Her Art: Women Art Fashion event proceeds benefit female business owners in Afghanistan and Rwanda 

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An annual art and fashion show has become an important part of an international nonprofit’s mission of promoting female entrepreneurs in impoverished or war-torn countries.

Oklahoma City-based Institute for Economic Empowerment of Women (IEEW) joins Eden Salon & Spa and Oklahoma State University’s department of Design, Housing and Merchandising to present Her Art: Women Art Fashion, an art and fashion show exhibiting work by local and international artists and designers, including Afghan and Rwandan business students from IEEW’s mentorship and training program.

This year’s Her Art event makes its 21c Museum Hotel debut 6-8:30 p.m. Tuesday at the year-old Film Row gallery space, 900 N. Main St.

Those who attend the show can browse through and purchase handmade items and crafts from the pop-up shop, bid on art and observe the fashion show. Food and drinks will be available for guests. Admission is $37.50-$75. All proceeds, including those from art sales, benefit IEEW’s international business programming.

Art has been donated from 16th Street Plaza District galleries Kasum Contemporary Fine Art and Graphite Elements and Design, as has glassware from Blue Sage Studios. Individual artists like Suzanne Peck, Kerri Shadid, Joy Richardson and Shevaun Williams have contributed works to the show.

Designers Mary Ruppert-Stroescu, Sanya Wafeq, Chandler Craven, Bingyue Wei and Rachel Rountree will participate in the fashion show.

Karel Ford, director of operations at IEEW, said the runway show is usually one of the most memorable moments of the night.

“Our fashion shows are electric from the very beginning,” she said, “and we have people asking from the moment they leave the door practically, ‘OK; how are you going to do this again next year? What’s your theme going to be?’”

IEEW is a nonprofit that gives women from impoverished and war-torn areas the tools and knowledge they need to grow businesses and pursue entrepreneurial ventures in their home countries. This mission is accomplished in part through a unique mentorship and education program.

Business students from Afghanistan and Rwanda also will attend Her Art, mingling with and meeting guests. The event has become the perfect vehicle for showcasing the locally based nonprofit’s work and highlighting its mission.

“Art crosses all borders — physical, emotional, sexual, political,” said Lyndon Brecheisen, IEEW volunteer and participating artist. “It’s really a perfect thing to highlight in this event.”

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Business builders

Her Art supports IEEW’s Peace Through Business program, which is specially designed for women entrepreneurs in Afghanistan and Rwanda. The 11-year-old program gives 30 women in each country a 10-week classroom-based business education. Graduates then travel to the United States, where they observe a female business owner in a field related to their own.

The ultimate goal is that these women will go back into their home countries with their new skills and help build thriving economies and democracies through their entrepreneurship.

IEEW’s founder is Terry Neese, founder of Terry Neese Personnel Services and a former lieutenant governor candidate. She is a member of both the national and state women’s halls of fame and has been appointed to numerous national councils by several sitting presidents.

“Her motto is, ‘If you’re not in politics, then politics is going to be in your business,’” Ford said.

Neese said it is necessary to train female entrepreneurs in these countries not just because opportunities for women can be limited there, but because their participation is critical for the development of the country. For example, after the Rwandan genocide in 1994 that killed an estimated 500,000-1 million people, Neese said there were hardly any men left to piece the nation back together.

“It was up to the women to rebuild the country,” she said.

Jan Hill, Her Art partner and founder of Eden Salon & Spa, has mentored several Peace Through Business students. She said one of the things she likes most about the program is that the women — many of whom were once evacuated to other countries as refugees — commit to returning to their home countries and improving conditions there.

“They have chosen to come back and rebuild their communities,” Hill said. “I think that is very, very powerful.”

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Restoring dignity

Hill’s first mentee through the program became a good friend, and she eventually traveled to Rwanda to stay with her family.

“The first woman I mentored changed my life completely,” Hill said.

She remembers waking up under a mosquito net every morning. There was no running water, and her “showers” consisted of a small tub or wash water and a kettle of warm water. The house she stayed in was still edged with razor wire and shards of glass left over from the genocide.

Still, Hill remembers her stay as nothing short of an incredible experience.

“They were so warm and welcoming, and I loved the whole experience,” she said.

Hill produces the Her Art fashion show each year in partnership with Ruppert-Stroescu.

“We wanted to highlight that fashion connects women worldwide,” she said. “It’s a form of communication because all women enjoy fashion and beauty.”

Hill said the importance of the Peace Through Business program is that once women can support a family and no longer have to worry about feeding their children on a daily basis, they can begin thinking about ways in which they can improve and enrich their surrounding communities.

The program is a confidence restorer, as is the art show. When these women see their work hanging alongside the works of accomplished American artists, it helps them feel validated.

“It’s part of restoring their dignity,” Hill said. “The Rwandans — after the genocide — they were so fractured, and the program has been a way to help these women.”

International networking

As valuable as anything else in Her Art or the Peace Through Business program is the chance for Afghan and Rwandan students to connect with Oklahomans.

Neese said the art show is a great opportunity for cultures to learn from each other.

“How many Afghans do you normally ever get to meet?” she said.

Neese also said she hopes the event also helps more locals realize that there is a nonprofit doing international outreach efforts like this based in Oklahoma City.

“How wonderful is it that this is based out of Oklahoma?” Brecheisen said. “I mean, this is fantastic.”

Brecheisen said while the show is called Her Art: Women Art Fashion and the charity is geared toward assisting female entrepreneurs, the show is inclusive of everyone. In addition to the female artists involved, many male artists also donated art to the show.

“It’s about peace and kindness and a lot of things that are just basics that people forget,” Brecheisen said.

Visit ieew.org.

Print headline: Audacious altruism, Her Art: Women Art Fashion event proceeds benefit female business owners in Afghanistan and Rwanda.

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