il y a ds yeux bd

Worthy of a National Museum


“Meet one my editors” she said with one of her special smiles as I stood in the hall feeling somehow under scrutiny while a bunch of unpaired eyeballs followed the interaction from the gray wall.

il y a ds yeux bd

 Le Piscine, National Gallery of Modern Art of the city of Roubaix opened its doors to a retrospective exhibition of Nathalie Leté’s works on the 21rst of March 2015.

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An international crowd of dedicated followers merged in with the locals, finding comfort in the colorful opening ceremony after a journey across a black and white city severely lacking contrast.

The visitor can be easily overwhelmed by the south Flanders landscape: plenty of empty and available space with abundant sky, invariably gray; the vague reminiscence of sea shoreline accents the wind gently deposited between the buildings are a reminder that the only available escape route is far away. Red brick storehouses and factories stand empty in what once was the Kingdom of wool of the “belle-Epoque” feeding generations of weavers and soap makers believing the good times would never come to an end end, till “la grande guerre” brought them back to reality.

Stepping off the train in such a setting, the traveler suddenly feels the urge to share his deepest feelings with the bar tender while Jacques Brel fanatically underscores his state of mind in the little radio on the shelf below the liberty style mirror – but  there is no such place in sight where he can unload his burden.

By contrast, Nathalie, wearing a pink fake fur coat, welcomes each single visitor to her world of colour, fantasy and some crude details of central European fairy tales. The museum, a beautifully restored Belle Epoque swimming pool with its glazed turquoise tiles and white marble statues, now a National Gallery, is perfectly in tune with the event.

Compositions of traditional french “charcuterie” hang lugubriously from meat-packer hooks like savagely murdered dolls; a chicken prepared for the Sunday roast, decorated with Hungarian style folk patterns sits enigmatically in a glass cabinet, icon of a sacrificial beast ; pictures of bourgeois families from postcards of times long gone, recoloured for the occasion, depict children dressed as butchers showing off the daily production of fresh meat from the family butchery;

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The tripes of the slain bad wolf lying beside a kitchen sink bring a positive note to the room. “A friend told me the wolf represents the father figure” whispered Nathalie over my shoulder, before welcoming yet another editor and a group of friends from Paris.

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A short corridor, the interior of a gingerbread house, is decorated with elegant limited edition plates by Astier De Villatte and Po! Paris‘s cushions, amongst other products designed for various editors she is particularly fond of.

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Further down, in a larger room, tapestries hang from the wall , depicting a world that would make Lewis Carroll feel like a rationalist geek and revise large sections of his works, along with his choice of tea. Toy cars, a 1950ies version of mickey mouse puppet, all sorts of insects and toy guns, embroidered and woven on an intricate woven carpet -from a distance and a in certain light- easily mistaken for a newly restored renaissance gobelin from the crown’s royal workshops of the Paris left bank.

I proudly took a generous amount of pictures and sent them to our weavers in Albania, knowing this could be a turning point in their towns history.

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La-piscine-tapistry(1)

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The fruit of their passion for embroidery and weaving , centuries of precious craftsmanship, so close to extinction, coupled with a natural penchant for colours, now hang from the wall of a national museum in France, and, what’s more, in Europe’s cradle of the best weaving industry.

Their city can be proud of this group of women from what has been considered a “sensitive” neighborhood.

“Nineteen” Leta once told me when I asked how many people work in the cooperative workshop she operates. A social business in the middle of the “city of walls” where our driver once refused to come along with me to the house because no men from the family were around. I still recall him saying “tu non capisci niente” (you don’t understand a thing) referring to the traditional Albanian codes of conduct he believed were applied to the letter in the area, locking himself in his BMW and leaving me to walk alone to the garden where a single loom stood on the terrace.

That garden is now a two story workshop hosting six looms and a spinning machine to make yarn from the best chosen wool from mountain sheep. A workshop open to the local families providing training and work for skilled weavers, producing items worthy of a National Gallery.

Walking through a corridor leading to the butchery I let myself sink in the underwater world of tropical seabeds of ceramic corals and shells, and more of that extraordinary weaving.

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Yes they are going to be proud, and so are we, to be simply somehow part of the story.

“Thank you for coming” she said at the breakfast table at the hotel were the admirers and friends had spent the night after the long celebration that followed the opening.

Thank you, Nathalie, for making it possible with such talent.

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La-piscine-programme-(2)

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America at last ! (part II)

continued  from America at last ! (part I)

There she was, Drande with her smile and blue eyes, the questions I could never understand, and her sharp sense of humour, next to Teresa, the mother, her strong fingers always in the wool, knotting, weaving, the traditional catholic scarf covering her head.
teresa
Then Leta, the daughter, who had leaped more than two generations ahead, responsible of the women community center of the area.
Sometimes Ana was there too, Leta’s friend and colleague working for the local Ngo dealing with gender orientated social issues.
No man in sight.

Our meetings always ended in a good laugh, drawings scribbled on a loose piece of paper between two piles of coloured wool. A Turkish coffee, and an innocent hand shake.
I would later find my driver smoking and smiling leaning on his BMW in front of Kafe Vivaldi.

This time it was different. The husband was home. We had to talk lead times for the American order.
I was offered a customary raki with the coffee. I couldn’t understand the details of the long story I was told, sitting on the couch in the kitchen.
It was about a man from Turkey who had been going around taking all the wool from the villages.
I tried to picture the man with a wicked smile and escaping carrying bags and bags of the wool that we needed for the American order.
Casually asking if the problem had been solved, Ana spoke of an alternative solution.
Negotiations were going on with a village in Serbia where a producer was to bring a load full of wool of top quality.
I finished the coffee. Ana grabbed the cup with her usual energy and checked the remaining content on the bottom. « It will be okay, she said » putting it back on the table.
With such solid evidence I emailed America to reassure everyone.

On Easter Monday, I am told the Serb never turned up.
The text message was short but precise : « cannot deliver on time ».
Albania, another one of those moments. One never gets used to it. I simply emailed America again dreading the consequences.
On this last trip Aida, from our office in Tirana, is with me. It is dark and late, an unusual time to pay a call to someone.
We push the gate open and notice the peculiar warm light from the house. Every room is full of piles of orange and red wool, cushions in each corner, four looms under the plum tree, ten ladies of all ages working actively.
And four holes in the ground. The foundations of the future workshop.

Leta comes and greets us. She is tired, anxious. Everybody has been working hard, little sleep. Her husband is there, for moral support. No one wants to be in the way. Cold soup and salad, no time to cook till the order is ready.
« I think we are going to make it for Tuesday », she tells me.
She also shows me the prototypes of the new bags, also developed with Nathalie Lété.S05NTL11-sacs-tapis

I remembered again why I kept on working with this amazing country. The people are just to good to be true. No life without passion. You got to give them that.
And they love Nathalie’s designs.

These cushions are changing things in the community. Families get together to achieve a common goal, put aside differences, men accept that their wives don’t serve dinner because their work is more important to the household than rules.
The foundations of the new studio are the proof that they believe things can change.
And Po Paris is glad to be part of it.

Po Paris

As we write we know the cushions are on their way to be delivered. Nathalie Leté’s cushions will be on sale in Anthropologie in the United States and the United Kingdom starting from June 2012.
Please enquire for any other retail stores carrying this item in Europe and Australia (yes, Australia)

tex001d

America at last ! (part I)

They came as group, as usual. Looking great, as usual, smiling the smile jet lag makes kind and generous. As usual.The buyers, a typical trade fair phenomenon. They bring fresh air with them, everybody is happy and good humoured when they come by.
He looked at our floor cushions. « Nathalie Lété ? You know we work with her. »

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I was happy. The right time to tell the whole story, develop a few details, serve everyone a coffee from our special espresso machine, relax a while, talk about old times…
One of the group, an efficient blonde, spoke before I could, mentioning lead time requirements, packing and labeling. The man added a quantity, distracting me from my line of thought.

« You were about to tell us about them » the other blonde with a shade of red said kindly.

Once the right momentum is lost, inspiration can disappear. « you can send us an email, we would like to communicate on that »
Standing there babbling, my mind was back in Albania at the time of our first trips to the North.

“It’s on the news everyday”. The driver had a gift for multitasking.

He could make a phone call, change gears and overtake a truck on a mountain road, racing at full speed. I was glad we engaged in a conversation, hoping he might slow down.
It seems like a long trip to the North. In our early days in Albania even our driver was uneasy to start the journey after sunset. Nothing better than a conversation to let time pass and relax.

He was from Tirana, proud to be a city boy of the capital of Albania, and very critical with regards to the customs of the people from the mountainous North.

“You don’t believe me do you. It can be dangerous, not much for you perhaps, because you are a foreigner…”
It sounded like a place plagued by clan warfare and revenge over trivial matters. A place where one is careful before speaking.
“Isolated episodes you say?” he wasn’t enjoying this. I could sense he was really trying to make me think “A month ago, a man shot a boy because he stole electricity, my father saw it on TvSh, and then there was that one they found in the ditch up in the mountains, they spoke about that even in Germany because he was a German national- an argument over a girl promised to someone else…”
Exaggeration. Typical of the city boys from Tirana. Something you learn here in Albania. There is truth in every sentence, but not always the relevant truth.
Outside the black night was enveloping the countryside. Lights from a roadside hotel approaching and disappearing in the rear mirror.

It was during our first trip to Shkodra that we had met Alketa on the metal bridge built by the Austrians in the 19th century. She mentioned the possibility of making hand knotted carpets in a certain sector of the city where her organization was starting something.

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The city of walls they call it, a « llagja » -neighbourhood in Albanian- sprouted from nothing, built by the families who had come down from the isolated villages in the mountains once they were free to move after the fall of the authoritarian communist regime in 1991.
My driver never enjoyed our trips there, because of the Kanun.
« it’s on the news everyday… »

The  Kanuni i Lekë Dukagjinit “, the traditional common law coded in the 15th century, regulated justice between clans and individuals in ancient Albania, amongst other things.
According to the Kanun, revenge through the use of violence  is a good and straightforward method to pay a moral debt.

The notion of « respect » is essential. You break the rules of respect, your are certain to pay a price. And there is no prescription period as the bill can be settled generations later.
Payment is usually asked to a man, as women play a limited role in the Kanun.
My driver explained that the Kanun had been liberally interpreted after the fall of communism.
In a suddenly fast moving society, modernity and change hit this displaced community very hard with plenty of collateral damage. With unemployment soaring, well organized criminal organizations from east and west made good business with prostitution, child trade and drug dealing. Ancient traditions were seen as the only possible solution to keep the community in one piece. In certain cases extreme measures of violence had been applied to trivial wrongdoings, some of which involving honour.
Each time we drove up to the north I was told in detail about those gruesome episodes, apparently happening at every hour of the day.

That morning walking alone between the high walls in Mark Lulaj, my mind went back to those conversations.
In front of the tall metal gate I felt invisible eyes following me. I avoided turning around, just as I used to in my grand mother’s house’ dark corridor when I was told to go to bed after the evening film. I knocked smiling at my cowardice.
My driver  never came when I needed to go and pay a visit to the girls.
He had particularly insisted on the importance hospitality in the Kanun.
Hospitality is a man’s duty. A household without a man cannot welcome another man under it’s roof.
Till relatively recent times, if a family had lost all it’s men, a young girl voluntarily chose to take the masculine role, so that the family could take part in clan’s activities. She abandoned her femininity, took up swearing, smoking and spitting, wore trousers and become some kind of male creature so that the family could avoid isolation.
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I was working with women who work at home weaving.
A nice project.

To be continued: america-at-last (part II)