Zimbabwe project shares art of a subsistence tribe

Posted: Monday, November 28, 2005

In 1997, sociology professor Dick Adams and his students at Lewis and Clark College visited Weya, a subsistence communal area of 10,000 to 15,000 in northeastern Zimbabwe, about 100 miles from the Mozambique border. The students spent a month studying gender issues, in particular the dynamics of a group of 60 to 70 women who had found a small-but-struggling international market for their appliqués, adorned with traditional stories.

At the end of the month, the women asked Adams, a professor for the last three decades, to help.

"It was entirely new and unexpected and perhaps to some degree an unwelcome request, because I'd always been in academics and never thought about marketing anyone," Adams said. "I was their connection to the outside world, or their potential connection to the outside world."

Adams didn't know how to get started, but couldn't say no. The women had just hosted his students.

He's now the executive director of the Zimbabwe Artists Project - a nonprofit group that sells the Weya artwork, pays the women per piece and helps them afford food, clothes and medicine.

Adams will exhibit some of the Weya art and talk about ZAP during an art opening and reception at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 30, at the University of Alaska Southeast's Egan Library. The reception will be followed by a screening of "A Closer Walk," a documentary about the AIDS epidemic, at 7 p.m. in the Egan Library Lecture Hall.

The art will also be displayed from 4:30 to 6 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 1, and 4:30 to 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 2, at KTOO for Gallery Walk. Adams will speak at a community dinner from 6 to 7 p.m. Thursday at St. Brendan's Episcopal Church, 4207 Mendenhall Loop Road. All the events are in conjunction with World Aids Day, Dec. 1.

"Most of the art is storytelling," Adams said. "There are folk tales. There are stories about animals. There are tales about relationships between men and women, stories of daily life, stories of marriage, abusive husbands. And some of the art depicts scenes, not just styles.

ZAP pays for its artists' health care. One of Adams' colleagues in Zimbabwe drives the women 100 miles to the nearest doctor in Harare, and covers tests, procedures and prescriptions. One of the women is currently battling breast cancer, and ZAP is paying for her radiation therapy.

A few ZAP artists also have AIDS. Some have already died.

CareUSA, an international relief organization, estimates that 35 percent of the Zimbabwean adult population has AIDS. That's one of the highest rates in the world.

"People (in Weya) are concerned about AIDS, but they don't talk very much about it," Adams said. "It's still a stigma. Since antiviral drugs aren't very available, they don't want to be tested. They don't want to know if they have AIDS. If they do, they'll know that they have a death sentence. Most people tend to avoid talking about it."

Adams visits Zimbabwe once a year, for at least six weeks at a time. He's made the trip annually since 1992. Since starting ZAP, he's retired early. Most of the ZAP shows are in the Portland and Seattle areas.

The women in Weya, a roughly 100-square-mile area, started marketing their appliqué art in 1987 with the help of Ilse Noy, a German volunteer hired by Zimbabwe's German Volunteer Service and sponsored by a local training center.

• Korry Keeker can be reached at korry.keeker@juneauempire.com

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