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Art of renewal

Mayan artists aren't concerned with end of the world; they're just struggling to survive

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All over the globe, there are doomsayers who believe the world will end on Dec. 21, 2012, the day the current Mayan calendar runs out.

But indigenous Mayans themselves -- at least, the ones Winnipegger Kevin Harmer has befriended in Guatemala -- don't seem worried about it.

"They hardly think about it," says Harmer, who has lived in a Guatemalan town from December through April for the past eight years. "Mostly, they're thinking about how to feed their kids."

Harmer's Mayan friends, like most Mayan scholars, say the end of the ancient calendar just means the start of a new era or cycle. Harmer has chimed in with that idea of hope and rebirth by organizing a Winnipeg show and sale of works by Mayan artists, aimed at raising funds to lift them out of poverty.

"I feel what we're doing is a kind of renewal," says Harmer, 56, a single Transcona resident who makes his living as a meditation teacher.

The exhibition, Mayan Families, is on view on two levels of the Mennonite Heritage Centre Gallery (on the Canadian Mennonite University campus) until Aug. 11. Most of the works range in price from $100 to $500. Harmer isn't a Mennonite, nor a trained artist or curator, but the show fits the gallery's multicultural mandate.

It includes 50 paintings and 10 large wall-hangings by Mayan artists, as well as 50 photos that Harmer has taken of the artists, their families and the town.

The works range from scenes of fishermen, outdoor markets, calla lilies and marimba players to depictions of ancient Mayan deities, such as a god of thunder and rain. A vibrantly coloured painting called Bullets & Tears recalls the country's civil war (1960-1996) during which thousands of indigenous people were racially targeted and killed.

Harmer, whose heritage is part-Cree, studied meditation in India over a 20-year period and has travelled to more than 50 countries. But Guatemala, one of the poorest countries in Latin America, is the one that has captured his heart.

San Pedro la Laguna, the town where he rents a house each winter, is on the shore of a beautiful volcanic lake. It's a coffee-growing area where the population is predominately Mayan and people still do traditional weaving, beading and embroidery at home.

Harmer communicates with them in Spanish, but their first language is a Mayan dialect that is only understood in four towns. Tourism helps them survive, but in the off-season it's a constant struggle. That's why Harmer has organized an informal artists' co-op.

He advances the painters and textile artists money to support their families, then sells their works in Winnipeg. He flies here with hockey bags stuffed with rolled-up paintings and fabric works, frames some of them, and generally markets them from his home by word of mouth. This is the first time he has held a formal show.

It's not a profitable enterprise, but rather an attempt to make positive change in the lives of about five Mayan artists' families who have become as close as relatives to Harmer. "I lose money annually," he cheerfully admits.

The five households can now afford to send their children to school. "It doesn't take much to make a huge difference," Harmer says.

He has equipped them with computers, and with cameras so they can keep a record of their artworks. He has also become a connoisseur of used clothing, which he buys in huge quantities in Guatemala, both to cut up for fabric works and to help his friends dress well.

"They're very fashionable people," he says. "It is said that a Mayan's job is to be beautiful, because the gods feed off the energy of that beauty.... My room (in San Pedro) often looks like Value Village."

Because the artists can't afford to travel or buy books about Mayan art -- such as stone and bone carvings unearthed at archaeological sites -- they haven't had access to their own cultural history.

So Harmer has given them photos of ancient art and architecture and encouraged them to create works that blend the ancient and the contemporary. "My favourite thing is to work with them in terms of ideas," he says.

He has also taken the artists and their families on field trips in a minivan to help inspire them. "My next plan is we'll go to the national zoo in Guatemala City. They've only seen most of these animals on TV. To them, going to Guatemala City (about five hours' drive) is like going to England for us....

"They're the best tourists in the world. They're not blasé at all."

alison.mayes@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 12, 2012 ??65535

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