The Helvécia community in Brazil is essentially black. But the group from the district of Nova Viçosa, in the far south of the northeastern Brazilian state of Bahia, received their name due to a farm in the region that belonged to a Swiss citizen.
Helvetia is what the Romans called part of Switzerland. Legend tells that the abolition of slavery in Brazil, which happened onÂ May 13, 1888, took one year to get to the region, as it is so hidden from the rest of the world.
When the slaves discovered, they kicked the landlords out. What those first slaves did not know was that one day their descendants would export handicraft typical of the community… and to Switzerland.
The person who told us all that was designer Paula Dib, a 30-year-old granddaughter of Syrians, whose work is to find talents, cultures and traditions in the hinterland and in the outskirts of large cities.
Her office, Trans.forma Design, is in São Paulo, in the southeast of the country. But her work extends to Bahia, Rio de Janeiro, Pernambuco and wherever she may be called. Paula is usually sought by companies seeking social responsibility labels and by enterprises interested in working with communities living in the areas surrounding their factories.
This is the case with Suzano, a pulp and paper holding, and the work with the Helvécia quilombola community. The term "quilombola" refers to a community originated from a slave settlement. The company has a paper factory in the region and got in contact with Trans.forma to diagnose the potentials of that community.
"We first studied the history of that group, their traditions, roots, the kind of work developed, the material used, where the work takes place, the feelings and stories that are part of the lives of these people," explained the designer. After that the designer sees what can be improved, what kind of material may be added and how to finish the product ideally.
When Dib arrived at Helvécia, two years ago, there was little production, the traditions were almost dormant due to the distance from large capitals (the settlement is almost one thousand kilometers away from state capital Salvador), and also due to the lack of opportunity.
Today there is an organized group, called Arte Helvécia, which works mainly with chips of wood and seeds, and which offers an entire line of products that range from fruit trays to lighting fixtures. Arte Helvécia currently exports to a decoration shop in Switzerland. According to Dib, there are interested clients in England and France.
Her work at the "Afro-Swiss" village in southern Bahia is coming to an end -Â explains the artist, who is now getting ready to diagnose an Indian tribe in Pernambuco, also in the Northeast, at the request of a German group, her newest client. Apart from companies, Paula is sought by NGOs, city halls and associations of friends, among others.
When she was in her last year in product design-college, Paula did not know exactly what she would do. But she knew what she didn't want to do. "I did not want to go and work for a large company, to develop new objects. Generating more consumer goods did not make sense. I wanted to make use of what already exists."
For inspiration, she packed a backpack and travelled around the Northeast of Brazil. In two months, she visited cities in Bahia, Alagoas and Rio Grande do Norte. The idea was to see the technical varieties, to see how artisans adapted the materials they had.
"It was a very empirical trip," she recalls. When she returned to São Paulo, she started working with urban residues in communities in the outskirts of the city. Little by little, her work started attracting attention. In 2003, she created Trans.forma Design.
At the end of last year, Dib received the Young Design Entrepreneur of the Year award, from the British Council. She first defeated her competitors in the Brazilian phase and then went on to defeat ten finalists from around the world.
If the trip to England crowned her work, it also generated fruit for the projects she is now developing. She made use of her trip to London to show the work and pictures of the Helvécia and São José communities, the latter being another community she works with in Bahia. From there came the contacts that began exports.
If her profession teaches her more and more about the Brazilian roots, with the Arabs she has not stayed much in contact. "Ever since my grandmother died, much of the tradition has been lost. She was the matriarch, it was she who spoke Arabic with her children and maintained the family united," she explained. "But, somehow, something is always left within us."
Anba – www.anba.com.br