Photo: Katherine Wolkoff
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A levee breaks, and suddenly artists all over New Orleans are forced to rebuild their lives. Half a world away in Rwanda, survivors still fight every day to move beyond the genocide that wiped out nearly one million people. Now women from both countries are making friends, money, and the ultimate fashion statement. Introducing a brand-new O Bracelet!
On a muggy Saturday morning last May, 24 women showed up at the Stella Jones Gallery in downtown New Orleans. They were African-Americans mostly, from girls barely out of their teens to "been there, honey" grandmothers, almost all dressed in tennis shoes and jeans topped off with a bossy pair of earrings. Some came family-style—small clans of mothers, daughters, cousins, aunts—while others arrived arm in arm as teams of friends; all of them artists, carrying bag lunches and cups of take-out coffee, ready for a day of work and gab.
Inside the gallery, the women greeted one another and went off to find jewelry needles—thin wires with a flexible loop at the end—which they'd be using to thread beads with all day. Then they took their places at long folding tables set with bowls and cardboard egg cartons full of round turquoise beads and glittering citrine crystals, bone tiles of zebra-striped batik and nuggets of blazing-red coral. As the conversation jumped between their two favorite topics—food and men—the women sorted through the bowls and egg cartons, picking out beads as though at a buffet.
Stella Jones herself was dressed in trusty straightforward solids, blouse over slacks, silvery Avia sneakers, and, of course, the earrings—$2 white metal hoops. To create this gathering, she had recruited artists from all over the city. Four years post-Katrina, many of the women were still living in temporary homes. Half of them were jobless. But on this day they had a triple purpose—to earn a little money, to welcome two honored guests, and to help make something special: O Bracelets.
See the bracelets
If you own an O Bracelet, thank you: Our four previous editions were crafted by East African women who, for their labor, earned up to 12 times their average daily wage—money that has put food on their tables, sent their kids to school, and paid for the installation of clean water systems in eight villages. Now with the fifth edition, we decided, along with our partner Fair Winds Trading, not only to continue our work in Africa but to extend the project to women in our own country. We chose New Orleans for our home base because, with its rich history, love of jazz, and carnival traditions, it is in many ways the most African city in America.
We also chose a design with two distinct parts to reflect both groups of women coming together: Each bracelet has a patterned disk that sits on the wrist like a watch face, and a beaded band. Stella is managing the beading process in New Orleans, while the disks have been woven by 250 women in Rwanda under the direction of one of today's guests, Janet Nkubana. A champion of improving life for rural African women, Janet has come to Stella's gallery along with a young Rwandan weaver she's trained, Brigitte Nyampinga. They're here to hand off the disks in person and spend a week making bracelets with the local beaders—some of whom are also painters, quilters, sculptors, and textile artists, and one of whom, Rukiya Brown, makes dolls.
Pictured above: After a day of making jewelry together, two visitors from Rwanda bond over a joke with their hosts in New Orleans. Back row, from left: Stella Jones, Asante Salaam, Brigitte Nyampinga (from Rwanda), Beatriz Soco Ocampo. Front row: Chanell Gautreaux, Rukiya Brown, Cely Tapplette-Pedescleaux, Janet Nkubana (also from Rwanda), and Ausettua Amor Amenkum.
We Hear You!