If you were visiting Santo Domingo last week, you were in great luck: the 15th annual FENART or Feria Nacional de la Artesania (Annual Artisan Fair) took place from Thursday to Sunday at the gorgeous Ozama Fortress in the Colonial City, showcasing over 300 of the Dominican Republic's artisans.

They came from all over the country–Bonao, Santo Domingo, San Cristobal, Salcedo, Villa Mella, Azua, Hato Mayor, Yamasa, among other places–proudly displaying and selling their creations.

 

The shopping was so much fun (and well priced), that after my third stop at the  fair–I went on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday–I had to reign myself in. But I love my picks, and even found a perfect birthday gift.

Everything sold and showcased at the fair is handmade, and sourced from materials found locally, including recycled materials. Nothing imported, nothing made in China or Bali. Just pure Dominican originality, creativity, and craftsmanship.

Many of these artisans were trained and subsidized by a governmental, micro-enterprise program called Manos Dominicanas, created in 2004. The brand established a standard of production, and has assisted artisans who need help with commercializing and selling their products. Manos Dominicanas also has presence at various shopping malls, stores, and attractions around the DR.

I found FENART 2017 to be well organized, with products beautifully shown at the various artisan booths (which were all-weather ready in case of rain), and spread out nicely on the grounds of the Fortaleza Ozama. Being there also meant you got to tour the fortress for free.

Throughout the day were various arts and crafts workshops for those lucky enough to have time. In the evenings, there was live entertainment: a play, followed by a performance from various cultural groups–including the Guloyas from San Pedro de Macoris, a UNESCO protected dance group, and the Sarandunga dancers from Bani.

The Guloyas of San Pedro de Macoris

Los Chuineros from Bani

The Sarandunga Dance from Bani

But the highlight, aside from these cultural groups, was meeting and talking to the artisans from all around the DR. It's one thing to receive training and another to relentlessly pursue and improve your craft. The ones I spoke to were passionate and dedicated to their creations. 

My handmade strappy sandal made out of "lila"–a plant that grows along the River Ozama, is dried and made into this.

I'm excited to include some of these artisans in my next edition of Moon Dominican Republic when my make my rounds around the country again, because they make for unique souvenir shopping, while at the same time offering the visitor an opportunity to support local artisans and help their businesses grow. Win-win!

I've highlighted favorites below, and included their contact information because they are available year-round for orders, including custom ones.

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The boat themes of Miches, a fishing village in the north, welcomed visitors at the entrance to the fair.

Sailboats of Miches, northeast DR.

These faceless dolls–typical of the DR–caught my eye for the unique material used: loofah, or as they call it here, monsu or tropajo. It grows naturally up in the fields of the Cibao region. Juan Gabriel and his sister make these in Salcedo, birthplace of the Mirabal Sisters. They started their business called Mujeres de mi Patria (tel. 829/973-1023) six years ago. It takes about two hours to make a single doll. 

Faceless dolls made of loofah from Salcedo.

Numerous women were ooh'ing and aah'ing at these handcrafted home decor items below, and rightfully so. The two artisans behind the business, called Denia (tel. 829/320-1532), hail from Jaina, near San Cristobal, southwest of the DR. They've been handcrafting for about 9 years and also give private and group courses on how to make these decorative items, made of fleje de papel or recycled paper strips.

Recycled paper turned into home decor by artisans in Jaina, southwest DR.

Jocelyn Altagracia Espinal's flower pots (tel. 809/215-8283) delighted me at first sight, just like their creator's smile. And then I touched them and realized they were oddly flexible. She makes them from recycled tires, up in Bonao. After taking an initial course, she felt motivated to create and to pull herself out of poverty. "One has to get up and get out," she tells me. She uses tires from old scooters and bikes.  "When there's electricity, it takes me just one hour to make one," she shared. Electricity outages are a big issue in the DR's countryside. And if there isn't electricity, she doesn't give up: she cuts up and shapes the tire into a pot by hand. Price range: RD$1,300-2,500. 

Jocelyn Espinal's recycled tire flower pots, from Bonao.

Not far off was another famed artisanal family from Bonao: the Benito Cuevas family (tel. 829/973-5774). The daughter Cristal was minding the table that day. She helps with the family business too, thought she's still new at it. She pointed me to the small religious wooden figurine she created. Everyone in the family is involved in handcrafting,  she said, except for her middle sister who wants to be an actress. There's always one, right?

Crystal Cuevas shows me her handmade figurine.

When I met Roosevelt Mendez, I never imagined he'd end up telling me that he has traveled to West Africa for work, the region where I grew up. We had a long, hilarious conversation about how he once spotted a Dominican lady in the airport in Ghana. You just never know who you will meet. An agronomer who still works for the DR Ministry of Agriculture, Mr. Mendez hails from Azua, southwest, and makes and sells handcrafts during his spare time. You can check out his blog here.

Santo Alexis Sanchez, from Santo Domingo, owns La Casita del Santo Rosario (tel. 809/868-8302) and was one of the friendliest at the fair. He focuses on eco-friendly arts and crafts–for instance, these little homes or casitas, and religious themed art, made from recycled items such as plastic gallon containers, plastic bottle covers, broom sticks, and glass from old bottles. He's been an artisan for 10 years and has a store inside the Sambil shopping mall.

La Casita del Santo Rosario by Santo Alexis Sanchez

It was great to meet the famous Hermanos Guillen team, who have a factory in Yamasa, Monte Plata, where they create their gorgeous Taino pottery sold all over the DR's best art and souvenir stores.

Sheila of Vitrales by Sheila (tel. 809/530-4280) was also a delight to speak to–she makes these gorgeous vitrales or stained glass, and has been doing so for years. She also gives workshops. I told her not to worry about her pinned up hair–she still looked fabulous.

On the third day, when I returned to the fair to pick up my pair of handmade sandals, and to find a unique birthday gift, another artisan I had befriended led me to Gregory and his Shamman Taller Artesanal. I was blown away by his tasteful leather products: wallets, purses, totes. He even personalized the name on my gift on site. I know I'll be contacting him soon for orders, even though he's located north in Hato Mayor.

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There were so many talented artisans and gorgeous products. I'm already looking forward to next year's edition.

 

Lebawit Lily Girma

A former corporate attorney, Lebawit Lily Girma is an award-winning travel writer, photographer, and author of several Caribbean guidebooks for US-publisher Moon Travel Guides, including Moon Belize, Belize Cayes, and Moon Dominican Republic. Originally from Ethiopia, Lily calls herself a “culture-holic”–fluent in four languages, she has lived in eight countries besides the U.S., including Belize, Jamaica, and the Dominican Republic. Her articles and photography focusing on the Caribbean region have been published in AFAR Magazine, CNN, BBC, Delta Sky, The Guardian, and others. She is the recipient of the 2016 Marcia Vickery Wallace Award for Excellence in Travel Journalism from the Caribbean Tourism Organization.

2 Comments

  1. Great article! I also visited FENART and liked it a lot and did some shopping too!

    • Lebawit Lily Girma

      Thanks, Evelyn! I’m glad to hear you enjoyed the event too. It sure was a fantastic one-stop shop for Dominican crafts, and such great prices. What did you end up buying? I’m regretting not picking up one of those leather bags!

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