“A flow of human energy, rooted to survival rhythms, rites of passage, and the expression of joy and sorrow, in peace and war — these are the themes of my work.” Betty LaDuke
Visionary artist Betty LaDuke is highly acknowledged for playing an exceptional role not only in American women’s art but also women artist around the world. She creates exquisitely inspiring art that interprets the humble realities of women worldwide.
She is a long-time friend of several Eritrean artists; starting from 1994 up to now. She paints of Eritrea, Eritrean women and their artistic virtuosity: like loop weaving for baskets, food containers, carpets, and just so much more that we traditionally use on daily basis and we don’t consider as ‘fine arts’ since to us it is a way of being, but to Betty is aesthetic. Eritrean culture, virtues, history and more traits of Eritrean people have all been for a long time an inspiration to Betty’s art. We had the greatest pleasure talking to Betty; she says she travels in order to find stories to tell of in her paintings.
It is quite obvious, at least by the number of painting she painted of Eritrea, that she is fond of Eritrean stories, let’s find out why on today’s Q&A.
- How did it start? Your urge to travel around the world for inspiration.
I am also a teacher, so while teaching I became interested in women around the world that my students wouldn’t know about because they are mostly from Europe and the United States. I originally wanted them to experience what I experience every time I travel, so when I paint what I see while travelling I share the cultural comprehension I learn with people. I came to Africa while working for the making my book, I wanted to meet the Eritrean women and when I did, I was so surprised because they were the age of my daughter and some already were fighting for freedom! To learn that they had been fighting in the war for liberation and all there was to know about them, I was stunned. So, I travel to find stories to tell.
- and to Eritrea?
My first visit was in 1994. That was when I first learned that the country had a lot of energy, that it suffered a lot but had more hope. I learned about the pride Eritrean people had in freeing the county from Ethiopian occupation and to form a state of their own. And the fact that so many young people were part of the process and paid their lives for their goal was fascinating for me.
I connected well with artist through their works, I comprehended the emotions of Eritreans. I felt like I had to come back and so I did in 1995 and joined the Asmara School of Art.
I found what I was looking for my second book in African woman artist, especially in Eritrea. Each country has its own issues to deal with and to this extent the relevancy of woman interested me most; the way Eritrean woman dealt with independence and sovereignty along with their vision is something I keep dear to my heart.
The second thing that captivated me as an artist, is Eritrean women artistry like loom weaving for example, and the culture at large.
- You sketch a lot
I do sketch a lot. My sketches are part of my books: I watch, I sketch and I when I go back home I paint. I visited Eritrea 9 times from 1994 to 2002 and this one, this year, is mine tenth. Every time I learn something new I note it down in sketches. For instance I have sketches reminding me that Eritrean people have a strong will to endure, that they turn their suffering in to energy to go forward and that they are very helpfull to each other. I remember when I was here during the border war and saw how every single one contributed, you appreciate life and families, that you have your own hopes and aspirations … this is what I sketch about. This way, when I go back home I can easily remember not only how things looked but how they felt as well.
- What technique do you use for your paintings?
My style … My style is peoples’ style. I have traveled widely around the world and I have learned so much from different communities so their style is my style. And I think that, in every place I go there is something new that I had never painted before. So my style comes from inside me, more like an interpersonal expression.
- an example of one of your many works about Eritrea
‘The tree of life’; in the painting the woman is the center. The tree represents the Eritrean woman, it is strong and powerful and the roots suggests Eritrean womens’ past: the war of liberation in terms of loss of life, but from her body springs a new life, the bird signifies this, the male and female figures signify a reaching for a better future… that is the story of the painting.
- What do you do with your paintings of Eritrea?
I made two major exhibits: ‘Africa from Eritrea with love’ and the second one was ‘Eritrea Ethiopia dreams of peace’. My paintings are usually very big, each one tells a story: the story begins with my love for the Eritrean people, women specifically, and your culture; I love Saho woman. I start with simple stories, like a boy looking after his goats, I enjoy the site of women celebrating together, coming together, eating and sharing food.
In 1998 during the war, I saw how women organized feasts for their children soldiers and fed them. I actually painted about it, ‘Eritrea Ethiopia Grandmothers Dreams of Peace’, it is found in New York City at UNIFEM, (United Nations Women’s Development Fund), and it is one of their permanent collection.
My paintings tell your story symbolically. I have a real passion for your harvesting tradition, the ritual behind it is beautiful, because it is actually the foundation of economy for people here, especially in the countryside. … What I do with my paintings of Eritrea? Well, I exhibit them in several places, for example: The Dallas Museum of Art in Texas, the Chicago Field Museum; it is a very big museum it normally doesn’t show art but Eritrea was a new experience for them so they gave me a big space. The Hampton University which is African American College so the theme of my work was very much accepted by the African American community. Also, children’s museums, like for example, in Washington DC, many people from the Eritrean community in the US participated. Pen State University is a sport university but they have a very good art gallery, so I had my exhibits there too. Eritreans in different universities are always happy to see these paintings in which their identity is reflected. And so my works become not only something that is enjoyable esthetically but also a source of educational experience.
For the most part people don’t know the right image of Eritrea, so I have to tell the right one, and I do it through my art.
In some ways I appreciate coming back after 14 years, I have a retired friend in Weki for example that I went back to visit and there, I saw smoke and he tells me “they’re cleaning the garbage”. I have never heard of cleaning the garbage! Eritrea even banned the use of plastic! It is so terrific.
- Now that you are back…
I am impressed! Trees, so many trees on the road! I appreciate the afforestation efforts. I didn’t see much green when I first came here and Eritrea had just gotten out of war. There is so much I have to learn. Billboards on the road that talk about health, HIV, maternity, social services, something like “bring your children to the hospital”. Things like this make me feel good, and give me insight to more stories to tell.
I notice tired faces especially in the country side but they come together as a community for simple pleasure. And for a hopeful future and they truly work hard together even if they are tired, taking pride in what they do. The life style is tough, the rhythm of life is not easy but I see children rushing to go to school, hopefulness again.
How you recycle impresses me even more it is so inspirational; there is this place in Asmara, Medeber, here people get all of the metal and material that they don’t use and the workers there, they bang it and hit it and put it in fire to make something new!
Colleges… Wow! There are more now! And one more thing that delights me: there is no more camps for displaced people, everybody is back home! I feel that there is a core, a core of structure. People here are highly organized. Organized to recycle, to plant trees, build dams and health centers, always together with care to one another: no matter the religion or ethnicity. Other cultures have little or none of this! What you have, it radiates! This is not a truth for many African countries or other countries around the world.
I like going to bar Vittoria for cappuccino. And your walks … your walks are something else! Walking together with ease of one other, no fear, and ‘young life’ wow.
- What would be the one exclusive thing that makes an impression to you?
Drug free, healthy mind-prosperous youth. Eritrean route to independence followed by fight for sovereignty and development is not easy, and it is mostly done by young people.
To be responsible at a young age, to be able to think outside of for a communal level is not an easy task. That is why we don’t see it everywhere.