Art and Microfinance

This is a repost from my blog on Kiva Stories from the Field. Check out the site for blogs from other Kiva Fellows across the world.

By Rob Packer, KF10 Colombia

When I first became a Kiva Fellow, I never imagined that one day I’d spend a cold, rainy afternoon in Bogotá discussing the merits of art-as-expression against art-for-profit with an aspiring artist and Kiva borrower.

The Nevera (the fridge as Bogotá is known to costeños for its chilly climate) has a very feel from Colombia’s Caribbean coast where I’m based. Partly this is because you need a coat and an umbrella; but it’s mainly because of Bogotá’s urban charm, which sometimes reminds me of European cities like Madrid; and the more formal and reserved nature of the cachacos (people from the interior of Colombia). Bogotá is also a city of revolutionary urban projects, such as Ciclovía—other cities might boast at closing their streets on Sunday mornings so inhabitants can go cycling or running, but the roots of this began in Bogotá 30 years ago—and the TransMilenio, the urban transportation system of running buses in dedicated lanes—admittedly Curitiba was the pioneer, but Bogotá’s version is often cited as the model when yet another Latin American city opens a network. As the capital, it’s also a national centre of art and on a previous trip to Bogotá some Colombian friends had shown me around La Macarena, a bohemian barrio of the city admiring the street art and imaginative restaurant concepts.

On my next trip one of Bogotá’s credit officers, Luis Carlos, and I headed to the south of the city to visit Germán Gustavo Garzón, a self-taught and aspiring artist as well as Kiva borrower, who lives in a barrio called La Macarena de los Alpes: like its namesake it’s perched on the side of the escarpment overlooking Bogotá, but lies at quite a different end of the socioeconomic scale. As we arrived at the point on the hillside where Bogotá ends and the mountains begin and the rain began to fall, I was struck by how unexpected the situation was: I’ve realized I’m far more used to meeting artisans than artists (for more on the difference in perspective, check out Suzy Marinkovich’s 2009 poston the same topic in Peru).

Germán in his studio in Bogotá.

The view out over the rainy skies of Bogotá.

Germán’s parents moved from the countryside to Bogotá many years ago and began setting up businesses very similar to the microbusinesses that I see on a daily basis: his father worked as a shopkeeper, his mother as a seamstress. Germán told us that “A muchos de los papás de mis amigos era impensable que su hijo pueda ser pintor, o poeta (To a lot of my friends’ parents, it was unthinkable that their son should become a painter or a poet).” As if to express the irony of this view, all of their children developed an artistic streak of one kind of another; Germán told us that during his childhood, the house would be dominated by his two sisters dancing on the staircase—both are now contemporary dance and performance art teachers—while Germán painted and his brother wrote poems and short stories on a typewriter. For much of his childhood and adolescence, he had no formal artistic training and only started taking courses in the past few years. It was at a woodwork class at the Escuela de Artes y Oficios—an organization with links to FMSD—where he attended an information session with two Bogotá credit officers and became a borrower with FMSD.

Paints, paid for by Germán's Kiva loan.

In my experience of microfinance, it can often be difficult to support a family member in their dreams as an artist: I have come to learn that it’s an incredible luxury for a Kiva borrower’s child to attend music or ballet classes and a sign that their business is going well. Germán’s response to these needs has been to bridge the gap between microentrepreneur, artist and artisan, and to do both: he used his first loan to invest in materials, which he uses to create artisan works (art-for-profit) and it’s the proceeds from these artesanías that then support him in his true passion, art-as-expression, either as work for friends, for art shows or socially-minded projects such as murals in the local community or performance art with marginalized groups in Colombian society.

As the conversation continued to a rainstorm and background music from Beirut, Sigur Rós and Björk against a view over southern Bogotá, adding to the magic, it emerged that both Luis Carlos and I were frustrated artists—he a painter or sculptor, I a photographer or writer—beaten as we both became to realize that art wasn’t for us.

Germán as artisan, showing us a lamp that he makes to be sold in artisan shops in Colombia.

Germán as artist. This painting representing his grandmother was one of his first paintings and was what made his realize he should follow the path towards becoming an artist.

Meeting people like Germán is one of the most rewarding parts of being a Kiva Fellow. It makes you realize that in spite of the difficulties that borrowers might experience, sometimes vocation is vocation. It made me thankful to know that microfinance provides people like him with the means to pursue their dreams.

Rob Packer is a Kiva Fellow currently working with the Fundación Mario Santo Domingo in Barranquilla, Colombia. There are borrowers from Colombia with FMSD who you can help by contributing to a loan today, and many other entrepreneurs from around the world on the Kiva site.

No nostalgia

By Rob Packer

You know something is badly wrong when a country that most people I speak to have never heard of spends most of the day at the top of the BBC news website. Today the country with this dubious honour was Kyrgyzstan, a country I spent nearly three months living in at the end of 2009.

The front page of the BBC News website today.

As news slowly trickled out of Kyrgyzstan over the day here in Colombia, which I’m guessing has a lot to do with the restricted access to the internet that most news organizations have mentioned, I found myself recognising parts of central Bishkek in a completely different context: I’d last seen Ala-Too Square (Bishkek’s main square) decked out with a New Year’s tree and families taking photos and it came as a shock to recognise the buildings around it as a backdrop to protesters with machine guns or seeing photos of bloodstained police and protesters on Chuy, one of Bishkek’s main roads.

The events are scarily similar to a fast-forwarded version of the Tulip Revolution five years ago where protests began in a provincial city where demonstrators occupied government buildings and spread to the capital, except that it has taken a day rather than four for protests to spread to the capital, and that the violence has been far, far worse with at least 40 dead and at least 400 wounded: statistics that a blogger at NewEurasia.net calls “remarkably low” in view of the “explosive violence”.

When I left Kyrgyzstan in December, the rises in utility prices had recently been announced that would increase the price of heating, water and electricity by up to five times. Utility prices in Kyrgyzstan were already expensive at what colleagues said was around US$50 a month: given the poverty that I saw while I was working there with Kiva, I couldn’t see how a lot of people would be able to make ends meet, and there was a lot of resentment of this. Meanwhile, the president—who had campaigned to fight corruption—was busy installing members of his family in positions of power, most notoriously his son Maksim who became the head of the development agency in late 2009 and was widely considered as being groomed as the president’s crown prince, following in the footsteps of Azerbaijan—and similar to what some are saying about post-Karimov Uzbekistan. At the same time, he was widely considered to have rigged the presidential elections of 2009 running against a seemingly invisible opposition, and journalists were turning up dead with an unsettling frequency.

In a country with a people who seem to regard it as free—very much a relative term in Central Asia—the scenes in Bishkek today seemed anything but that. It reminded me most of Karimov’s signature massacre at Andijon in Uzbekistan where the death toll estimates lie over an absurdly wide range between 200 and 1,500 people. It remains to see what will happen in Kyrgyzstan, now that the president appears to have fled to the mostly quiet south or to have let the country. I hope for the sake of Kyrgyzstan, that this means a freer and more democratic country; unfortunately it remains to be seen how a poor, mountainous republic surrounded by larger, more totalitarian states can hold on to that democracy.

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