Alice Spencer and the artists of Hurumzi Henna Art Gallery, June 2013
For centuries, the veiled women of Africa, the Middle East and Asia have celebrated weddings and holidays by having hands and feet dyed with henna. The artists who create the elaborate patterns of flowers and arabesques are women, and the handicraft has been a rare way for them to earn money in cultures where work outside the home is discouraged, if not forbidden.
About six years ago, a group of Zanzibari women who were masters of Swahili body painting learned to transfer their traditional designs to paint on canvas and paper. The work combines the flowing floral patterning, typically in dark executed in brown or black dye, with vibrant colors and sometimes collage or contemporary imagery. It gives the women new forms of expression and, equally important, the opportunity to earn income within the context of family life.
Painting by Queen Sherry
Some of their first works were purchased by the Vipaji Foundation and exhibited the around the world in 2008-2009. Our friend, Maine artist Alice Spencer, spent a month in Stone Town in 2010 through a grant from the U.S. State Department. She taught twelve artists print-making techniques on cloth and paper, generating new lines of expression, in the form of notecards and textiles, appealing to tourists.
Alice’s work inspired a collaborative print project matching the Zanzibari artists with members of Portland’s Peregrine Press. At the opening of “DUNIA MOJA/ONE WORLD,” an exhibit of the work in Portland in 2011, we first met Aimee and Mark Bessire and heard about the work of Africa Schoolhouse. Thus, it seemed very fitting to conclude our stay in Tanzania with 10 days in Zanzibar, helping to plan renovations for their gallery/studio.
Card by Jamilla Mataka
One of the goals of the project is to help build a brand identity for the henna artwork that is recognized in Zanzibar, Tanzania and throughout the world. By creating sustainability for the gallery, the artists will be able to buy materials and continue their art and their livelihoods. A two-year grant from Alice, with assistance from the Tanzania Gatsby Trust, will fund the renovations as well as advertising, a web presence, and training for the artists in sales and marketing.
View down Hurumzi Street, toward the Gallery
The studio/gallery is located on Hurumzi Street in historic Stone Town, among a maze of galleries, hotels and shops. It is a handsome three-story former house with many distinctive original details—arched niches, stained glass and beamed ceilings. However, the storefront is narrow, and turned away from the flow of traffic, with no visible presence in an already chaotic retail environment. Inside are three compact, ground floor galleries with high ceilings but haphazard, exposed wiring and dim fluorescent strip lighting. The first, or middle, floor is presently underutilized, but has potential for offices or additional exhibit space, and the top floor contains a large studio and projecting balcony.
View into the gallery from Hurumzi Street, future site for carved shutter
Workshop session in the studio
Our first day was spent assessing the web of existing low- and high-end retail establishments, especially the half-dozen others run by or for women’s art and craft cooperatives. We analyzed signage and displays, as well as how they communicated about the craftspeople and their work. We took note of the architectural building blocks of Stonetown and the scale and texture of the interwoven streets. We held four meetings with the artists. In the first, we listened to their ideas about needs and potential improvements, and then worked together, sharing our ideas and their perspectives. We were delighted to walk past the gallery one morning midway through and see them busy working on ideas for the signage.
Design for decorative shutter
Over the course of a week, we created measured drawings and a three-dimensional computer model of the building and began brainstorming about what would make the gallery space more attractive to tourists, especially art lovers. Our suggestions focused increasing visibility in subtle ways, in contrast to the other shops nearby, and enhancing the customer’s comfort level and viewing experience. The ideas ranged from tasks that could be implemented by the artists, to projects that would require contractors and all were agreeable to the artists:
· A sign hanging over the front door, perpendicular to the pedestrian traffic flow, emblazoned with the new name and silhouettes of the artists’ hands, a play on the traditional of hand-painting and the mark of the artist.
· A mural on the wall that faces the main traffic route, incorporating the artists’ motifs and the hand. This was quickly changed to a pierced wood shutter for the window there, since wall graphics are not permitted in the Historic District, and cut-out wood screens are a traditional feature.
· New, adjustable, energy-efficient LED track lighting for all three galleries, to focus on the artwork and provide flexible arrangements for grouping the work.
· Painting exterior and interior walls and floors, with a dramatic color for the entrance gallery, to draw visitors in from the street.
· A simple wood valence for the galleries to conceal wiring and create a hanging system adaptable to different sizes of work.
Perspective view showing the shutter and signs in place, and views into the gallery
Overall view of the three galleries
As with our work for Africa Schoolhouse, coming up with design ideas was just the first step. We also had to figure out how our suggestions could be implemented and find ways to communicate unfamiliar ideas to the craftsmen—a tall order in a new locale with just a few days left. Project Manager Mussa Sharif arranged for us to meet with a painter and electrician at the gallery to discuss scope and budget. We visited a wood carver’s workshop to discuss how the shutter/sign might be constructed. With artist and gallery manager Said Sayef as our guide, we scoured a half dozen lighting shops from one end of Stone Town to the other. However, none carried LED track lights with lamps of the right combination of beam spread, color rendition and efficiency.
We created a booklet, in hard and electronic versions, to convey the ideas to contractors, review agencies and potential funders. It combined photos and hand sketches with the 3D views, photographed in our hotel room and sometimes sent down to the front desk for printing and then annotating.
After we returned home, we reviewed the concepts with Alice Spencer and continued to refine the details, while she prepared for a visit in early June to make it all happen. Although we found some track and fixtures online from Nairobi, Kenya, the cost was well beyond the modest construction budget. Fortunately, we sourced a track and fixtures that were simple, inexpensive sockets, able to accept a range of lamps and beam spreads. An online source for lamps could ship them to Zanzibar in about 3 weeks. Alice bought the track and fixtures at Lowe’s in Portland and brought them to Zanzibar June, where she had an intense and amazingly productive week finalizing arrangements for the renovation work. We were delighted to receive her photos of the work in progress—and look forward to full details when she returns.
Scott conferring with the caprenter about fabricating the shutter
The shutter nearly finished, June 2013