Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Week with Marcella: Day 2

The focus of Tuesday was to evaluate and understand Chantal’s existing raw material situation by seeing what she had readily accessible to her in the marketplace as well as from local natural resources—as a means of honoring traditional production methods and reducing her environmental footprint. The day started off bright and early amidst the winding and crowded stalls of Kpalimé’s hub of economic and cultural activity. Markets around the world can be incredibly expressive and revealing of a community’s identity, and so it was important for Marcella to see the market to gain a greater understanding of Togolese culture and its influences and supplies for Chantal.   
            Ashley led us around the usual route, first to the beads where we found an amazing necklace of clear recycled glass, and then past nuts and the stacked pagne, gesturing to the road selling mixed hardware, all the while getting stopped every 5 minutes to say hello to someone because she’s so popular.  After extracting herself from these different conversations we finally submerged into the depth of the market.  Taking a side cut through a small alley past the predatory Moto drivers, we were at once lost inside the stalls, being hustled and bustled and making our way past containers, soccer jerseys, beads, and pagne to the structure that housed the concentration of fabric.  We walked upstairs past the mounds of used shoes, and at the sight of racks and racks of pagne and batik, Marcella immediately laughed and said, “Uh oh I’m in trouble”. I laughed and told her, “it’s ok we’ve all been there, I was in trouble maybe two days after I got here, so I know the feeling.” 
Marcella was very interested in the range of fabrics on display, especially pagne, bazin, batik, kente weavings, linen, and canvas.  For someone claiming to be in trouble, she only bought two beautiful patchwork pagnes that she didn’t even keep, as she gave them both to Chantal to use as the foundation for Aklala’s new collection. While touring the dilapidated building, we told Marcella of how the government had built a brand new replacement located on the outskirts of the market. The goal was not only to improve the physical structure but also to organize all of the marché mamas in a much more efficient setting and system. The new building is beautiful, featuring perfect construction and personalized stalls, but the women have completely boycotted it. They don’t want to change locations from their established spots to something so foreign and sterile. For most of these women, the market is just as social as it is economic, where they pass time by chatting and gossiping with friends and community members and also supporting each others enterprises. The ties that bind culture to commerce in many developing world communities are often not fully understood by policy makers. This exemplifies why you have to first talk to people to determine their needs and wants, rather than investing all this money in a top-down and ineffective fashion, based on western views and exigencies.  Now this beautiful big new building rests vacant and languishing, taking up space and funds that could have been directed to more vital ventures. After walking around and comparing different fabric qualities, compositions, designs and colors we all had a better understanding of Chantal’s material limitations and her opportunities for improving the quality of her products.
            So we plunged deeper now into the food market, colliding into a stimulating parade of grains, tomatoes, corn, garlic, rows of fruits and vegetables, fish and meats, preparation stands, beans, and yams. It was a smorgasbord of produce and a sensory overload but incredibly inspiring from a design point of view in terms of shapes, colors and textures. Fruits I’ve never seen before with names I can’t pronounce are juxtaposed next to the usual suspects of pineapples, mangoes, bananas, avocados, tomatoes, garlic, peppers, lemons, beans, limes and carrots.  We move on and weave through craft stands, toy stands, hardware stands, used clothing stands, grain stands, tchouk tchouk stands, all amidst people milling about, chatting, smiling, heckling, shouting, running, cooking, sleeping, laughing, singing and dancing.  We finally reach the end of the maze, and even though we could probably spend an entire day meandering through the market, it was time to go up to Mt. Kuma to search for colored vegetable dyes made from local plants, fruits and vegetables. 

 Motorcycles were to transport us up the windy mountain to get to the artisan workshop where the dyes are concocted.  The serpentine road is lined with lush vegetation, spectacular scenery, cascading waterfalls and abundant fruit trees and as we climbed higher we reached a clearing where a vision of Kpalimé’s cluster of clay red roofs emerged in the basin below. It felt like the lush forests of Peter Pan’s Neverland, all the while zooming around sharp turns and bouncing from the potholed roads. It was one of the most amazing rides of my life. We finally arrived at the workshop and of course the promised dye wasn’t ready yet, so while one man worked to finish, some others distracted us by presenting the different plants they used to derive the colors, and a basic overview of how they make it into a dye.  It was fascinating, one man would hold up a normal looking greenish/brownish leaf, squish it together, start rolling it around, and all of the sudden this terracotta color liquid started oozing from his palms.  I’ve never seen anything like it.  He told us that it’s what a lot of local women use for lipstick, and offered to put it on Ashley; he clearly had a crush on her.  While it was a tad bright for lip stain, it could be a beautiful product color for fall. In addition to showing us the dye process, the workshop also had a beautiful collection of artwork and local butterflies on display. The wings of the butterflies were just as bright as the colors of the vegetable dyes. We still had to wait for the paint to finish fermenting, so the men invited us to sit around a table and started playing the drums and xylophone for us. The music was so simple but so charming and I couldn’t stop smiling throughout the entire performance.

            Finally, the vegetable dyes were ready, so we climbed back on the motorcycles and started our descent to Chantal’s so she could start experimenting with their implementation and creating her own colors.  Even though we wouldn’t be able to incorporate them into the collection we were creating this week, as there was too much time and investment needed to perfect the coloring and composition for fabric use, it was such an important process to initiate and get the ball rolling. Momo accompanied us back to the workshop and explained to Liza and Akou some of the basic processes and materials that would be needed to make the dyes. Chantal let Liza and Akou learn the dye process because her fingers were glued to the sewing machine, working on product construction.
 She had ballooned off from the pagne flowers she experimented with yesterday and had made around 15 of them, adoring them all on an already printed flour sack.  This was her first day of experimenting with creating products and I think she got a littler overeager with all of these new ideas she wanted to implement. The problem was that she had too many ideas at once competing with each other, and she needed to tone it down and focus on one or two main design elements per bag, allowing each to be appreciated.  In addition, by observing her processes, we saw how beneficial having product patterns would be, as she’s currently the only one that can cut product dimensions correctly.  This means Chantal is in charge of cutting, construction and overall direction. Even if she delegates Mama to sew something, she still has to sit around and wait for the fabric to be cut as Chantal doesn’t trust her to do it correctly due to her deteriorating eyesight.  To make matters worse even her sewing can be problematic, we have witness curved and uneven stitched, incorrect product dimensions and poorly attached accents. This makes Chantal either have to go back and redo most things Mama does, or not give her tasks at all, which then just piles on her own workload.
Soon evening crept up and the sun began to set, nights without electricity mean that the workshop pretty much shuts down and everyone goes home at the firs hint of dusk. Everyone that is, except for Chantal, who kept sewing well into the darkening night because she was determined to finish the marché bag before bedtime. Before leaving we gave her a plan for the next day to finish two bags, a pillowcase, and the leatherwork and told her we would meet at the workshop early the next morning to dive head first into completing the collection.  Even though she hadn’t really completed much that day in terms of finished product, we recognized that this was the result of process and employment encumbrances, not for lack of motivation. Once again over a dinner of Belgian frites and chocolate crepes we discussed strategic plans to help Chantal better manage her time, organize the layout of her workshop, and have more basic resources such as patterns at her disposal to simplify her process. The motivation and ambition is there, improvement is possible, but there are going to be a lot challenges and setbacks to work through before all of our goals can be realized.  But we aren’t even remotely defeated, seeing their limitations, inexperience, and rudimentary processes aren’t a dead end, they’re opportunities for positive and progressive change. 

No comments:

Post a Comment