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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

£37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

£25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

£16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones