Arte es Vida (Art is life). It’s a simple mantra, but for the students, teachers and volunteers at Atelier Favela, a cultural center located near Ticuantepe, it has become the guiding force behind their everyday activities.
Here, students as young as six and as old 23 are given free lessons in art, dance and Capoeira (a Brazilian martial art), with the hopes of providing a creative outlet for disadvantaged youth in the community.
“We want to be a source of inspiration for people regardless of their cultural or social background,” said Sabine Harmes, the founder and director of the center. “Our hope is that they can discover the power of their own creative abilities.”
The seed of what would become this artistic oasis was planted in Harmes’ mind after a summer internship spent in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where she witnessed tremendous poverty, but also tremendous potential.
“Everything about Brazil inspired me,” said Harmes. “The people, the culture, the art, everyday life in the slum. I had a major epiphany there regarding my career path and knew I wanted to make a change.”
After graduating from Delft University of Technology with a degree in Product Design, Harmes returned to Brazil with little more than an idea and a modest grant from the Dutch government. In 2008, after four years of development, Harmes and her partner, Jean Pina, a Venezuelan painter and tattoo artist, opened a shop in a small room allocated to them by the local government. Here they worked for three years until increasing gang violence and a pregnancy forced them to consider other options.
“There would be times when we wouldn’t be allowed to enter the slum for weeks because it was just too dangerous,” recalls Harmes. “As much as it pained me, once I got pregnant I knew that we would have to leave.”
After passing the project on to trusted friends and local artists, the young couple set off for Nicaragua, where safer conditions and an undeveloped art scene fit their requirements to start a new Atelier Favela.
“We wanted to come to Nicaragua because it is a country that lacks a thriving art scene,” Pina said in Spanish. “There is a rich culture here and we would like that to be reflected in the art.”
Pina and Harmes have made Atelier Favela their home, their work, and their life. The walls of the modest-sized building are adorned with vibrant colors, shapes and even original paintings done by Pina and Harmes, many of which are elaborate portraits done of the youth who visit their art center.
The center is staffed by a revolving door of volunteers who come from all over the world to work and live, some for as little as a week, others for as long as eight months. Many of the volunteers are travelers looking for a safe, welcoming place to stay, others are artists seeking tranquility and inspiration as well as an opportunity to share their passion and knowledge with young, eager pupils.
“I’ve been flooded with more knowledge and experience than I could possibly offer,” said Chantael Duke, a dance major at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, Washington. Duke recently spent part of her summer vacation working at Atelier. “A month of time goes by faster than you realize. The space Sabine and Jean have created is beautiful, and I am grateful for the chance to be apart of it, even if for only a fraction of time.”
Classes at Atelier Favela are held Monday through Friday from 2-4 p.m. and again at night from 7-9 p.m. Afternoon classes are held for children ages 6-13 and consist of a variety of artistic projects using recycled materials to create everything from wallets to dream catchers. Evening classes consist of English, dance and Capoeira lessons for adolescents and adults.
“It has been very beneficial for me because I have gained some wonderful friends here,” said Omar Rodríguez, an engineering student at the Universidad de Centro America (UCA) and regular visitor at the center. “I love what this organization does for Nicaragua and I hope other countries can benefit from projects like this as well.”
Raquel Flores, also a student at UCA, has had a similar experience with the center since she began attending classes. “All of us in Atelier Favela are like a big family,” she said; “families that many people here do not have in their own homes.”
The art of ‘Toewaanies’
Aside from providing classes for children, Atelier Favela also hosts interns interested in product design to work with local women in the development of new and unique products. The goal of this particular initiative is to empower women in the community by teaching them useful skills such as sewing, while also allowing them to earn a steady income.
“When we first started working together a lot of the ladies were very hesitant to come, some didn’t even know the difference between centimeters and millimeters,” said Masha Willemse, a Favela intern and Interior Architecture Major at Willem de Kooning Academie in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. “Now they come everyday and are enthusiastic about their work.”
Willemse is in the production phase of the Toewaanie (the name is play on the Nica word Tuanis which means “cool”), a small storage device marketed toward children. Made from recycled jeans, stuffed animals and plastic cups, each individual Toewaanie is unique in its design and handmade by the local women, who are compensated 250 cordobas ($10.60) for every one they complete.
Once production is finished, the products are then sold in Holland. Profits are used to fund the next round of production, as well any materials Atelier Favela may need to continue with classes such as drawing and bracelet making.
While many of her classmates spend their summers in safe, air conditioned architectural firms, Willemse has found that living and working at Atelier Favela has renewed her passion and given her better understanding of what her work really means.
“Every time I think of my work here it just makes me happy,” said Willemse. “To actually be creating my own product and at the same feel like I’m making a difference is completely surreal.”
Although Willemse is leaving Nicaragua at the end of August, the plan is to continue production of the Toewaanies long into the future.
“I want this to be something they can continue to produce independently,” said Willemse. “Once I leave, responsibilities will be passed on to the women with the most experience, this will not only keep income flowing into the Favela but also encourage the women to remain on their path toward independence.”
Whether designing new products, or teaching basic drawing techniques, Atelier Favela is a space where all ideas, perspectives and people are welcome with open arms.
“The only limitations here are the ones we put on ourselves,” said Harmes. “We’re always looking for something new and exciting to help Atelier Favela grow to its fullest potential.”