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Dec 01st
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Cradles of Change

ae1New MAH exhibit gives voice to orphans in sub-Saharan Africa

It’s been more than a decade since artist and activist Naomi Natale traveled to Kibera, one of the largest slums in Kenya. It was there where she caught a glimpse of some of the estimated 48 million orphan children in sub-Saharan Africa. 

“It was a life-changing experience,” says Natale. “You go with all these statistics and information in your head, and when you come back, you think in terms of faces and real-life stories.” 

Natale hoped to photograph some of those faces, in order to draw attention to the plight of orphaned children across Africa. But after arriving home, still haunted by what she had seen, Natale decided she wanted to do something more. Art seemed like the best option for sharing her experiences and depicting the emotional loss felt by orphaned children and their communities.

“I decided to use the symbol of an empty cradle to represent the lost potential of these orphan children,” explains Natale. “I imagined a space full of empty cradles, stacked on top of each other, each one with its own personal story—it would be a way to overwhelm people, the way I was overwhelmed, the way we should all be overwhelmed by how many children are orphaned in sub-Saharan Africa alone.”

That vision became the basis for The Cradle Project. On display now through March 23 at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, the exhibit features 22 empty cradles handcrafted from reclaimed materials.

Some cradles are traditionally shaped, while others evoke a more abstract idea of cradling. Some are as small as a thimble, while others are about the size of a shopping cart. Old buttons, recycled metal, fabric scraps, prescription bottles, twine, plastic flowers, and umbrellas are just a few of the many materials used.

“We asked artists to make their cradles out of discarded materials to show that if we can see the potential for scraps to be used to cradle a child, then certainly we should be able to see the potential in our world’s orphaned children,” explains Natale.

She isn’t the only one who sees potential in the orphans of sub-Saharan Africa. The Firelight Foundation—a Santa Cruz organization that financially supports African community groups aiding orphaned children—is the main supporter and beneficiary of The Cradle Project.

“There has been wonderful synergy between us,” notes Kerry Olson, the founder of Firelight, which first teamed up with Natale in 2006. “[Natale] had the artistic vision and her cradle metaphor fits so well with what we do. We help build community safety nets for African children in need, and those communities are, in essence, a cradle.”

ae2Natale’s outreach efforts across the country pulled in more than 500 cradle submissions, each with a $100 sponsorship. All of those cradles were shipped to Albuquerque, N.M., in 2008 for the project’s first major exhibit, and then auctioned off. The more than $70,000 raised went directly to Firelight’s partner organizations in Africa.

“The funds from the first exhibit made a tremendous difference to the people we work with,” says Olson. “It helped hundreds of children stay in school, it helped many families start small businesses so they could support their children, it facilitated really important life-changing community work.”

Olson feared that once the cradles had been auctioned off it would mean the end of the entire project. And so she personally bid on 24 cradles to create a permanent, private collection for Firelight. Those cradles are the foundation of the Santa Cruz exhibit. Olson carefully chose pieces that used a wide range of materials and also told a compelling story—including one made out of refuse from Hurricane Katrina, and another made by a group of homeless artists.

“My vision is that the exhibit will go on tour in different communities,” explains Olson. “Everywhere the project goes, there will be a cradle from that place. Every community we go to will be invited to bring their own vision with their own cradle.”

In Santa Cruz, local artists Wes Modes, Heidi Cramer and Luke Wilson were invited to contribute cradles for the MAH exhibit and auction. Museum visitors are also encouraged to make their own cradles with reclaimed yarn and twigs at a craft station located just outside of the exhibit.

“We don't want the exhibit to live in a detached corner, we want people to interact with it,” explains Robin Dixon, Firelight’s communications manager.  “We want them to experience what the cradles mean, what our organization does, and what our partners in Africa do.”

Dixon notes that the exhibit has sparked new conversations about Africa, poverty, war and HIV/AIDS—the core message being a hopeful one.

“We’re aware that it’s a hard topic with a lot of emotion attached to these issues,” says Dixon. “But we want people to walk away [from the exhibit] feeling that those communities there are making a difference in Africa and that there’s a way to support them.” 

The Cradle Project is on display now through March 23 at the Museum of Art & History, 705 Front St., Santa Cruz. For more information, visit or call 429-1964. To learn more about The Firelight Foundation, visit

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