Empowering Women: An interview with Researcher-Curator Armando Perla

Thursday, July 14, 2016
Amina Yabis, founder of the Women’s Button Cooperative of Sefrou, weaving at the loom with cooperative member Khadija La Adraoui, Morocco, 2010. Photograph by Oriol Llados.

Empowering Women: Artisan Cooperatives That Transform Communities opens July 23 at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. This travelling exhibition tells the story of women’s cooperatives from around the world and how their work can advance human rights. The exhibiton also includes beautiful examples of handmade art and an immersive 3D virtual reality experience that transports visitors to Guatemala to see the work and meet some of the women in local weaving cooperatives.

To learn more about Empowering Women and what visitors can expect when they see it, I sat down with Armando Perla,  the Researcher-Curator in charge of the exhibition. He told me about some of the powerful stories and artifacts that will be shared and explained why these women’s cooperatives can be very important in advancing human rights.

A close-up of a colourful blanket.
A colourful blanket made by TRAMA Textiles, a women's cooperative in Guatemala. Photograph by Aaron Cohen / CMHR.


What was the inspiration for this exhibition? How did you discover Empowering Women?

Empowering Women is an exhibit that has been put together by the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Part of the work that we do as curators is go and look for travelling exhibits to bring into the Museum. We develop exhibits ourselves, but we also go and look for interesting  exhibits that are out there. This exhibit is one that I was really interested in because I’m particularly interested in folk art, women’s rights and the rights of Indigenous peoples – those are some of the themes that are  dear to my heart. It brought together all of those different aspects that resonated with me. The idea of empowerment was really important as well. I wanted to look at cooperatives because of the different principles – democratic principles – that cooperatives have at the core of their structure. I felt it would be a really good fit for our museum to have something like that, because it had so many themes that resonated with our mandate of human rights. It was one of the most clear exhibits that I could see and I could find that made that connection to human rights.


What kind of cooperatives are featured in Empowering Women?

So we have ten different cooperatives that come with the exhibit from New Mexico. We [the Museum] added in an extra co-op, so altogether we will have 11 co-ops. The original batch – which was put together by the curator in New Mexico – has five cooperatives from Africa – Kenya, Rwanda, Swaziland, Morocco and South Africa; they have three from Asia – Laos, Nepal and India; and two from South America – Bolivia and Peru. All of the stories that are behind these co-ops are very powerful and they all also make a lot of different products. You have, for example, co-ops that weave baskets, co-ops that do textiles, beading, buttons – there are all different kinds of arts and crafts coming from these co-ops. The co-ops are all 100% run by women. These women reach within themselves to find that strength that they already have, but then sort of channel it – and through that they’re able to claim some rights that they weren’t able to claim in the past.


Do you have a favourite artifact that you can tell us about?

I think all of the artifacts are really stunning – they’re beautiful. One set of art pieces that I find really striking are the three beaded collars made by the women from the cooperative in Kenya. The story behind the necklaces is that these women were the victims of rapes and violence in the community. They were also ostracized and kicked out, so they found themselves without a community that would look out for them. Then they all got together and they created a village. In this village,  they started crafting as a way to support themselves. The necklaces are traditional; they’re part of the women’s culture. The messages behind them are really, really powerful. I think the thing that impacted me the most was how these women, from tragedy, were able to find the strength from within themselves to move forward and create something that beautiful. They also took the lead in their own lives – that village where they live, it’s completely run by the women.

A group of women wearing traditional clothing sing on the right-hand side of the image.
Samburu women singing in Umoja Uaso Village, Kenya, 2000s. Photograph by Aaron Kisner, courtesy of Vital Voices.


Are any of these items going to be available in the Boutique?

We have some items in the Boutique that come from the countries where the co-ops are. The ones that we are going to be featuring and having in the Boutique are from Guatemala, which is the co-op that we [the Museum] added, to complement the exhibit from the Museum of International Folk Art in New Mexico. The Boutique has done really amazing work creating a selection of all the objects from Guatemala. We went to Guatemala, so we looked at the objects ourselves and we met with the women. Now we’re going to be featuring all of that [in the exhibit]. For the opening weekend of the exhibit, we’re going to have an artisan market in the Museum. It is going to have products from many of the countries that are featured in the exhibit.


What are the human rights connections you hope visitors will make when they visit Empowering Women? What do you hope they will take away from this exhibition?

The main thing that I would like visitors to take away from this is that women have a strength within themselves. They need an opportunity to channel their strength and use it to claim their rights. By creating co-ops, these women are actually claiming a right. Most of the women in these co-ops are rural women – so if we look at the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), for example, Article 14 of CEDAW notes explicitly the right of rural women to form cooperatives – I don’t think most people know this. As well, the UN declared 2012 as the International Year of Cooperatives and one of the things that they were trying to do was to bring light to the connections that cooperatives have to furthering economic, social and cultural rights. This is something we see in the cooperatives that are part of Empowering Women as well. There are civil and political rights that have been advanced because of the co-ops, like the right to life, survival and all of that. But there’s also a lot economic, social and cultural rights that are also being furthered because of the co-ops. So it’s important because a lot of the time we don’t talk about economic, social and cultural rights – we tend to focus a lot on civil and political rights. I think this exhibit is a great opportunity for the visitors to learn a little bit more about these rights and how women are furthering these rights through cooperatives around the world.