Carnegie Museum exhibit weaves tale of empowered women

| Saturday, Jan. 26, 2013, 9:59 a.m.

At the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, visitors can see the artistic result of what international women can do when they band together, and turn their creative talents into income.

“Empowering Women: Artisan Cooperatives that Transform Communities” — a traveling exhibit on display in the Oakland museum's R.P. Simmons Family Gallery — shows the craft works of female artists from 10 countries in Africa, Asia and South America who united to form grassroots cooperatives to raise income, reach new markets and transform lives.

The artisans form these cooperatives for many reasons, including providing a safe haven from violence, preserving fading heritages and nurturing the environment, officials say.

“These are groups of women collaborating using shared resources,” says Anupama Jain, community programs coordinator for the museum. “Each of those stories is similar ... but the specific motivation and their priorities are really unique.”

In Bolivia, for instance, the indigenous women of the Cheque Oitedie Cooperative hand-weave and sell bags from the fiber of a bromeliad plant in efforts to cultivate and save the humble plant. In Rwanda, some 4,000 members of the Gahaya Links Cooperative have helped themselves and others heal from trauma in their war-torn country by weaving and selling baskets. In India, members of the Self-employed Women's Association Trade Facilitation Center create and sell their embroidery and textile goods so they can stay at home with their children.

“What I think the exhibit does really well is it identifies that these are success stories coming from really unexpected sources,” Jain says.

Suzanne Seriff — director of the Gallery of Conscience at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, NM — created “Empowering Women,” which opened there in 2010. The exhibit continues in Pittsburgh through mid-May.

Seriff, a senior lecturer in anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin, came up with the exhibit idea while working as the chair of the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market's Selection Committee. The event, a bazaar of international handmade goods, will celebrate its 10th year in July.

The exhibit and the women's stories it tells are indeed empowering, Seriff says — and it's an important lesson for people everywhere.

“More and more, around the world, women are beginning to work together in cooperative organizations as a way to get more done than they can do on their own,” she says. “Its an incredible story about women using the skills and the artistry and the connections that they have in their traditional culture as a way to empower them economically first, but also, in a number of ways … promote their survival.”

Although the countries with the cooperatives showcased in the exhibit come from faraway places, the concept resonates with Pittsburghers, who operate many such projects — like the Fiber Arts Guild of Pittsburgh's Knit the Bridge project, involving many artists creating an installation for a Downtown bridge.

“This is literally happening all over the world and in our backyard,” says museum spokeswoman Leigh Kish.

Jain hopes people will make connections between the foreign crafts they see in the exhibit, and the group artistic projects here in Pittsburgh.

During the exhibit's run, several special activities are planned, including a Community Voices session on Feb. 16 with Squirrel Hill-based Ten Thousand Villages, which sells handmade goods from around the world. Karen Horst, volunteer coordinator, will conduct the free “Socially Responsible Shopping” presentation. She will talk about how Ten Thousand Villages, which has dozens of American locations, practices fair trading — an organized social movement that aims to help workers in developing countries.

“I think it's a wonderful exhibit,” Horst says about “Empowering Women.” “It does remind me so much of Ten Thousand Villages and the mission we're trying to get across to customers that walk through the door.

“Sometimes we feel that (international crafting) is so far away and we can't really relate to it,” she says, “but it really is about all women and ... our lifestyles.”

Kellie B. Gormly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at or 412-320-7824.

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