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Inspired by Latin culture...

If you’ve ever heard any of the stories behind my artwork you will know that most of my work is inspired in some way by time that I spent in Latin America. Here’s what I did and why it inspired my work…


Guatemala - Gillian Hancey Art

Inspired by Latin Culture...

If you’ve ever heard any of the stories behind my artwork you will know that most of my work is inspired in some way by time that I spent in Latin America. Here’s what I did and why it inspired my work…


2004-2005: Dominican Republic
Volunteer for Community Partners Association (COPA)

Shortly after turning 18, in August 2004, I headed off to the Dominican Republic to spend a year working in a school alongside other volunteers. The school was one of two built by a charity called the ‘Community Partners Association (COPA)’ set up by a retired UK couple. The Dominican Republic shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, and is known for beautiful white beaches typical of the Caribbean…but the Dominican Republic I experienced was very different. We lived and worked in the opposite end of the country from where tourists visit, beside the border with Haiti. We lived in a small village called Bombita which was a batey, a settlement formed by the ancestors of the people I met who originally crossed the border from Haiti to work in the sugar cane fields and then didn’t make enough money to be able to go back.


When we arrived, the school had been there only a few years and the most recent addition was a classroom for teaching art, which had not been used before - I was the first art teacher! I also taught English, worked with children with additional learning needs in smaller groups, made murals for the school most weeks and generally provided help and support to the teaching staff in whatever way was needed. It was a very challenging year for me and changed my whole way of thinking.


The culture in the Dominican Republic is so different to the UK that I will not even begin to try and describe it here. All I would say is that if you ever have the opportunity to spend time in this part of the world, I wholeheartedly urge you to take it (and make sure you don’t stay within the walls of a hotel resort). I also recommend you put aside any perceptions you have about what is typical of people and society. Try and start again and see the world as the people you are with do. Many visitors came and went in the time I was there and without exception, every person was moved and changed by what they experienced.


The languages spoken in this area were Spanish and Creole and I knew very little of either when I arrived. At the beginning I had enough Spanish to be able to introduce myself and count to 10, but only 4 months later I was fluent. I say this not to try to show off but rather with gratitude to the villagers of Bombita, who were so welcoming and really gave me their time to help me learn, and patiently repeated and explained things over and over again until I understood. People were everything in the Dominican Republic and we had company from our friends, students or colleagues more or less all the time in a way that does not happen in the UK.


I have some truly hair-raising tales about some of the adventures I had in this amazing country - to name a few, a horrific journey on a guagua (bus) that was packed so full with people that I had to be loaded in through the window, a terrifying ordeal where I discovered that the medical ‘solution’ for anything unusual on your skin in Dominican seems to be to just to rip it off, and the time that we had to escape the village on mopeds to avoid being caught in a neighbourly dispute that resulted in gunfire.


In the final months before I returned home, I spent a few weeks travelling through Guatemala and Mexico and then we went back to the school, now in the summer holidays, to help visiting missionary groups run their activities and act as translators.


Back in the UK, I went to the University of Edinburgh to do a life sciences degree but I still really had the travel bug. I saw that there was an opportunity to do an exchange year at an international university and I jumped on it. There were two places at a university in Mexico, the Universidad de las Américas Puebla (UDLAP), and I was delighted to be given one of them. 


I set off in August 2007 and I was a bit more nervous this time than I had been going to the Dominican Republic as I think I had a clearer idea of what I was letting myself in for. Also, I literally packed two bags and went myself - I didn’t have anywhere to live and I wasn’t even sure that I’d be able to do all the courses I’d need to to make it count for a year of my degree. It all worked out astonishingly well. I lived in a flat with a mixture of Mexicans and other international students and was able to take a variety of courses, including some unrelated to my degree but that gave me the opportunity to learn about Mexican culture. There was a relatively small group of students taking my degree programme and I think they were slightly surprised to suddenly have a non-Mexican student join them, but I was warmly welcomed and everyone was so helpful and supportive, and made sure I could take part in everything. I made some close friends and I was invited to go back with them to their family homes, all over Mexico, during holidays. These opportunities gave me great insight into Mexican life. 


I had many interesting and incredible experiences during my time in Mexico. One of the events that stood out for me was Day of the Dead - we travelled to the Island to Janitzio Island in Michoacan for this and it was visually one of the most captivating experiences I have ever had. In general, I was incredibly inspired by how colourful Mexico was - the buildings, particularly the town of Guanajuato, the food (and how delicious it was too), and the market stalls with handmade crafts and fabrics. 


I wanted to make the most of my time in that part of the world before coming back to the UK and Peru was one of the countries I had wanted to visit for a while. So I found a charity that was happy to have me as a volunteer and arranged to work with them for a month. The charity Luz de Esperanza were based in a small town called Chupaca, near Huancayo. They were helping in two schools in nearby villages, Matapuquio and Andamarcas. With minimal resources (whatever I could obtain in the small village shop), I taught chemistry to some of the more able students in the school and ran first aid classes for the mothers of the children - some good challenges for my Spanish! I helped out with various other activities for the adults and children in the village, and while I was there I travelled to some nearby places to see a bit more of the country. Although I was only there for a month, the photos I took in Peru have been the inspiration behind more artwork than any other country. 


My last stop in my Latin American adventure was in Venezuela. One of the friends I had met whilst in Edinburgh was from Venezuela and temporarily studying and working in the UK, so we decided we would meet in Venezuela. I had a really fun few weeks meeting all of her family and friends and experiencing a very different culture yet again, before my two-year journey in Latin America finally came to an end and I came back to settle in the UK. 

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