From January 2006 I am spending 9 months working on a voluntary art project for the Artcorps in Guatemala. I am working for Fundación Riecken, an NGO who are constructing libraries in Honduras and Guatemala. I will be artist-in-residence at libraries in Chiché and Zacualpa, in the Quiché region of Guatemala. I also plan to do a little travelling along the way...

Friday, March 31, 2006

Library update

This week the Ministerio de Culturas y Deportes employed a Marimba band to play from 8-12 noon on the new library veranda! It was market day, so the square was full of traders and shoppers; many indigenous people from the outlying communities come to town on Wednesdays, so it is a great day to have music filling the square! There were ten musicians playing three xylophones, a bass and drums. They were really talented! I expressed to Alba how great it would be to have more concerts like this in the future and quick as a flash she started organising to have one in May for mothers` day, to which only women will be invited, complete with activities food, etc. Mothers` day here is serious indeed; the 10th of May is the dedicated date, but the month of May seems to have become women`s month, so during May I am going to do a tour of all the Riecken Foundation libraries in Guatemala doing workshops with women in each, making lovely things for them to take away.

Last week we got the go-ahead from the mayor to create the sculpture garden! I whooped for joy and called everyone in the foundation to impart the good news. Today we had a site meeting to discuss it and better than I had even imagined, they not only agreed with everything I suggested, including the fountain, benches, pathways, railings/gateways (which I hope to design and have custom-made) and of course a riot of colour in the form of trees, plants and flowers, but the size of the garden doubled in an instant, and it will now flank the library on both sides. There is ample space for a lovely little park so I guess I will be busy!

We are in the process of planning the event to mark the library anniversary on the 2nd June. I really hope to bring Fernanda, a Brazilian dancer, over from Wales to coordinate the choreography and performance elements and I have been helping to make her application successful to secure a grant. The project will comprise of two parts: a procession in the morning, consisting of five groups from different educational establishments, all wearing costumes made during workshops with me. I would like to create a carpet (inspired by the tradition of laying amazing carpets made out of brightly coloured sawdust for the processions for Semana Santa) in the square in front of the library, where the procession will end. We hope to enlist local bands to provide music for the parade and in the evening there will be a cultural evening in the town hall, with a choreographed performance by each of the groups.

Yesterday we closed the library at 4.30pm and took the bus into Santa Cruz del Quichè to go hunting for glass offcuts. We came back with 4 boxes full! It is interesting how we manage with limited resources. In order to get the boxes back to Chichè, we managed to squeeze all the boxes plus the three of us into a tuk-tuk to get us to where the microbuses depart for Chichè, then, with no hesitation and no quibbling, the driver and his assistant tied all the boxes on to the luggage rack on the roof, and off we went on the last bus back, bodies clinging to the sides of the bus (I estimate at least 25 people crammed into a 12-seater) as we wound past fields and through woods in the dim twilight. In the UK, I would consider my job impossible without my car, and I would also consider it against health and safety regulations to tie a load of rather weak boxes full of shards of glass on to the roof! But here everything is possible! So I should be able to start doing some tests making stained glass with the technique used in Aaculuux, (amazing hotel – see post entitled “Lago” below) in San Marcos La Laguna, where they use papier maché instead of lead. (I doubt papier maché would survive the frosty British climate, but here it works like a dream, even during the rainy season, which I recently discovered means 6 months of torrential rain! Soon to commence!)

Festival de Santiago

Another adventure in Pancho`s trusty, rusty VW camper. I have become a convert: VWs are the only way! The first trip was in an unnamed vehicle; I declared all VWs have to be christened, so we elected “Carro Sutra” as an eminently suitable title. So many a weekend since then Carro Sutra has ambled along Guatemalan highways with a cargo of friends, blankets, delicious fruit picked up from roadside stalls (and usually surf boards which get pride of place) ready for a spot of fun; it`s quite relaxing when only driving at 30 miles an hour! The poor baby can`t manage any more!

This time we headed for the annual music and culture festival at Santiago de Atitlan, on the shores of the lake. As we rolled into site, someone exclaimed how big it was! I looked on with my Glastonburied eyes, comparing the few hundred multi-coloured people sprawled in front of a cute stage with the horrors of 100,000 revellers covered in mud (yes, 1998, I am sure there are those of you who remember the deluge well!) This is the kind of festival which is hard to find in Europe in these trendified days of festival-going. Excellent local bands playing all styles of music ranking from grassroots country, jazzy blues, funk, reggeaton, latin to jamming sessions. All playing their hearts out on a tiny stage nestling against a backdrop of steeply inclining verdant forest, a multi-cultural clan jigging in front… The most fun we had was after the bands stopped playing, (scheduled to stop at 9pm but actually rolling on until 2.30am: completely typical latinamerican timing!), when the DJ cranked up the decks, even treating us to a full VJ set, playing fantastic trashy Euro/Latino pop from the 90s! My did we leap high and laugh hilariously!

Some friends did a beautiful dance performance; a combination of tango, belly dancing and contemporary dance. All under a moon which we marvelled at, suddenly peeking from behind the steep side of the volcano and appearing rapidly, a shot of bright white light in a previously black black sky. Camping that night was reminiscent of freezing nights spent in my youth on guide camps in Scotland (what fun!), with the notable added luxury of an air mattress, but my was it icy! We camped high up with a spectacular view over the fields and lake beyond.

The following day we joined a group jamming, singing and picnicing in the gorgeous sunshine until we all bundled into Carro Sutra and bid farewell to a lovely weekend.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Los Cerritos

I was invited to a local fiesta in a community of Chichè called Los Cerritos. I was looking forward to seeing my first traditional Guatemalan festival, particularly because the main attraction was to be the masks. At the front of the house where I live is a bread shop: Panaderìa La Economica 2, and the bread shop proprietor was honoured to be participating, so the ever-vivacious Doña Carmen took me to see the festivities. It was so brilliant and so funny. I was expecting to see an authentic performance with rustic costumes and lots of marimba music, and authentic it was indeed, but rustic it was definitely not! The dancers entered the floor in a procession resembling the Greenwich Village Hallowe`en parade in New York, i.e. anything goes! So Mr. Bread Man was one of a pair of crusaders, Celia Cruz was sashaying with George W. Bush, futuristic warriors combatted with space cowboys and all to the rather impressive strains of a 15-piece marimba band complete with brass section, three very good vocalists and funky percussive sets! We ate chuchitos (maize dough steamed in maize leaves - tastes better than it sounds!) and Carmen offered me and her other compañera margaritas , disappeared behind the curtains of the little rural comedor and returned with plastic cups of a very strong local liquor topped up with pepsi. Go girls!

Friday, March 10, 2006

El día internacional de la mujer

Happy international women´s day (last Wed 8th March)!
I am very proud to say that I have just completed my first project in Chiché, which was a procession for women´s day. The women´s association of the municipality of Chiché approached the library with a proposal, but lacked funds to do much. Between the Riecken Foundation and the Artcorps funds we managed to pull off quite a spectacular event, the like of which Chiché has never seen in its history! The coordinating group of women (about 12 or so of us) made headdresses, banners and hand-held decorations for 300 women from four local indigenous communities over a frenzied week and on Wednesday we showed Chiché what women can do! I don´t believe Chiché has ever seen a demonstration/procession of this kind and the fact that it was entirely about and by women was obviously a source of wonderment for the local population.

Each community was fronted with a vibrant, colourful banner with the following statements:
¡Vivan las mujeres luchadoras! (Long live the fighting women!),
Mujeres por la paz (Women for peace),
¡No mas violencia contra la mujer! (No more violence against women!) and
Las mujeres por una vida digna y sin probreza, (Women for a life with dignity and without poverty).
The procession was an explosion of colour; in addition to the local traje (traditional dress), which is incredibly varied and rich in colour and pattern, there was an abundance of lilac in the form of all the decorations we made. The women admired and wore their headdresses (tocados) with pride, and the few we had left over quickly dispersed among the women and girls in the market at the end of the procession, who came up in groups asking for tocados until we ran out. The fact that it was market day was a wonderful coincidence because the town is always much busier than usual and the main street was thankfully closed to traffic, making the practical organisation much easier.

After the parade, all the groups converged in front of the town hall, where my colleague librarian, the ever-more impressive Alba took the mike and sang the praises of womankind to kingdom come! She is a gifted lady. Then the parte cultural began; we all moved into the salon, the main venue for events in the town, where small performances took place followed by a participatory artistic activity. Of the performances, would you believe that yours truly took centre stage at one point in our dramatization ´un día con la mujer´(a day in the life of a woman), in which I had to act in front of a good 350 people, in Spanish, no less! Of the participatory activity, the women collaborated in groups of 20 creating murals - very simple but telling. Many of the murals contained symbols of anguish, violence, death and deep self expression. The life of indigenous women in Guatemala is extremely hard to say the least; violence and worse is all too commonplace and here in Quiché the wounds left open and still raw from the effects of the civil war (which only ended in 1996) are fresh in the memories of the collective. In the salon, at the end of the day, we all united in a massive circle, holding hands and the participants were invited to express themselves. One woman took the microphone and spoke of her dearly beloved late husband, who was assassinated during the civil war. She could hardly speak for the tears that were choking her throat.

In all, this was a memorable day indeed and for me, it being my first project, even more so, given how well it went. I am so thrilled to find myself working in the heart of the women of this country; I came here with a desire to work predominantly with women, but with little idea of where or with whom I would be working and it has just turned out that this is the group that both the foundation and the town municipality see as a priority for me while I am here. The following day I made a presentation of my work to the town mayor and council, and included a video of the procession. Both presentations were much admired and well received, and we put forward a proposal to create a sculpture garden adjoining the library in Chiché´s town centre. If this idea bears fruit, we are hoping that Chiché may yet make a grand tourist attraction in the Quiché region with the new addition of a fancy-free pleasure garden, the like of which has never been beholden before (at least not in Guatemala!). Will keep you posted as to their decision…

Friday, March 03, 2006

Casement windows

This is a little collection of photographs of the day to day contents of casement windows in Antigua...


This is a little scene which greeted me in the early morning at Chimaltenango when I had to change buses on the way to Chiche this week.

Women's workshop


Last week the library ran a workshop on self-esteem in the municipal hall. Eighty indigenous women from four communities turned up with all their babies and small children in tow. For me, it was one of the most exhuberant visual spectacles I have ever witnessed. It is absolutely true what they say about Guatemalan textiles. I defy any other nation in the world to surpass the richness of colour present in this country. I am very interested I colour and always fill my work with the brightest colours I can find (not easy when firing ceramic to stoneware temperatures), so for me I just love this aspect of Guatemalan culture.

The native language in El Quichè is, unsurprisingly, Kichè, and many of the women only speak a smattering of Spanish, so we had a translator and ran the workshop bilingually. I presented myself to the group, expressing my interest in working particularly with women during my time here and we continued with a very simple creative activity, the participants working in groups of ten. We are planning to invite smaller groups of women to the library to participate in a range of artistic activities and I hope to eventually establish weekly sessions with groups of women and younger females. I have also suggested to the foundation that I visit every library in Guatemala and run a workshop with women in each one, to get to know the other libraries, their staff and communities.

El Dìa Internacional de la Mujer
A women`s association established in Chichè expressed an interest in realising a special event to commemorate women`s day on the 8th of March. I attended a meeting with nine women to organise the event. We have decided to have a procession and we are going to make a headdress (what else?) for each woman. There are going to be 300 women! In addition, we plan to make banners, placards and hand-held decorations. This is my first project and no small feat considering we have less than a week to produce the goods! I finally discovered the significance of women`s day. In the mid-nineteenth century, a group of women working in a textile factory in New York protested against their working conditions. They were underpaid, forced to work 16 hour days and treated as little better than slaves. They were fighting for a ten hour day and better working conditions, but their employers did not heed their protests and actually set fire to the factory, burning 147 women alive. This took place on the 8th of March and that is why we remember women`s day. The colour of textile that the factory produced more successfully than any other colour was lilac, which is why lilac is the colour associated with women. All the decorations we plan to make for the procession will be lilac and purple and on the day we will bear placards containing slogans fighting for less discrimination against women, less violence, less poverty, equality and peace. Women are very much second class citizens in Guatemala with a long way to go. A large percentage of the population is illiterate, the majority being women; they are widely considered to form the backbone of the workforce in rural communities, in addition to solely rearing perhaps up to 15 children and of course all the domestic issues at home. I felt so proud to be a part of this group of strong, determined women trying to make life better for their own kind in this difficult land.


Last weekend I was treated to another wonderful experience. Some friends rent a cabin high up in the hills just outside of Antigua, which is their country retreat. Not that Antigua is much of a bustling city, but this cabin is special. It has no electricity, receives water from a local spring which is delicious and welcome after endless bottled water and has a breathtaking view over the three volcanoes. In fact, it is so close that it appears possible to walk to Agua (if you imagine there are no steep valleys in between) and explosions of lava from the ever-active Fuego have been easily discernible from the cabin.

We got there in time to watch the sun setting behind the volcanoes and then had fun cooking with the aid of a torch and candles. We sat out under the brilliantly star-studded sky; grand silhouettes of landscape and trees black against the night. In the morning we rose before dawn and made our bed on the grass in front of the cabin to watch the sky fill with pink light and the mist slowly dissolve from the furrows in the landscape beyond, creating a incredibly subtle range of blue grey tones in the mid-distance. Early birds, raucous and clammering, filled the air with delectable song. I love the sound of birdsong, especially in the morning, and here you are never far from a racket of scandalous, squawking avian gossip, at dawn and at dusk. A troupe of bright blue birds, which I had heard about but until now had never seen, because they only show themselves in the early morning, descended on the path in front of us and allowed us to admire their startling blue coats through binoculars.

In the afternoon we went for a walk up through the forest, climbing trees (for the more intrepid), analysing the flora and watching the clouds drift across the tree-tops against a celestial sky. When we weren`t being active, we lay in hammocks admiring the view from the cabin and passing quality time doing not a great deal! This is the life!


I am fortunate indeed to have met some wonderful, gorgeous people in Antigua. Antigua is a hub of creativity; but with such a relaxed vibe it is difficult to draw comparisons with the way most artists I know live and work in big cities such as London. I am sure a lot of this stems from the fact that you cannot escape the chilled-out feeling in Atingua, because a good percentage of the population is actually on holiday, well, studying Spanish is the excuse, but let`s face it; it`s a pretty nice way to study, and a lot of partying goes on too! So this laid-back ambience infiltrates daily life. Of course, most Antiguans get up at dawn as they do all over Guatemalan, but everyone seems to have time. That`s what we lack in most Western societies. Time. And when you step away from it, you realise it is so important. Why are we rushing through life as if we are in a race? Everyone who knows me will know that I am the guiltiest culprit in this respect. But I am learning that there are and should be priorities in our lives which allow time for ourselves to reflect on what our lives are about, the importance of our being and our relation to the world around us.

I was invited to a wedding which was one of the most beautiful nuptial ceremonies I have ever witnessed. It was a Mayan ceremony to celebrate the union of a Peruvian man and a Dutch woman, and it took place high up on a summit with a full 360 degree view of spectacular landscapes, including a lofty view of the town of Antigua and its ever-present volcanoes looming in the background; Agua, Fuego and Acatenango. This location is the private property of an architect who uses it as his pleasure garden and pleasurable is it indeed! In addition to gently inclining slopes full of lush vegetation, he has built into the hillside a cabin with a sophisticated yet simple design. There is an unbroken view right through the cabin to the valley beyond, a view which is undoubtedly best appreciated from the terrace perched high up on stilts, which is constructed out of eucalyptus timber complete with bark. Exquisite! A sense of space and air, forests and nature pervades the atmosphere.

The wedding ceremony took place on the very summit of the hill around a fire and consisted of a shaman performing rites and blowing smoke and alcohol variably around the couple, whom he also performed reiki on. It was a very emotional, moving experience, with most of the guests seated in a circle on grass mats around the fire and the rest sheltering from the relentless sun under canopies beyond. After the ceremony, a marimba band played on giant xylophones while the guests feasted on two entire hogs roasting on a spit! We passed the afternoon dancing and jamming in the tipi constructed especially for the event until the sun set, treating us all to a visual feast of fading colour and light over the valley.

The evening party took place in what I can only describe as not only my dream house but one of the most awe inspiring houses I have ever entered. This house was apparently tumbling down when a couple of gringos with vision took it on at a ridiculously low rent and proceeded to invest vast quantities of money, time and effort in transforming it into the palace that it is now. They are artists and designers and my have they filled that house with works of art! One of the ranges which they design and sell are huge lamps and furniture made with mangrove roots as bases, which are really innovative and impressive in scale and content. The courtyard garden boasted (apart from lunatic dancers) a fountain filled with cut flowers dripping petals into the water below and the rooftop above serves as a gigantic quadrant terrace covering the entire house. The garden behind was home to a tree so enormous that people were estimating 1000 years for its age. It must have seen quite a few severe volcanic eruptions and earthquakes in its time.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Chichè market