Serena Israel came to Curacao in 2008 and created the Chichi figure, an icon representative of Caribbean women. // © 2014 Cody Geib
For many travelers, the thought of Curacao most likely conjures images of clear blue water, the colorful buildings of Willemstad or the island’s signature liqueur. However, after a visit to Serena’s Art Factory in Banda Ariba (the east side of the island), visitors to Curacao will probably think of Chichi.
On a recent trip to Curacao, my group and I spent an afternoon away from our resort’s gorgeous oceanfront property and headed inland to Serena’s Art Factory, which is located on the road to the Curacao Ostrich Farm.
When we entered the outdoor workshop space, we were immediately greeted by Serena Israel, the German-born sculptor who came to Curacao in 2008 and created her now-iconic Chichi figure. Surrounded by dozens of Chichi sculptures — ranging from the size of a golf ball to larger-than-life versions — Serena told us about the history of Chichi and what she represents on the island.
“Chichi” is the word for “big sister” in Papiamentu — the local creole language spoken in Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao — and the Chichi figure represents the loving, caring and responsible oldest sister who brings the family together. The sculptures are characterized by bright colors, creative designs and a body type that Serena describes as “round, but not unhealthy.” Since 2008, the trademarked figure has become an icon for the female role model in Caribbean culture.
“The sculpture is something we can be very proud of,” Serena said. “When local people go abroad, they buy a Chichi here and take it to their friends all over the world because they want to show them that this is what we do.”
Another source of pride is the role that Serena’s business plays in the island community. With a team of local craftsmen and more than 50 painters, Serena uses her sculptures to provide locals — particularly women — with skills and employment, helping empower them creatively and financially.
“Chichi has become an ambassador for Curacao,” Serena said. “That’s the important thing I’ve found in the last one-and-a-half years. I think Chichi shows our creativity to the outside world — not only the blue liqueur.”
Apart from one retailer on Bonaire that sells Chichis, travelers can only buy the sculptures on Curacao at two of Serena’s shops or two other retailers on the island — and Serena wants to keep it that way.
“We have a lot of people who ask us to open shops in Holland, but I truly don’t believe in that,” Serena said. “I think you should come to the island to get one — or find a friend who travels here and brings one to you.”
Instead of merely buying a Chichi, visitors to Curacao also have the chance to paint their own and enjoy an afternoon outdoors at Serena’s Art Factory. After meeting Serena and learning about the history of the Chichi sculpture, we sat down at her workshop with our own blank Chichis and a wide palette of bright colors to choose from. Serena brought us beverages and kept us entertained with stories of her travels while she and her assistant gave us advice on painting techniques.
Open Monday through Saturday, Serena’s Art Factory offers workshops like this one for individuals and small groups. Visitors can choose from small-, medium- and large-sized sculptures to paint individually or cooperatively as a group — a fun team-building exercise for corporate clients.
Prices for the workshops depend on the size of the Chichi sculptures and the number of people in the group. Serena also offers a handful of scheduled walk-in workshops each month for individuals who would like to have a group experience at a set price and without a reservation.
Visitors can tour the Factory and adjoining Art and Souvenir Shop free of charge and see firsthand how Serena and her team create the sculptures. However, I highly recommend taking the time to join a workshop, which provides an opportunity to create an individualized souvenir as well as a memorable experience.
Either way, bringing home a Chichi allows travelers to be a part of Serena’s positive impact in the community and gives them a way to show others a piece of Curacao wherever they go.
“For me, Chichi is the biggest present I’ve received in my life,” Serena said. “I’m happy I have the sculpture to give other people so that they can have work and go into the world to tell others about our island.”