwa is a small, rural Haitian community in the mountains of Lagonav, an island in Haiti's large bay. This village has survived for generations by farming small family plots in the mountains.

Life on Lagonav is spare and hard.

Poverty forces deforestation, which ruins the balance of nature, eroding away the topsoil-which in turn washes down to the sea, killing off fish.

Women children and donkeys travel miles to collect precious water from a scattering of mountain streams.

There is a constant struggle to afford rice, fuel and medicine.

It becomes more and more difficult to survive by doing things the old ways.

Women, who do much of the labor and raise the children, battle to keep their families fed, often depending on other family members or men who have less and less work as traditional farming methods fail.

Two years ago, the director of a local school., together with an American artist, tried to find a way to tap the great creativity of the women of Matenwa, to focus on something these women could make and sell.

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

By learning a creative skill and developing a small locally-controlled artisan's collective, the community might begin to break a downward spiral caused by an exhausted economy and political neglect.

The idea to hand-paint their own brilliant imagery on silk scarves seemed a viable solution. It is low-tech, and an excellent vehicle for artistic expression, not breakable or heavy to ship. And scarves are a traditional accessory women in Matenwa wear and understand.

Using picturesque images drawn from their own culture and history, the Women Artists of Matenwa paint stories from their lives, from the Bible, from the Vodou religion, and from memories of flora and fauna that are disappearing from their world.

The artists draw their designs free-hand on 100% silk scarves, with a clear liquid resist. Non-toxic dyes are then brushed between the lines. Afterwards, the colors are set with old-fashioned irons fueled with charcoal. The resist is then washed out, leaving a clean, white line separating beautiful fields of color.

Images can be repeated for wholesale orders, but because they are all drawn and painted free-hand, no two are exactly alike. Given the nature of the process, small imperfections add to the character of each piece.

Life for the Atis Fanm Matenwa (Women Artists of Matenwa) has already changed for the better. They are making money and are proud of their growing skill as silk artists.
All of them feel more in control of their destiny.

Some of the younger women are seeing for the first time that there may be creative alternatives, choices beyond watching their land deplete, choices beyond having children just so a man might offer support for a while, choices beyond abandoning the village they grew up in to try to survive in the cruel and crowded slums of Port-au-Prince.

This year the women are going to train another group of their neighbors to pain on silk. Our hope is that this is the beginning of a village-wide renaissance. Our hope is that before long, many people will know and appreciate the work of the Atis Fanm Matenwa.

Scarves can be ordered by contacting:

Ellen Lebow

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