On a crisp evening last November, over a delicious alfresco meal of fried fish, steamed green beans and roasted potatoes, my dinner companion and I reflected on our day and what we had seen and experienced.
We were in the café of our hotel in Bandiagara, Mali, and had spent the day visiting with women who are part of a women’s shallot-growing cooperative that has been working with LWR since 2005. I was traveling with Jann Rosen-Queralt, a Baltimore-based artist who was in the research phase for a new project. With support from the Osprey Foundation, Jann had come to Mali to learn about LWR’s work with water, and – pardon the pun – the ripple effects that access to water can have in a community. The experience would form the basis of an art exhibition examining the intersections of water and culture, and the need for water access in the developing world. I had the good fortune to be the LWR staff member who accompanied Jann on her journey of discovery.
LWR has worked to increase access to water for the shallot growers, who used to depend on Mali’s meager rainfall to eke out a single harvest each year. With reliable water, they’re now harvesting three times a year and their crops are healthier. But the benefits these women have reaped go far beyond the additional income they are now earning to support their families.
Take Fatoumata, a 32-year old who’s learning to read and write for the first time. “I want to improve and develop myself,” she said. “This project helped to open my mind.”
Or Isa, the president of the village women’s associations, who shared with us her fears and vulnerability on the day she was elected to that role. “When I was chosen president it was a wonderful day,” she said. “But after the happiness, I got afraid, thinking, ‘they chose me to be president, this is a big responsibility, how will I do it? Oh, I have a headache.’ But then I turn to my heart and I am trying to do my best.”
Or Somina, 35, who treated herself to some new clothes when she had a little extra money, a luxury that would have been unthinkable before. “Because of the shallot project, my life is great,” she says. “I create my own change. Now, I have shoes, I have a full stomach. Before, the food was not enough; now it’s enough.”
These remarkable women and their voices are the centerpiece of Water Sonettos, the exhibit that Jann created after her return to the U.S. Currently showing at Baltimore’s In/Flux Gallery, Water Sonettos showcases Jann’s work along with that of other women artists exploring our relationship to water. Walking among Jann’s tall, fabric-covered sculptures triggers sound recordings of the women speaking, sharing their stories in their own words. Hearing them transported me back to the Mali countryside, and I almost felt that once again I was dancing in the dust with my shallot-growing sisters, celebrating their success all over again.
Water Sonettos is on exhibit until May 24. If you’re in the Baltimore area, please come by and see this fantastic art that was inspired by the work of LWR:
307 West Baltimore Street