A Journal of The Human Environment
DESIGNER/builder Magazine
DESIGNER/builder Magazine - Intro
DESIGNER/builder Magazine - Home
DESIGNER/builder Magazine - Who Are We?
DESIGNER/builder Magazine - What Are They Saying About Us
DESIGNER/builder Magazine - How to Subscribe
DESIGNER/builder Magazine Sample Stories
DESIGNER/builder Magazine - Sidewalk Living Rooms DESIGNER/builder Magazine - les Living Rooms DESIGNER/builder Magazine - urbanist Living Rooms DESIGNER/builder Magazine - healing Living Rooms DESIGNER/builder Magazine - radical Living Rooms DESIGNER/builder Magazine - view1 Living Rooms DESIGNER/builder Magazine - fema Living Rooms DESIGNER/builder Magazine - nico Living Rooms DESIGNER/builder Magazine - view2 Living Rooms DESIGNER/builder Magazine - chicago Living Rooms
DESIGNER/builder Magazine - Barefoot Artists

For eighteen years, Lily Yeh was the director of the Village of Arts and Humanities, a nonprofit organization that she founded in inner-city North Philadelphia devoted to helping those devastated by disinvestment and abandonment. Using creative thinking and action through the arts, the Village transformed both landscapes and lives. It became a model of community revitalization and put art and artists in the center of social change (see DESIGNER/builder, December 1998 and January 1999).

By 2001, when the Village was on firm footing, Yeh decided to bring her amazing talents and all that she had learned in North Philadelphia to other parts of the world that are experiencing crushing deprivation and suffering. To that end, she has founded a new organization called Barefoot Artists, which was inspired by the Barefoot Doctors who were sent to the remotest corners of rural China during the Revolution. Her goal is to practice her art in the neediest of communities, to empower people, to bring them the healing power of beauty, and to help create a basis for hope. Her international journey began more than a dozen years ago with a trip to Kenya.

DESIGNER/builder Magazine - Barefoot Artists
DESIGNER/builder Magazine - Barefoot Artists first went to Africa at the end of 1993 on behalf of the Lila Wallace Arts International Grant, whose purpose was to send artists as ambassadors to different countries to learn the local culture and to bring innovative ideas. It allowed artists to go to the host country for three to six months. I went to Kenya, and that changed my life. Three months is a long time, and the first month I just traveled and enjoyed the national parks and met people in diplomatic circles. When I showed people my work in North Philadelphia they said, “You must meet Father Alex Zanotelli.”

Father Alex had inserted himself into Korogocho, a squatter community outside Nairobi of 100,000 of Kenya’s poorest and most destitute people built around a huge dump, which is the only resource they have.

He lived among the poorest people. He lived in the houses they live in, wore the things they wore, ate the things they ate, and in this way he lived the example of Christ. He organized the people so they didn’t just work on an individual scale. He organized them into corporations: the mothers into weaving, the young women into beadwork, the talented artists into a batik workshop, and the drug-addicted and the alcoholics into furniture-making. The most difficult group is the Mukuru, the most despised, the most impoverished, the most oppressed people who go through the trash every day to scratch out their living. And even they have a cottage industry of helping each other recycle and sort in order to make a better living.

Father Alex established a church, called St. John’s Catholic Church, in the heart of Korogocho. Every day thousands of people use that church. He created an informal school with maybe 600 to 800 children who cannot go to other schools.

DESIGNER/builder Magazine - Barefoot Artists

I went to meet him at the church. It was very hard because it’s frightening to go into Korogocho. I was more frightened there than in North Philadelphia. It’s like going into a labyrinth of narrow streets crowded with people, shops, cooking, animals, open sewers, and piles and piles of trash everywhere. But it’s amazing because in that environment there is life; there are people trying to make a living, raising their children. Some of the houses are nailed together and look like rustic art pieces. The streets are built on layers and layers of trash. And the pollution smell is bad. It’s amazing because the city of Nairobi is so beautiful. It’s 7,000 feet above sea level, beautiful terrain, blue sky, dazzling white clouds, and the air is really sweet.

In one part of me I felt that I really could do something in Korogocho, just what I had done in North Philadelphia. I felt that I could maybe make a difference. But I was frightened of the situation, frightened of getting sick. I was frightened even to go in because it’s such a polluted environment. When the wind blows it comes from the bowl of that garbage dump, it blows up in the air, and you can smell the garbage.

So I struggled and struggled, and finally I decided this was just like before I entered North Philadelphia. I was frightened, but I felt that the unfolding of my life depended on this project. I felt there was something I had to understand. And more than anything, I related to Father Alex’s example of living with the poor and working with the poor. He lives the Passion of Christ every day, and you see God every day in that kind of work. I felt touched. I felt compelled. And so I mustered enough courage. My son Daniel was traveling with me. He saw my struggle, and he just said, “Mom, that’s your project.” That really helped me and I went in.

Once I settled in, everything changed. My attitude changed. I opened up. I didn’t live in Korogocho. I was hosted by an art center, called Paa Ya Paa. It’s the oldest East African art center. It helped me with transportation, securing materials, and making connections with local people. Father Alex also got people to help. And I started the most powerful project I’d ever done in my life!

I needed to find a place to paint because I am a painter. The only place that had solid walls was the courtyard of the church. The church is a very big building. One thousand people can sit in it. But outside it’s all just bare cinder blocks, and the courtyard is dirt with small classrooms and an open kitchen. It is right on the edge of the dumpsite, separated by a thin wooden fence. In the heart of the dumpsite is a lake, and from far away it looks nice, green-blue. But it’s a stagnant, dead lake, all fouled with algae. I suspect that at one time it was a quarry.

DESIGNER/builder Magazine - Barefoot Artists

So I said, well, I can paint here, and asked myself what would make sense to paint? I thought painting angels would totally make sense in this churchyard. So I went to Paa Ya Paa, researched the African images they had, and designed a series of angels and a floral theme as a wall mural.

What emerged were the Warrior Angel, the Mama Angel, and the Peace Angel. They’re huge, maybe ten, twelve feet high. And angels from Ethiopia–angels with wings, with no bodies. The way to create beauty is by creating things that are beautiful and that brought life to the courtyard.

Father Alex introduced me to the congregation and showed them the designs and the images so they would understand what I would be doing. Once I started it was wonderful, because the children got so excited. Everybody was very curious. We bought a lot of paints, and I tried to get the children involved in whatever way I could–shaking paints, moving things, setting things up, and so forth. I used very bright colors rather than pastel colors. In such a hopeless place, such a bleak place, a place with no beauty, color becomes energy. It energizes the place. When I would put orange, just simple colors, straight from the can onto the wall, it became energy. It became something hopeful, wonderful. Every time I’d paint, the act of painting became the act of performance, because there was always an audience and they were always amazed at what I was doing. I would sketch, draw with charcoals and so forth, and they’d see an angel, a flower, a pattern emerge. I was always surrounded by people watching in amazement.

The place is so dynamic. It’s so full of life on the verge of death. Sometimes people get desperate and they jump into the lake. I remember one day painting, and suddenly I could see from the church across the lake there were trucks coming in because somebody had jumped into the lake to commit suicide.

I tried not to drink throughout the day so I wouldn’t have to go to the bathroom because the latrine was very difficult. But I had a big bottle of water with me, and one day, as I was painting the Peace Angel holding the dove, a person suddenly stumbled in. He was so thin, so thin. He didn’t have anything on him except a little strip of a bathing suit, like a bikini basically. He didn’t say a word. He just went to my bottle and drank the whole thing. He just gulped it down. I looked at him when he was drinking and I thought I only saw half of a face. He had a pair of huge eyes, but he was so thin that I could hardly see his chin.

Then he fell to the floor and leaned against the wall. He seemed to go to sleep and I didn’t know what to do. I was waiting for somebody to come. Finally Father Alex came with some people. They brought him clothes, but the clothes looked so tattered. There are just no resources. They helped him to put on the clothes. I remember the front of the shoes were kind of open. In America you see unwanted shoes thrown up on utility wires. In Kenya people wear whatever they can. Sometimes it’s a boot and a sneaker that don’t match, and sometimes the front is open like the mouth of a duck. So people got him dressed in something and then took him away. When I saw Father Alex later I asked, “What is wrong with that person?” And he said, “Everything you can think of is wrong with him.” I was sure he had AIDS like 60 percent of Kenya’s population.

DESIGNER/builder Magazine - Barefoot Artists

I continued to work, but I was so frightened of being sick I would cover myself completely. I wore long sleeves, long pants, a head scarf, goggles, and even a scarf over my mouth so I wouldn’t breathe the air. I felt so bad, because people might think that I was trying to insulate myself from the environment they live in, and I hoped the community would understand. But a child came to my rescue. He looked at me and said, “You must be a ninja painter.” Ninjas are Japanese assassins and they’re always covered up on the TV. From then on I called myself a ninja painter.

While I was making this painting I also collaborated with a Kenyan sculptor to create seven sculptures of angels made of eucalyptus trees. They are very beautiful. They are like Chinese tomb figurines in an African style. I designed them and he carved them.

I was looking for a home for the angels, and I found the perfect place. At the end of the courtyard, overlooking the big dumpsite and the lake, there was a huge abandoned concrete block. Originally something must have been built on top of it because I saw reinforcing spikes coming out, and I knew it would be the home for the angels. The location was perfect. On the right side were the latrines. And on the left side there was this slab and a stove-like structure where they burned trash every day. I thought that the angels needed to be in a place just like this, with the danger of the filth and of the despised. The smoke from the burning trash became the incense of the angels. So it all fit together.

I went back six times in the next ten years. During my fourth visit I saw fungus growing on the angels due to the dampness. So we sanded them down. And there was some rot at the bottom. I said we should discard the angels and build new ones. But one of the church members, a deacon, said, “No, you cannot do that. We must bring the angels to our school and we’ll repair them. Before the angels, three people committed suicide in the lake. But after the angels nobody did.”I don’t really know how effective the angels were, but this is what he thinks.

Korogocho, even with the dazzling sun every day, is the pit of the world. The garbage is not just from the city, it’s dumped from airplanes. One day suddenly there was a lot of excitement and people started running in a certain direction. I said, “What’s going on?” And the people with me said that because the airplanes are dumping today at a certain place, they would go there to try to find food. And they can find food. That’s when I realized Korogocho’s dump is international and is directly connected to the way of life of the rest of the world.

Eventually I had a crew of workers from the community helping me to paint, and the courtyard now has lots of color. And not only on the murals. We painted on the fences, wherever we could touch the surface. When we installed the angels, you could feel the joy. And the church planned a very big dedication festival. I felt we needed the people from outside to see how 60 percent of Kenyans live on 1.5 percent of the land. Sixty percent of people in Nairobi live around garbage dumps. There are about a hundred garbage dumps in Nairobi. Korogocho is the third largest, but because of the crime it’s the most vicious. These people don’t have electricity or water. They don’t exist for the government.

I asked my host at Paa Ya Paa to invite all the embassy people to attend the dedication ceremony. I wanted them to see how these people live and to know that the strength and the power and the determination of the community could make something so beautiful in the midst of such garbage and hellishness. We didn’t think the American ambassador Aurelia Brazeal would come because there was no word from her. But that morning she came herself, mingled with the people, and held the children. It was really amazing. And there were embassy people from Switzerland, Germany, Italy, and so forth. It was like a sudden light coming into this hellhole. There was Father John from Italy, and he couldn’t believe the colors. The community had produced a lot of batik, baskets, and all kinds of things. They displayed their creations and their talent. Father Alex wore a beautiful beaded Masai frock. Everybody lined up and we walked from the church into the courtyard and we blessed every single piece of the mural and the sculptures with rice and water and we prayed. We welcomed the guests, had gifts for the guests, and the children sang. It was so beautiful. It was just like a heavenly chorus. And I said, “What do they say?” And the translator replied, “We welcome you, we welcome you, our guests, but when you go please do not forget about us, and please come back and visit us again.” Father Alex said it’s important that we bear witness so that the people’s suffering is not in vain and so they will feel they are not forgotten.

DESIGNER/builder Magazine - Barefoot Artists

For me personally that changed my life. I felt that together with the community we pushed open the dark heavy gates of hell and let in sunlight. Father John said to me, “You want to see a miracle? This is the miracle.” I felt the power of art and the power of doing things together. And things did change, because after that, the Italian embassy created a cottage industry for cards. I helped Paa Ya Paa get the Rockefeller and the Ford Foundations to do an entrepreneurial program. And we launched a local newspaper that was picked up later by other more professional people. So different things did happen.

That was the first year. It changed my life. But as in North Philadelphia after the first summer, I had fulfilled my promise and had no intention of staying. The same thing happened in Korogocho. I was so happy to go home and return to my normal life. It’s more predictable. It is not full of danger. Yet the image of Korogocho came to me every day – Father Alex, the life there, the people singing, the worship. It just haunted me every day and I knew I had to go back. There was just something so profound I needed to be in touch with.

I went back in 1995 with Heidi Warren, a staff member at the Village of Arts and Humanities, and a filmmaker, Glenn Houston, who wanted to do a documentary. Eventually he created a one-hour film about my work at the Village and Korogocho. Every time I went back, I went deeper into the heart of Korogocho, eventually to the dumpsite to work with some of the Mukuru people.

That was the beginning of Barefoot Artists. It has been supported by foundations and private donations. Compared to the Village of Arts and Humanities, it is very modest. It’s an organization almost without overhead, although I try to pay local people to help out. Almost every year after my first trip to Kenya I did an international project. I went to Mali. I went to Ivory Coast where I did a project in a tiny village. I did a project in Ghana. And then I did one in Matera, Italy, which is a UNESCO World Preservation Site. Last year five individuals paid their own way to join me on my trip to Rwanda where I’m deeply involved in a project in a refugee resettlement village. I’m also working on projects in China.

My focus is in world culture and working with different peoples, seeing how effective the Village model is in empowering local people in a relatively short period of time. Under that model you honor local talent, embrace and transform the unusable. It’s like human ecology. You have the ability to see the potential of all the unusable and the discarded, to cultivate and transform through goodwill, creativity, joy, and togetherness. And then you open up a new space, which I call a democratic space, through art – a new space that is not taken by the existing order, so people can step in on equal footing. Then you paint the vision for the people. You give it direction and say what is possible. You let people imagine and describe what they imagine. You articulate that through words and art. You use what they can give. Everybody donates according to their talent and ability.

The artist’s role is to take all these seeds and gifts from the people and include them in making something beautiful, based on their understanding, experience, and particular kinds of training. That is the Village model. And then you build hope and strength rather than despair. You can make it small, you can make it big. But it’s all-inclusive, it’s embracive. And when people have goodwill you do not need to guard your project. That’s what makes it very economical. Here is a wonderful way, not disturbing the existing order, but transforming, from the bottom up, from the lowest, and from the polluted and poisoned. And you stir it up. What you get is the wonder that comes out of the richness of human experience.Designer/builder Magazine