The Bag Ladies of New York
During my many visits to Paraguay, I have been building up a collection of handicrafts, and other artwork and objects from the various indigenous communities. Wherever possible I have bought direct from the makers, but I have also made purchases from some of the visitor centres and museums which often sell on behalf of the artisans. One of the most amazing works of craftsmanship are the woven bags, made by the women of many of the Chaco indigenous groups. These are made from fibres extracted from a ground growing bromeliad (rather pineapple like, but very spiny), and the fibres are hand spun and dyed using plants that grow in the Chaco. The whole thing is a very laborious process, and unsurprisingly it is rapidly dying out, as the younger women are no longer learning the techniques. (I did write about it and show an image of an Ayoreo lady making fibre for weaving out of these bromeliad leaves in WLT News issue No 31, page 3.)
A bag of this type from a visitor centre or museum generally costs between $5 and $10 depending on where it is bought. By western standards this is fairly cheap, and I am always quite happy to pay the modest asking prices, as clearly selling handicrafts is one of the few ways that the indigenous communities can derive any income, and it uses materials from the forests in a sustainable way. I was therefore somewhat horrified to find these same bags being sold for US$170 to trendy New Yorkers by ******* of ********* “artisanal lifestyle brand”, who apparently believes, quite poetically, that these bags…. allow a city girl to feel close to the kind of woman that lives out a different type of reality “The women who are walking in the desert, taking care of the animals and children, and weaving her dreams one-by-one, stitch-by-stitch.”
I don’t think I have ever read such exploitive drivel in all my life. Most of the women that make these bags have largely been forced out of the forest into squalid ‘concentration camps’ by Christian missionaries, where they now eke out a bare living next to the relatively wealthy Mennonites who have taken over their lands. And will the City Girl in New York swinging her bag that cost $170 as a fashion icon, care that the person who made the bag, possibly only got $5 or $10 out of her $170? Somehow I doubt it. Of course I may have got all this completely wrong, and the ladies of the Chaco are all being paid $70 a bag, and they are continuing to sell them to tourists at only $5 because they get so much for the ones they sell to the luxury goods market. A normal business practice. Let’s hope they are getting a fair price in ratio to the selling price.