Art that empowers: a photography exhibition that sustains livelihoods.

In buying these compelling portraits, punters are directly empowering those in the photographs.

Amongst the subdued tones of a drought-stricken field in Ethiopia emerges a family of three, each dressed in exquisitely patterned red and black textiles. There is a striking theatricality to the photograph, the textiles’ rich colours are so at odds with the pale hues of the field. The contrast is typical of internationally renowned artist Xiomara Bender’s new exhibition, where the drama is not in her subjects’ steady gazes but in the textiles that they are wearing. In another photo, a man sits in a field of motley brown cows dressed in an impeccable white vest with coloured woven details and a soft watermelon coloured shawl draped over his shoulders. Another family are cocooned in swaths of crisp white and pastel coloured shawls. The beauty of the textiles are front and centre in the portraits, and they tell us something particular about those that are wearing them.

Photo credit: Xiamora Bender

Photo credit: Xiomara Bender

The portrayed wearers are in fact the weavers of the fabrics. Capturing them at home in Addis Ababa, Bender depicts thirty-eight Ethiopian weavers for PortrAid’s “Get Art. Give Work”, an exhibition which opens today at DRIVE. Volkswagen Group Forum Berlin. The weavers model their own creations, each one handmade.

“Get Art. Give Work” is clearly no ordinary photography exhibition, but something much more ambitious. As the photographs capture the beauty of the textiles, they are also supporting the preservation of the tradition which created them. With the sale of each photograph the proceeds will go directly to the weaver pictured, allowing them to purchase their own loom. With this loom they can continue to create artisanal textiles and ensure their livelihood.

This is the fourth exhibition mounted by PortrAid and follows the same basic concept: a renowned photographer is chosen to create portraits of a community in need. The works are exhibited, printed in museum quality and sold at a price that pays for the needs of the person portrayed. Thus, all the proceeds go directly to the person in the photograph. It’s a win-win situation for all involved, the buyer gets a beautiful piece of art and the subjects of the portrait receive support for their craft.

©2017_PortrAid_Xiomara_Bender_Aethiopien_05_Habtamu Abebe_preview

Photo credit: Xiomara Bender

The concept for PortrAid was born in Berlin-Kreuzberg out of a collaboration between Andrea Bury, who founded the ABURY Foundation in 2011 to support traditional crafts and education projects in Morocco, and the internationally celebrated photographer Thomas Rusch. Both saw an opportunity to use art as a means of connecting a donor of charity and the recipient. They envisioned a project in which a portrait could become the means in which a donor gains a piece of art and simultaneously provides direct support to the portrayed.

In the first exhibition “I see you see” in 2015, Rusch photographed Moroccan craftsmen with cataracts in a series of portraits which when sold funded their eye surgery. The resounding success of the exhibition allowed all of the artisans to access surgery. The success of “I see you see” soon led to “I see you learn” (2016) in which 58 children from 3 pre-schools in the Atlas Mountains, one of them founded by the ABURY Foundation, were portrayed. Each sale led to the funding of one year of pre-school education for a child.

And now in 2018, PortrAid presents “Get Art. Give Work” to help provide 38 Ethiopian weavers with a loom and a livelihood.

Photo Credit: Xiamora Bender

Photo credit: Xiomara Bender

Atinafu Abebe is one of the young weavers featured. Wrapped in a celestial blue fabric and with a lingering smile, Abebe is just 25 years old. He lives in Addis Ababa with his wife and two children. In taking part in this project, Abebe hopes that he will be able to receive a loom. And with that precious instrument, support his family and carry on the ancient heritage of weaving. Right now, life for Abebe and his fellow weavers in Ethiopia is difficult. The country has long battled drought and famine and many families struggle to eat two meals a day.

And yet, the cotton quality of Ethiopia is one of its scarce assets. Whilst many (an estimated 85% of the population) battle the drought conditions and try to make a livelihood from farming, others follow generations of Ethiopians and weave. Ethiopia continues to rely on its own textiles and whilst it is not like in the past where a loom featured in every household, men and women continue to wrap themselves in traditional shawls labelled for their colour, thickness and occasion.

But it is unfortunately a dying art, a fact that Kathy Marshall of Sabahar is trying to reverse. Sabahar is the cooperation partner for PortrAid in Addis Ababa and was founded by Marshall, a Canadian living in Ethiopia for 25 years. She fell in love with the traditional textiles and weaving techniques in Ethiopia and aims to preserve the art even in the face of the proliferation of cheap and readily available textiles from Asia. To empower those who have the ability and knowledge, Sabahar builds weaving looms and provides workshops for those who don’t have their own loom to use. Everything produced under Sabahar is 100 % handmade, created by the hands of the weavers and artists, including the yarns and dyes. They weave with high quality silks and wools. The result, as demonstrated in the portraits, are stunning textiles.

In partnership with Sabahar, PortrAid’s exhibition will ensure the preservation of an important cultural tradition and provide weavers with a sustainable livelihood, whilst giving some lucky punters beautiful art. It’s a win-win.

“Get Art. Give Work” opens today and runs until the 7th of March at DRIVE. Volkswagen Group Forum Berlin, it can also be viewed online here. The art is available for purchase at the exhibition in Berlin or online. Each photograph costs the amount of a loom, which is 590 Euro and will come professionally framed.

About the Author /

Meg is a graduate in History and Italian Studies (Honours Class I) from the University of Sydney. She worked in fundraising for Habitat for Humanity Australia before her love for Italy drove her to Rome, where she interned for the Australian Embassy in Political and Economic Diplomacy. She is passionate about sustainable development and all things Italian.

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