Two Tacoma artists, Lynn Di Nino and Jim Robbins, will leave T-Town Monday on their way to Africa along with Seattle artist Marsha Conn and six other Seattle-based artists to bring smiles to the Batwa Pygmies of Uganda.
"Marsha has received grants and organized a group of nine artists to go to Uganda from Jan. 10 through Feb. 9. She's been to Uganda four times with Smile Power, the dentist group (that) fixes teeth all over the world," Di Nino says. "She discovered that the Batwa Pygmies had been thrown out of their forest by the Ugandan government in favor of the gorillas. They now live at the edge of the forest."
The Pygmies' only source of income is from weaving baskets and selling them to the tourists.
Di Nino says the grants Conn received will pay for land transportation once there and also for art supplies and equipment. Some local businesses, including Northwest Costume, have donated money for supply purchases. "This particular donation will go toward buying a treadle sewing machine, which I will buy in Kampala," Di Nino says.
Conn says she started going to Uganda with the International Smile Power dental foundation as an artist working with children and adults in schools and orphanages. "They work in Bolivia and Jamaica and did go to Nepal and the Cook Islands. The children made animals on batik fabric, which was later made into a quilt and sold at the Smile Power annual fundraiser.
"While I was there, I came in contact with the Batwa Pygmies," Conn says. "They were evicted from the Impenetrable Forest in 1992 when the government wanted to socialize the mountain. As a result, the Batwa became ‘conservation refugees.' Their entire way of life was changed from hunter-gatherers to not being able to live off the land and having to learn a new way of life.
"One day I was walking down the road with Dr. Scott Kellermann, an infectious disease specialist who started a medical clinic in Bwindi and began treating the pygmies. We stopped to talk to a woman who was sitting on a blanket with her baby and next to her was a pile of beans. I learned that this was all she had. When I returned to Seattle, I realized that I had more than I would ever need and so many people I had met in Uganda had nothing. This is what motivated me to do something to help the Batwa."
The artists on this trip to Uganda will be jewelry and furniture maker Carol Brady; Judy Chambers, a photographer who will document this project; Di Nino, who works in many different media and has organized many successful arts projects in Tacoma; Cheryl Johnson, ceramic artist, art teacher, fabrics and jewelry; ceramicists Annie Moorehouse and Elinor Maroney; Jim Robbins, a videographer from Tacoma who may be familiar due to his "Tacomasaurus Rex" from the Tacoma Artist's Postcard Project; and Seattle painter Joan Robbins.
"(Conn's) intent is to have we nine artists explore with them their own interest in making things," Di Nino says. "We will also discover just what their art-making resources are. Reeds? Metal? Natural clay? Found objects? What about incorporating their love of music into salable products, i.e., instruments, taped music, dance costume paraphernalia?"
Jim Robbins was a student in Berkeley in the '60s with Country Joe and the Fish and Alice Waters (food maven) as neighbors. He's done a lot of similar projects in places such as Burma, Cambodia and the slums of Bangkok. Both Robbins and Di Nino went to Cuba to work on art projects as past of a Sister City exchange program.
"I got involved in refugee causes, first along the Thai-Burma border, and then elsewhere. It became a calling that used art to help others' lives," Robbins said. "Lynn and I have been friends since before Burma, so she knew enough to make sure I got evolved in the Batwa project."
Conn says all of the artists are "multi-talented," have traveled a lot and are "mature" (they're all over 60). And they will each pay their own expenses.
"It is important that whatever we make with the Batwa tells their ‘story' and says something about their culture and where they came from. Otherwise, their culture is at risk of being lost," Conn says.
These artists will be in Uganda through Feb. 9. They will be working with 42 Batwa from nine different settlements in the region.
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