What is the importance of handmade craft today? Perhaps a more appropriate question is: In what contexts do handmade craft have value today? For whom is this valuable and why? What are the obstacles and how can the significance of handmade craft be increased? What learning takes place by different parties in the process of increasing the visibility and viability of craftwork in the world today?
I have been a weaver for many years and I have studied textile traditions – particularly woven designs and their meanings – to be found in cultures from many regions of the world, traditions that go back millennia. As an adult educator, I became interested in finding out how artisans – particularly weavers – had changed their perspective on craftwork, given the realities and conditions of their lives, which have been impacted by industrialization, mass production, and commercialization. First I traveled to India and later to Thailand to learn about different kinds of community-based organizations that aim to benefit weavers, their families and communities. In no uncertain terms I learned that new meanings associated with weaving are linked to economic survival.
One of the key findings of earlier research was the importance of supporting artisans with product development initiatives in order for them to adapt their traditional craft skills and aesthetics into marketable products. As a result, I am currently investigating product design interventions in artisan production. What are the issues and challenges of product development? Who learns what and how? I am interviewing North American product design consultants who work with artisans in Africa, Central Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe, Caribbean, India and Bangladesh. And I am learning about the impact this exchange has on lives and livelihoods.
Traditionally craftwork was an integral way of life and things were made that functioned in daily life, as well as for ritual and sacred occasions. Frequently books on craft traditions in different regions of the world end with a statement about the loss of skills, the demise craft traditions, and the replacement of cheap commercial products in local markets. Often left unstated are the reasons and consequences of this enormous cultural shift. Reasons are to found in the destruction of environments and ways of life, and the impoverishment and displacement of rural people. The value of craft today must be examined in the context of efforts to improve the livelihoods of artisans. How can this be done? And in the process, who learns what?
To turn the situation around, craft needs to be viewed within new paradigms, such as: sustainable rural development, women’s home-based work/employment in the informal economic sector, and fair trade/ethical business practice. Each of these frameworks gives credence to the dignity of artisans, the right to sustainable livelihoods and the responsibility of consumers in the global marketplace.
The world of the craftsperson in developing countries is far away from the affluent consumer culture of the North. How do artisans bridge the gap? And how do consultants and agencies work to bridge the gap? I am going to address several issues from the standpoint of who is learning what. And how are these learning processes transformative?
In each of these areas artisans transform their perspectives of the world and what is possible for them.
Networks are active around the world, linking people who are concerned about justice and basic human rights of health, education, social security and livelihoods, and particularly the concerns of women. The concerns of artisans are coherent with the agenda of emerging development alternatives of local participation in matters of local importance, including economic development.
Several organizations in North America and United Kingdom that are addressing the needs of artisans include: The Crafts Center, Washington D.C.; Aid to Artisans, Hartford Connecticut; Fair Trade Federation (FTF) in USA; International Federation of Alternative Trade (IFAT) and HomeNet in the UK. These organizations have extensive outreach to artisan groups and also do consumer education. E-commerce has also increased the visibility of artisan work; websites that show products provide stories about the craftspeople that made them, and the potential of on-line purchase of craft has become a powerful tool for the benefit of artisans.
To increase the viability of artisan activity as a way of life and livelihood in distant parts of the world, we in North America have a part to play. That is to increase awareness in such a way to make a difference in the choices we make as consumers and to see the connections we have with the well-being of others far away who need our attention and care.
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