Makiarte

The Art of Handcrafts

The name is the destiny, or so the old Latin proverb, “nomen est omen” makes us believe, and it certainly rings true for Makiarte. Taking its name from the Quechua word for 'hand' and the Spanish word for “art,” Makiarte fuses traditional ethnic craft techniques with contemporary taste and high-end product quality. For Shelly Batt, the driving force behind the project, however, Makiarte serves first and foremost a different purpose: That of a catalyst for a positive change in the artisans' lives, and, as a consequence, also in their families and wider communities.

The adventure of what would become Makiarte started just over six years ago when Shelly decided that it was not only time to improve her Spanish, but also to “make a difference.” A regular volunteer at the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market, she traveled to Peru's remote highlands, an area still marked by the former Sendero Luminoso's reign, in order to find artisans who had “that special something” quality to their work.

Through a combination of determination, compassion, perseverance, basic Spanish, trust and a grain of toughness and western business discipline, she found the first of her raw diamonds: a wood carver dedicated to creating fine hand-crafted products using traditional techniques, local materials and designs, and whose every piece is a testament to his unique style and creativity.

Initially, the artists and their communities were weary of her. Why had that blond Gringa come to such a lost place in the Peruvian highlands? Why would she care to track down artisans? And worse: Why was she talking predominantly to male artisans, but hardly ever to the women of the community?

Despite the initial hurdles, misunderstandings, the suspicious voices from within the community, and some patronizing attitudes on both sides, cultural clashes between acquired complacency and American work ethics gradually gave way to collaboration and a common vision. Strangely, the historic Inca social rules turned out to be the bridge joining what seemed to be the most difficult thing initially: Sketching out reliable, and for both sides, productive and acceptable foundations for a collaboration, notably in order—as a foreigner—not to fall into the eternal trap of being overly naïve but friendly instead, flexible but not overly so. Where Inca policy plainly required from their citizens “don't steal, don't lie, don't be lazy,” Shelly and her artists mutually agreed to a more business-oriented, yet equally unequivocal version: keep your word, show up on time, deliver your order on the given day. No doubt, seasoned development workers would cringe when confronted with a similar, seemingly radical approach in collaborating with Peruvian indigenous communities.

The approach, however radical or untraditional, was successful. Makiarte has since developed into a conglomerate of currently seven associated Peruvian artists. And Shelly's relationship with the artisans has grown to be one of peers talking at eye level--full of mutual respect and admiration, personal, up front and honest, and driven by the motivation to progress and to succeed in offering the world something unique and beautiful.

Each artisans is a highly accomplished specialist of a traditional Peruvian handicraft discipline: horn carving, wood carving, weaving, knitting, macramé, and plaster figures and retablos, the latter decorative boxes depicting Peruvian cultural traditions that evolved from the creation of portable religious altars. All the artists share a common denominator: the poverty and political suppression Peruvian Indios, notably in the rural central highlands, keep experiencing in their daily lives: education is scarce and lacking in quality, jobs are hard to come by, public infrastructure remains vastly insufficient, the land barely gives enough to subsist. But it is these experiences and their very personal stories of hardship have formed them into the artists they are today. Who are they, the Makiartists, the individuals behind their art?

The youngest is Wilber Huaman Ciprian, the woodcarver. Single, without a “proper” job and in his later twenties. He is the first, original Makiartist and works the longest with Shelly. He has recently decided to invest some of his earnings into planting trees to secure affordable raw material and the future of his business. He even managed to obtain a 10-year visa to travel to the United States.

In contrast, the most seasoned member of the group, Lider Rivera Matos, is a specialist in horn carving, a skill he learned from a fellow inmate in 17 long years confined to one of Lima’s prisons because of his political beliefs. It is common practice in Peru for men and women in prison to work with crafts and earn money this way, which then is sent to their families. In Lider's case the money supported his son’s upbringing. Now in his mid-40s, his skill and sense of beauty not only earns him a living since his release from prison, but he will also see his son receive a university education.

Then there is Victor Huaman Guittierez, who had to leave school early because of extreme poverty: Severely abused himself, three of his eight siblings died of malnutrition. He is a remarkable artist who has overcome his past by telling his story in the form of retablos. Now at 32 years of age, he has decided to return to school in hopes of one day becoming an art teacher, as well as an artist.

The first of two couples that are members of Makiarte are Alberto and Ilda Quispe Acuna, two of the only few remaining practitioners of ancestral Indio weaving and knitting techniques at a quality on par with the best their ancestors produced. They have managed to refocus their income stream honing their weaving skills, rather then entirely depending on subsistence farming, and are now able to send their daughter to preparatory school for the state university.

And finally, the second team includes Katherine Melina Alban and Ivan Serrano Ricaldi. Their macramé always meant more to them then cashing in upon naïve tourists just to make a living. The most recent addition to the Makiarte conglomerate, they are now in the process of settling down and approaching their art in a more structured manner.

In addition to striding ahead in their art, creativity and the quality of their products, the Makiartists have spent the past six years developing skills such as good business practices, work discipline, money management and learning basic English. They are now ready to take on the world and enter the global market place. This year alone they have been accepted to participate in several prominent craft markets and shows in the United States, among them La Jolla in California, Heard Museum in Arizona, and the Highland Park in Chicago, and they have also set their sights firmly on facing the crowds at Paris' famous Maison d'Objet. They know: the time has come for them to shine.

To find out more about Makiarte and its artisans, please go to: http://www.makiarte.com/ (live from late November 2011) or email Shelly Batt directly: shellybatt49@gmail.com.
Pamela Ravasio is an ethical fashion journalist and consultant, and the publisher of the Award winning eco fashion Blog 'Shirahime 白姫' (http://shirahime.ch).

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