Updated 08:41 pm EDT, June 10, 2024

Published 01:02 pm EDT, June 1, 2024

Realizing You Must Listen Before You Help

By Virginia Mayer

Uncover the mission of El Dorado Art: connecting designers with artisanal communities for impactful collaborations.

By Virginia Mayer

Updated 08:41 pm EDT, June 10, 2024

Published 01:02 pm EDT, June 1, 2024

I want to introduce Juan Pablo Gómez and Sebastián Rivera, the founders and creators of El Dorado Art, and my best friends!

Guys, what is El Dorado Art?

Juan Pablo: El Dorado Art is an artisanal and contemporary design curation with a social aspect, working on specific projects with local communities. We also serve as the bridge between designers and artisanal communities. For example, if a designer from Miami or another part of the world wants to collaborate with an artisanal community in Colombia, we serve as a link between both parties. We are connectors. Because by working with these communities, we feel we have to give back through specific social projects.

El Dorado Art: artisanal and contemporary design curation with a social aspect, working on specific projects with local communities
El Dorado Art: artisanal and contemporary design curation with a social aspect, working on specific projects with local communities

How did it all start?

Sebastián: We began thinking about connecting the artisans to the rest of the world, so we hired a marketing agency to help us create a concept, but nothing came out of it. In 2016, we had to launch our whole brand and its website during Art Basel because we were supposed to be there. We ended up understanding we had to do it ourselves.

Was it purely a business initially, and then it turned into something social?

Sebastián: When we started to have this relationship with the artisan communities, we realized they weren’t just suppliers. What I mean is, that we all share the same story. We all need to create and have the opportunity to work and have a good, regular life so we can have our own house and our kids can attend school. 

Juan Pablo: From the start, it was planned as a relationship that was thought of as more than just a buyer and seller dynamic. The whole idea with the artisans, which is where it started, was to buy their products at a fair-trade price. We hate the fact that there’s a “fair-trade” definition because it should always be implied. And everything should be fair-trade if it comes to it.

Sebastián: It has to be sustainable. The whole blockchain has to be sustainable. You must know how much you can do for how many people you will impact. You must do it right. So, we had our first trade show in 2017 during the New York Now fair.

Virginia:  I remember! You got a very bad spot!

Juan Pablo: But it was a wonderful experience. And -basically- a full-color explosion!

What kind of products do you sell?

Sebastián: Homeware, jewelry, fashion, and textiles. Everything with a higher technique level. We’re always thinking of how to make it better and how we can honor these techniques. Because -due to what we have studied- on the surface of it all is that the techniques are there, but the materials are the worst they could be.

Juan Pablo: It’s not only about the technique but also about the materials.

Sebastián: It’s all about how you use them and tell the story of who’s behind them. We’ve become storytellers without knowing it. And right now, we have our first store here in Bogotá. Before that, we just did pop-ups during art weeks and such.

In what cities have you had El Dorado Art pop-ups?

Juan Pablo: Mexico City, Los Angeles, Maui, and Hualalai -Hawaii, New York, Charleston -South Carolina, and Miami -which is like our home. On the way, we’ve also found business partners.

Sebastián: Also, we are a couple. So, having all this experience and learning all this knowledge together is just amazing. We find each other in the vibration of what we should do to be good. We have to. Everyone has to be good. That’s why, for us, the blockchain is essential. It doesn’t matter who you are, whether you’re a big name or not.

Speaking about big fashion names, there’s a story with Iris Apfel…

Juan Pablo: Right! The story goes back to our New York Now show, where we had mostly artisanal products, others intervened by designers, things we found and took in, and the brands we worked with from the beginning. One of the best things that happened was that Iris Apfel showed up and was interested in our pieces. She was walking around the show and stopped by our booth when she saw a purse made with Mola, a Colombian technique. A few days later, when we were in Miami, we saw on Instagram that she was at a trunk show in Palm Beach. So, Sebastián went over there, and as soon as she saw him, she remembered him from New York. She then introduced us to Susan Walker, the founder of Ibu Movement, which is now one of our main alliances for all the social work we do.

SebastiánWe’re very thankful to you for that!

Virginia: I was your first fan!

So, what have you done with Ibu Movement?

Sebastiánwe developed a project where they founded a workshop in La Guajira, Colombia, which ended up being not only a workshop but also a school for artisans and children. And we now have 84 children and 59 women working there. Ibu Movement invited us to do an event about Colombia in Charleston, S.C., so we invited Chefa, the artisan leader of this project in La Guajira.

How did you first enter La Guajira, such a sacred and remote location?

Juan Pablo: We started with the goal of building dry, ecological bathrooms in La Guajira, which is a desert region in Colombia. It made sense to us to teach the community how to build their own.

Sebastián: After we spent a couple of weeks in the community talking to these women about their needs and our ideas, they told us they didn’t need bathrooms. What they needed was a roof over their heads to be able to work. This particular group of 29 women had to walk one hour and a half to bring their children to school, and they didn’t have time to walk back home, then go back to school, and finally back home. It meant a lot of time. So, to save time, they stayed outside of the school, knitting under the sun without shade. What they needed was a space where they could work while they waited for their kids to finish their school day. They wanted a workshop nearby where they could weave, which is what they’re experts at.

What’s the name of the indigenous community?

Sebastián: The Wayuus. So, when we got back to Ibu, they loved the idea because we were able to really listen to the community and learn about their specific needs, not just what we assumed they needed. It was all about improving the artisans’ lives through their work, which is Ibu’s main focus. Once we went back with the funds for the community, since the whole project was developed for them to learn the technique, they were very interested and got very involved. We were able to double the number of people working on the project because they learned something new and loved the idea of having a workshop next to the school. So, they added more people with the same money. They invested in their own people as well.

Juan Pablo: Then the school ended up moving to the workshop space because it was originally built with asbestos, which is toxic under the sun. But the project doesn’t end there. They’re also coming up with more good ideas through color and textiles. That’s what we want, for them to feel protected. We want to protect what they know and for them to improve and translate that into every product, with their own language and culture. It’s a whole circle. You have a conversation with them, create a sustainable project with them through time, and then wait and see if it’s going well, always hoping for the best.

Sebastián: The main importance of the whole thing is to build a relationship. It’s how it’s supposed to be. What’s important about indigenous communities, especially indigenous women, is the knowledge they have, which is like talking to a very wise grandmother. Their textiles tell their stories and knowledge as human beings.

Do you only work with Colombian artisans?

Sebastián: Mostly, but now also with artisans from Mexico, Italy, and New York, and very soon with Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Haiti.

Who have you collaborated with?

Juan Pablo: Part of the work that sets us apart from regular stores is how we collaborate with the brands and communities we work with. Sometimes, we collaborate with the designers and come up with exclusive collections that are sold only in our store. We’ve collaborated with Andrea Landa (a Colombian designer who works with leather), Paula Mendoza (another Colombian, very well-known jewelry designer), and Mercedes Salazar (an accessories and jewelry designer from Colombia). Kris Goyri and Sandra Vail, from Mexico. Catherine’s Stories from Laguna Beach, CA., Mia Vesper from New York, and Krel and Carolina K from Miami.

What’s the role of storytelling in El Dorado Art?

Sebastián: Storytelling is so important to us. Part of our proposal as a brand is to create exhibitions of the pieces we’re selling in the shape of a show instead of just a regular retail experience. For example, we did a homeware collection, where we decorated this amazing table with a spectacular jungle-theme exhibit. We did the same with Alejandra Quintero, a famous Colombian photographer who also does prints on clothing. So, we did an exhibit of her pictures projected on different walls of our store, as well as the clothing. Since the beginning, we’ve been connected to the art world by doing pop-ups around art weeks.

How does the art you’ve been exposed to permeate the way you sell?

Juan Pablo: The art element is always included in our proposal. It’s always a part of the whole idea of selling. It’s about the pieces and doing their storytelling. For example, for a collection we made with artisans from the Amazon jungle, we went directly to the jungle, spent time with the artisans, developed new products, and then the result of that collection was presented as a jungle exhibit called Selva al Anochecer (Jungle at Night).

Sebastián: The whole project was conceived because we listened to the community. So simple, yet so important. The funds were already there. They had already accepted what we wanted to give them. We spent time with them, and we listened. That’s what the project is today, something that benefited the community more than anything else. It wasn’t about just giving them what we thought they needed. It was about listening. The fact of spending time with the community and listening to their needs became so much more than just donating. It doesn’t matter how different we are. We all struggle with the same, not exactly, but as human beings, we all struggle with the same feelings and thoughts in our heads. All their knowledge is right there, written in the textiles. And they talked about it a lot. So, it’s a message that has to be written by us.

Juan Pablo Gómez and Sebastián Rivera, the founders and creators of El Dorado Art
Juan Pablo Gómez and Sebastián Rivera, the founders and creators of El Dorado Art

Where do you sell your products?

Juan Pablo: We have our online store, which ships worldwide: El Dorado Edit. We also have a space at the Faena Bazaar -which is the shopping mall of the Faena Hotel in Miami Beach- and our store in Bogotá, which we opened last year.

Virginia: My loves, thank you very much. I’m very proud of you both and can’t wait to see what’s next!

Sebastián & Juan PabloThank you and AVESSA for having us!

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