Mara Amats

Artist and development worker


Mara Amats, artist and development consultant: born Cesis, Latvia 30 October 1941; four times married (one son, one daughter); died Minsmere, Suffolk 7 September 2007.

Mara Amats was a painter and craftswoman who devoted her prodigious skills and imagination – and much of her life – to helping impoverished communities re-discover and deploy their artistic skills in the cause of their own sustainable development.

Although her art – including paintings, icons, works on paper and collages – is to be found in religious institutions and private collections in Europe, Canada, the United States and Russia, Amats was for more than 20 years dedicated to helping communities in the developing world create traditional crafts to a standard that could open up high-value markets for them in the West. She introduced quilts from Namibia, baskets woven by Angolan refugees in Botswana, wood carvings from Venda in the north of South Africa, embroidery from Zimbabwe and textiles from the Philippines. In the late 1980s she established one of the first "Trade Not Aid" projects (now known as Community Trade) for the Body Shop, a paper-making operation in rural Nepal which provided bags, drawer-liners and notebooks for the company.

Born in Latvia during the Second World War to a Latvian father and Russian mother, Mara Amats herself was no stranger to extreme hardship. The war split the family, with her father in the Latvian forces, and her mother, her sister and herself in a German labour camp. After the war her father disappeared into a Siberian gulag only to re-emerge at the end his life. Mara, her sister and her mother also faced repatriation somewhere unpleasant, until her mother persuaded the authorities that she was French; she and her daughters were accepted by a Russian monastery near Versailles.

When Mara was nine, an uncle learnt of their survival and the three of them joined him in Canada. Here Mara eventually discovered her talent as an artist and in 1959, aged 17, she moved to London with her husband Richard Whitcombe (and shortly thereafter a small son) to study at the Regent Street Polytechnic School of Art (later Chelsea School of Art) under Lawrence Gowing, and at the Courtauld Institute.

She graduated into a world of Pop Art, which was not to her taste, so she revisited the Russian monastery in France. Her arrival coincided with a decision by the monks to invite Grégoire Krug, a renowned monk and iconographer, to paint the interior of their newly completed church. Because of his advanced years Krug agreed for the first time in his life to take on an assistant, which Amats became in return for his instruction on the techniques and protocols of painting icons.

In the 1960s she worked as a freelance artist specialising in the painting and restoration of icons and frescoes, and in 1968 was invited to Ethiopia to restore the frescoes for the Coptic churches of the Lake Tana region and Tigre province. While in Ethiopia, she noticed on the streets of Addis Ababa a group of beggars working with cotton and patches of cheap nylon, but embroidering exquisitely. She learnt that Haile Selassie had closed down his robes department, "letting go" the employees therein. Amats shamed the palace into providing money for materials, taught the embroiderers the rudiments of modern fashion, and set them up in business.

Amats was to live as an artist in Ethiopia for seven years but when she left the country, somewhat hurriedly with the fall of Haile Selassie in 1974, it was this incident with the embroiderers that decided the course of the next 20 years.

As a consultant to governments, international aid and development agencies, NGOs and businesses, Amats travelled throughout Africa, the Indian subcontinent, the Windward Isles of the Caribbean and Soviet Asia in the cause of sustainable development. Her method was to find in each downtrodden community some skill or asset that they already had and work it up to a product which would find favour – and dollars – in the developed world. The product was invariably of artistic merit. Amats had a knack of spotting in a household something woven, a discarded carving, a shard of pottery or a pattern on the side of the house, which led to the discovery of an almost forgotten skill.

She was also interested in arresting the degradation of land and the ecological balance by introducing low- and medium-scale technologies into environmentally fragile areas. The paper made by Nepalese women for the Body Shop used the freely available ingredients water hyacinth, banana rice husks and maize – alternatives to traditional procedures which were deforesting the Himalayas.

In each case she helped communities refine their skills, explore new sustainable resources and discover new markets, thus enabling them to stand on their own feet and lift themselves out of poverty. Her main focus was on empowering women in deprived communities to develop the means to help themselves and their families.

A beautiful woman, married four times and during her student days a sought-after fashion model, Mara Amats would brook no opposition from anyone who threatened to thwart her passion to help the dispossessed.

In later years, at the home near Minsmere in Suffolk that she shared with her last husband, Gil Devlin, she returned to her art, producing seascapes, icons and works on paper, which she made herself from the river reed phragmytes, and whose themes reflected her search for the numinous elements in the art of all cultures. These works, together with her paintings, were frequently exhibited at Cork Street galleries in London and in New York.

In January this year, although already ill, she began work on her last painting, a large triptych icon in the Rublev tradition depicting the Holy Trinity. It now hangs behind the high altar in Christ Church, Chelsea.

Fleur de Villiers

News
newsGlobal index has ranked the quality of life for OAPs - but the UK didn't even make it into the top 10
News
people

Kirstie Allsopp has waded into the female fertility debate again

Sport
footballArsenal 4 Galatasaray 1: Wenger celebrates 18th anniversary in style
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
people
News
peopleStella McCartney apologises over controversial Instagram picture
News
Gillian Anderson was paid less than her male co-star David Duchovny for three years while she was in the The X-Files until she protested and was given the same salary
people

Gillian Anderson lays into gender disparity in Hollywood

Life and Style
Laid bare: the Good2Go app ensures people have a chance to make their intentions clear about having sex
techCould Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
Arts and Entertainment
Swiss guards stand in the Sistine Chapel, which is to be lit, and protected, by 7,000 LEDs
art

The Sistine Chapel is set to be illuminated with thousands of LEDs

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Burr remains the baker to beat on the Great British Bake Off
tvRichard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Amazon has added a cautionary warning to Tom and Jerry cartoons on its streaming service
tv
News
people
News
The village was originally named Llansanffraid-ym-Mechain after the Celtic female Saint Brigit, but the name was changed 150 years ago to Llansantffraid – a decision which suggests the incorrect gender of the saint
newsA Welsh town has changed its name - and a prize if you can notice how
Arts and Entertainment
Kristen Scott Thomas in Electra at the Old Vic
theatreReview: Kristin Scott Thomas is magnificent in a five-star performance of ‘Electra’
Life and Style
Couples who boast about their relationship have been condemned as the most annoying Facebook users
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Hayley Williams performs with Paramore in New York
musicParamore singer says 'Steal Your Girl' is itself stolen from a New Found Glory hit
News
i100
Sport
Ronaldinho signs the t-shirt of a pitch invader
footballProof they are getting bolder
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Middleware Support Analyst

£45000 - £50000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Senior Java Developer/Designer

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: My client are looking fo...

Domino Developer and Administrator

£40000 - £45000 Per Annum + benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Domino ...

IT Technician

£26000 - £27000 per annum: Randstad Education Group: Experienced Science Techn...

Day In a Page

Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

An app for the amorous

Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

She's having a laugh

Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

Let there be light

Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

A look to the future

It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
The 10 best bedspreads

The 10 best bedspreads

Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

Arsenal vs Galatasaray

Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?