Bartsi, or Giving Beauty in the Ari language, is a mysterious art form passed down from mother to daughter in the Ari tribe of Omo Valley, Ethiopia. Skilled Ari tribeswomen are the proud custodians of their ancestors’ tradition of wall-paintings and continue to embellish their round huts for ceremonies and holidays. The dot painting style is reminiscent of Australian Aboriginal art, though Ari artists use only 4 colors made of soil and they paint with their fingers.
L.A based filmmaker and visual artist Lori Precious spent two of her childhood years in Mogadishu, Somalia and has since been drawn to East Africa unique artistry. When she first saw Ari painters at work, she felt Bartsi was the purest artistic expression of the Ari people who are best known for their pottery. “Ari women say there’s no meaning to the designs, it just flows from them and they create what they like. They have difficult lives but still find meaning in creating beauty. That’s remarkable and terribly moving”. She saw these patterns would be perfect for block printing and boldly embarked on a business and creative adventure with the tribes women. Ethio Sky was launched in 2016 primarily to help skilled women earn an income from their art, but also as a way for the artist’s adopted daughter from Ethiopia, to stay connected to her country. In 2018, when mother and daughter were spending 5 months together in Ethiopia, Lori began training a small group of women to linoleum block printing onto fabric.The natural paints of Bartsi are created with black ground charcoal, white soil, red soil, and green is obtained with cow dung. Ari women walk long distances to reach gypsum deposits and the process of making the paints takes a few days. “For block printing we use color fast and non-toxic permanent inks. The goal is to stay as close to the Ari tradition as possible, so we keep the 4 earthy tones, occasionally adding shades of blues or yellows”.Ethio Sky recently refocused on creating textiles entirely handcrafted in Ethiopia, “with no electricity involved in the process”. The small ethnic brand is coming full circle by putting the emphasis on Ethiopian craftsmanship and Ari designs. The new collection is made with fine Ethiopian organic cotton, handspun by women on their spinning wheels and hand woven by male weavers in Addis Ababa. The printed textiles sustain the visual strength of Bartsi while their hand-blocked feel reflects the creative spirit of the Ari women.Further south in Omo Valley, Ethio Sky partners with Hamer tribeswomen, renowned for their beadwork and their knotted hair plastered in red ochre. A small group of beaders makes necklaces, waistbands and bracelets in their own traditional styles, using local acacia wood beads and recently, metal beads made from copper, brass or pewter, Lori brings from the Addis Mercato. She never tries to influence their designs but is guiding them through colors or suggesting minor alterations such as swapping plastic spacers with leather ones or using organic cotton cords instead of plastic cord.