I am very pleased to have finished two new quilts from a new series I have been working on for over a year. They have evolved very slowly and I feel they are the better for it.
First, a little background......
The quilts tell the story of children who are trapped by poverty on cocoa producing farms in West Africa. They are amongst some of the poorest people on earth and they and their families have few options in life and the cocoa trade takes advantage of this fact. Over 70% of the worlds chocolate is produced from cocoa grown and harvested in the west African countries of Ivory Coast (Cote d'Ivoire), Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon and Togo, with Ivory Coast being by far the largest. The beans are grown on smallholder farms and require much hands-on labour to grow, harvest, ferment and dry them before a 'Traitant' comes to weigh, purchase and collect the crop. The large chocolate producers Cadbury, Ferrero, Nestle and Hershey are amongst the biggest purchasers of Ivorian cocoa.
It is estimated that over 2 million children under the age of 16 are used in the production of cocoa beans in West Africa. Increasing world cocoa demand and a falling price paid for raw cocoa beans by the big global chocolate producers means farmers look for the cheapest labour they can find. Many poor families are tricked into sending their children to work on the farms with promises of paid work, housing, and education. Worse still, many are enticed to leave home with false promises and end up as modern day slaves. NGO's such as Save the Children, the US Department of Labour and journalists such as those at the BBC and Fortune magazine have all documented the widespread use of children on these farms. A quick Google search will bring up hundereds of images and numerous reports and investigations into this terrible abuse. Even the chocolate manufacturers themselves admit they are aware of the practice, but despite signing up to numerous pledges to wipe out the practice 20 years ago, it still continues. Not a single prosecution has been brought.
In April 2018, the biennial 'Cocoa Barometer Report' (a new report is due out this year) on the $100-billion industry, said this about the child labor situation in West Africa: "Not a single company or government is anywhere near reaching the sectorwide objective of the elimination of child labour, and not even near their commitments of a 70% reduction of child labour by 2020"
For more information Wikimedia is a good starting point. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Child_labour_in_cocoa_production
And now the quilts..............
Faces have become a familiar part of my work and I have used them in the past to tell other stories. These quilts also started out with monoprints and lino of children's faces made on fabric, which I surrounded with pieced squares and rectangles of fabric in choclatey colours - a nod to the final product we all love to eat.
I wanted to show the children in their working environment, hidden amongst the cocoa plants. Their presence on the farms is almost never acknowledged. Technically it is illegal to employ children on the cocoa farms, so naturally it is in nobody's interest to acknowledge their presence. However everyone knows they are there. They are an open secret.
To portray this I made lino blocks of cocoa pods and leaves and printed over the pieced cloth, gradually obscuring the faces, but leaving just enough peeping through. To add more depth selected parts were then coloured with ink and paint.
I added text using more monoprinting, also peeping through the leaves. The shady business of chocolate production is not very well known on the high street, although gradually the story is leaking out. Cheap chocolate is cheap for a reason - we enjoy it because at the start of the production line the 'workers' get paid less than 50 cents a day (if at all). There are similarities in the the so called 'fast fashion' industry, but that is a story for another day. Whilst awareness is growing about issues such as these, there is still a reluctance by end consumers to acknoweledge the reasons, even if they feel strongly about it. Price, it seems, is a more important driver.
Chocolates are still frequently wrapped in luxurious gold foil, a subliminal message that reinforces this image. We are also used to the idea of chcolate being a little bit of a treat, even though these days we probably eat it almost every day. I wanted to add this element to the quilts so I too used gold foil - in fact, gold leaf, for some of the text. It too is hidden amongst the leaves. I did not want the message to be instantly recognised, so I broke the letters up, adding one letter to each of the chocolate squares.
Overall I am very pleased with this piece of work. Its many layers hold the story of these children.
The second, slightly smaller quilt uses much of the same imagary, but has a more direct message. There is one particular chocolate product which upsets me more than any other. It was first marketed in 1968 and aimed directly at children, for children, a marketing coup at the time. It is now sold inover 30 countries throughout the world and has a loyal following. I suppose many would say that is fair enough; kids love chocolate and as far as marketing goes, this product has it all. Hazelnuts, wafers and smooth sweet milky chocolate, a neat easily transportable kid's sized portion and a little (plastic) gift. What is not to love? It is even marketed at parents as a good choice for their children as it contains whole milk for strong teeth and bones (OMG). It is also reassuringly expensive in terms of price when compared to other chocolate - not cheap and nasty, but still affordable enough to make it an easy purchase.
Sadly the product is tainted with numerous bad associations. The company that makes this chocolate buys all its cocoa from West African farms, paying rock bottom for the product. The hazlenuts used in many of their products are mostly grown in Turkey, where 70% of the worlds supply comes from. These hazlenuts are picked mainly by low paid migrants, including children. Several reports on this have been published in the last year, one by the BBC https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/stories-49741675, and another by the Guardian.
Independent investigations by journalists have also discovered that the little plastic toys that are part of the marketing of some of the products are being packed in Romnia by extremenly low paid workers in their homes, often with the help of their children. None of this is good.
This quilt is called 'For the Children' / 'Für Die Kinder' - you can probably guess why.
So - what is a chocolate lover to do?
Obviously we all have our own views on this. Mine are that I don't want to knowingly contribute to the profit of companies that take advantage of low paid workers, especially children. For that reason I have decided to eat less chocolate and pay more for the chocolate I do buy which is sourced from ethical sources.
I have researched companies that grow their own beans and produce their own chocolate - the so called 'bean-to-bar' companies who know exactly who is working for them and pay their employees a fair wage.
I have discovered exactly what 'Fair Trade' means (transparent and robust standards in supply chains, externally monitired, and a hard ban on any exploitative labour).
I have also found out more about a new initiative called 'Cocoa Life', a self-policing initiative set up by the company Mondalez International Inc., (owners of Cadbury, Cote D'Or, Milka, Oreo, Toblerone amongs many others) which says it has invested 400 million in improving the suply chain of in its choholate related business.
It is all interesting and this is certainly a very complex problem. It is my aim that the quilts will promote discussion about these issues.
Thanks for reading.