The NGO Pintar en Bolivia (“Paint in Bolivia”) runs an art initiative in a women’s refuge center to help victims of domestic violence and is one of many similar programs the organization operates throughout the city. Here, vulnerable women from all walks of life seek empowerment through artistic expression to overcome trauma experienced at the hands of their abusive partners. Above all else, the therapy is designed to increase self-esteem, teach human rights and grow women’s hopes for the future.
The program administrator, a Dutch art therapist by the name of Lisan van der Wal, isn’t at all concerned about the quality of the artwork produced. Rather, the focus is on the symbolism of each individual piece and how it represents the evolution of the healing process. “Drawings are full of symbols,” she told Bolivian Express, “that have their own separate language.” In this way, the women can nonverbally express themselves without any pressure to create perfection.
“I have noticed that in [other places], art is only for people who are really good at it. In Bolivia, however, there is a lot of handicraft, everyone can do it,” she says.
The program is divided into three fundamental levels in which the women are welcome to participate as they please.
First and foremost are the weekly artistic workshops which can include anything from painting to interpretative dance and specially designed word games. Each activity is designed to address a different goal, whether it’s building self-confidence by defining personal qualities or coming to terms with trauma through group disclosure therapy. At the end of each workshop, Van der Wall holds a brainstorming session to give the women time to consolidate what they have learned.
Every three months, Kallpa hosts a female empowerment workshop. In this session, the paintbrushes are put away so that the women are able to focus exclusively on themselves. By talking about their lives, their ongoing projects, and their plans for the future, the workshop aims to restore a sense of self-worth.
Finally, at the end of the year, an exhibition showcases their creative works with a focus on the healing process rather than individual artistic flair. Given the deep symbolism involved, the exhibition has become a well-respected event throughout Cochabamba‘s creative community.
A novel approach, perhaps, but research has shown art therapy can be effective in breaking down emotional trauma. Van der Wall certainly seems to think so, as she has witnessed significant progress first hand.
“They come from nowhere, and I have seen so much progress!” she says.