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Empowering women: Vibrant new exhibit explores how artisan co-ops weave threads of hope for human rights

News release details

A Moroccan artist teaches a village of women to read and to lead. An embroiderer in India takes out her first loan. Rwandan sisters begin a weaving collective that expands to 4,000 women, both Tutsi and Hutu. Artisan women in Swaziland support a soup kitchen for AIDS orphans.

A new exhibition opening July 23 at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) examines the power of female-run artisan cooperatives to further human rights in communities around the world.

Empowering Women: Artisan Cooperatives that Transform Communities uses colourful folk art objects, images and video to make stories come alive from 11 countries. It includes objects that visitors are encouraged to touch, and an immersive virtual reality experience.

The exhibition explores the work of women in Bolivia, Guatemala, India, Kenya, Lao PDR, Morocco, Nepal, Peru, Rwanda, South Africa and Swaziland. All strive for a better standard of living, but each co-op also has its own story. Some focus on preserving cultural heritage, others on creating a safe haven from violence, others on building independence and respect.

"Most of these women continue to face challenges – sometimes to their very survival," CMHR president and CEO John Young said today at a media preview of the exhibition. "But the fabrics they weave and the products they create contain threads of hope for the future."

The virtual reality experience in the exhibition transports visitors to Guatemala, where Indigenous Maya women use weaving cooperatives to improve their lives and heal after years of war and genocide. This 360-degree video is available to view in gallery and online as a free app for personal smartphones (search "CMHR: Weaving a better future" in the App Store or Google Play).

CMHR staff members travelled to Guatemala last winter to meet the women, who welcomed them into their homes and workplaces to film. Two of the Indigenous Maya women featured in the video have come to Winnipeg from Guatemala to participate in the exhibition opening.

Canada's Ambassador to Guatemala, Deborah Chatsis, also attended today's media preview at the Museum. "Women play a crucial role in bringing peace to their communities and their countries," she said. "What is more, economic empowerment of women can help to break the cycle of violence, poverty and exclusion."

CMHR curator Armando Perla said artisan cooperatives not only reinforce concepts of democracy, equal participation and human rights – including women's rights – they also become a means for women to channel their strength.

"The co-ops can become places of reconciliation and healing," he said. "Many of these women have lived through gross human rights abuses and, by talking together day after day, it allows some healing to occur."

This exhibition has been organized by the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico and is circulated through GuestCurator Traveling Exhibitions. Enhanced by CMHR curatorial, design and exhibition staff, it will be displayed at the Museum until January 8, 2017.

On July 23, Museum visitors are invited to meet the two women from Guatemala and watch them give a weaving demonstration in the Level 6 Expressions gallery. Their products will be available for purchase on July 23 and 24 as part of a global artisan market in the Museum's welcome hall. The market, organized by the CMHR Boutique in cooperation with Ten Thousand Villages, includes items created by women in many of the countries represented in the exhibition. These products will also be available for visitors to buy at the Boutique for the duration of the exhibition run and beyond.

Programming will be offered in-gallery daily (12 p.m. to 4 p.m.) until September, including an exhibit-based card matching game and a "Can You Work?" flowchart activity that challenges visitors to understand women's barriers to employment. Special program events will also be organized throughout the exhibition run, including a September lecture and discussion with the original curator from New Mexico. Check humanrights.ca for updates.

Media contacts

Maureen Fitzhenry