As a kid I grew up hearing the word empowerment mentioned with the word women, which made me wonder if women are so powerless that they are in need of perpetual empowerment.
But for so many centuries females all over the world have been suppressed and degraded. Religions and cultural beliefs have greatly contributed to the ill treatments of women and since societies rely on their culture and religion as a guide in their lives, gender inequality has survived a long span of time.
In Eritrea, the thirty-year war for independence helped women to achieve partial emancipation. The creation of the National Union for Eritrean Women (UNEW) during the struggle was the beginning of the journey towards the road of equality and empowerment. Since its creation in 1979, the organization has strived to launch platforms and opportunities that allow talented women to emerge. One of these platforms is the art fair that is organized twice a year, one at the Eritrean Festival in expo and another during the holiday season of Christmas and New Year in front of the Ministry of Education building.
Although women are the main players in the Eritrean cultural and arts in particular, their role has been historically unacknowledged. They decorate “hidmo”, craft ornaments, embroider their cloths and hairs and make traditional cuisines.
Seven years ago NUEW assembled artists in a group of fifteen members with Mrs. Negisti Gebremeskel as their coordinator. Since then the group members have increased to thirty and have been hosting the art fairs. Annually handcrafts made of palm leaf, wood, hide, pottery, ornaments and clothing lines made out of cotton are put on display. This year’s exhibition was different as many new inventions were seen.
In an interview at the exhibition, Mrs. Akberet Bahta said that she always looks forward to the events, especially the fair on the holiday season because she is able to give gifts that represent our culture. “What attracted me this year was the washable diaper; I have two kids, one and three years old. The expense of the disposable diaper was getting unbearable but now I could save up by washing and reusing”. Another attendant, Nebil Haji, a high school student, said, “I admire their talents and every single product in the exhibition is useful, but the prices are absurd.” A lot of people agreed with him; most of them said they love the products but the prices scared them off. We talked to three of the artists to help explain the reason behind the prices and for us to explore their work.
Nejat Sulieman, one of the artists who founded the group, has been an artist for almost ten years crafting hide and pearls. She said being a female gave her an insight of what women want. Most of her products this year are earrings, necklaces made of pearl and bracelets for men made of hide. The other artist is Helen Gebru, whose paintings are self-explanatory; they immensely represent our culture and our heroic figures. She started painting in 2005 and then joined the group in 2013. Even though she does all sorts of paintings, this year she focused on wood by burning figures.
Finally, we talked to Sewrawit Anday, the youngest member at the exhibition. It was really difficult to interview her because the number of people inspecting her products was so big. Her artistic works are traditional and abstract ceramic, flower vases made using cement, fridge magnets, and earrings made of paper.
The artists use imported material for their handcrafts, which makes their products expensive. They claim that the prices do not even cover their initial costs. They also said that hand crafted artistic works are hard and take a long time to make, and all over the world this makes them more expensive than industrially produced ones. The artisans massively thanked the NUEW for letting them express their inner talents and they called on other female artists to join the group.
Hearing all that as a woman, I think we are a gift sent to the world and ever since we arrived we have been contributing the precious gifts of being a mother, a wife, a sister, and an artist.