Tag Archives: artisan

Kala Raksha: Three initiatives for the artisan designer

There is an old, ongoing, and passionate debate about the difference between art and craft. This debate will probably never find consensus, but it makes us ponder and observe. Years ago, three very successful traditional artisans of Kutch gave their opinions: Ismailbhai said, “The difference is imagination and skill.” “Art is what you do the first time; after that, it is craftsmanship,” Ali Mohammed Isha elaborated. And Lachhuben added, “Everyone can do craft, but not all can do art.”

Art requires concept, imagination, thought. All craft is not art. If the artisan is simply executing patterns or rote copying, it is not art. The head and the heart are as essential as the hands.

The debate matters because it has critical implications for not just the survival but the flourishing of traditional artisans. The economic standards by which art and craft are valued are night and day apart. More than that, cultural hierarchies play out in the terms used. Craft connotes charming diminutive workers, while Art commands respect.

In art, the individual conceives an idea and executes it in his or her medium. It is an activity of self expression. Traditional arts or crafts were usually more functional. A product was created as a communication between maker and user. But as in art, the artisan both conceived the product and created it.

When the relationships between maker and user broke down, design emerged as a separate entity. In craft, it is usually called design intervention, and it indicates a separation between concept and execution. In the process, the concept retains its value, while the execution becomes labour.

In order to reverse the trend, Kala Raksha started Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya, the first design school for traditional artisans. Here, artisans learn design in order to be able to create more effectively for new, distant markets. The unique concepts of each artisan designer are valued, consciousness and confidence increase, and the art aspect of craft reemerges. Artisan Design emphasies the aspect of the artisan’s thought.

Now, Kala Raksha has added a logo to this concept, in order to create visibility and value for the individual’s creative effort. Artisan Design also creates value for the integrated spirit of tradition. This is the symbol of integration of concept and execution, and of raising status of the artisan. It is a new fair trade idea—fair trade for the creative spirit. Artisan Design certifies that a product is an artisan’s own creative innovation. It celebrates the individual’s heart, mind and hand.

The second initiative is e-portfolios of the Artisan Designers who have graduated from Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya. Each graduate has invested a year of hard work and incredible creativity, to embark on a unique artistic path. Through the e-portfolios, Kala Raksha will facilitate contact to world markets for each of these artists. The contemporary market has a critical role to play in recognizing and honouring the spirit of the creator. With information technology, emerging artisan designers can be discovered by people who can value their work. The portfolios will be maintained on a new website www.kalaraksha-vidhyalaya.org to be launched in January 2011.

The third initiative is live in time for the holiday season. It is a collaboration with Equal Craft, a socially conscious marketplace that provides world citizens with excellent world art, and artisans with true global market value and recognition. www.equalcraft.com

Combining age old tradition and the latest technology, Kala Raksha and Equal Craft are breaking social barriers. E-commerce makes it possible for rural artisans to directly connect with long distance markets. The fact that one can ask what is the difference between a quilter in Vermont selling her quilts on Etsy.com and Lachhuben Rabari selling her embroidered bags on Equalcraft.com says it all. There is no difference. The venture is leveling the playing field. The difference is that now Lachhuben can sell her embroidered bags directly to anyone in the world—and she can get direct feedback from her customers!

Equal Craft’s contemporary technology makes it possible to sell the story– the cultural and personal context that creates value –along with the product. You can follow what else Lachhuben has made. And you can ask this Rabari woman what she thought about when she created it—and get her response.

In the way that Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya offers design education to artisans with no formal education, Equalcraft.com makes social networking possible for artisan designers who may not read and write.

Fair’s fair, but there’s also an art to partnership

A recent forum on the Fair Trade model for creative industries proposed that something more is needed to promote equitable cultural partnerships.

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The forum ‘Fair Trade for Creative Labour’ at RMIT’s Design Research Institute explored the regulation of cultural production through accreditation formats like Fair Trade. Speakers included Associate Professor Tim Scrase (Wollongong University), who has published widely in the plight of artisans particularly in India, Linda Chalmers (Oxfam Australia) who product manager for the largest Fair Trade business in Australia dealing with world craft, and Associate Professor Donald Feaver (RMIT University), who specialises in the new field of translational law. This was an unique opportunity to think both critically and constructively about how creative producers in the Global South work with designers and artists from the richer countries.

Tim Scrase began with a strong critical perspective on schemes like Fair Trade. He invoked the concept of ‘commodity fetishism’ to describe a process whereby the meaning of a product is taken out of the hands of the producer. He expressed scepticism of Fair Trade as a system that creates ‘rigmarole’ and doesn’t address the inherent inequity of a market system.

Linda Chalmers was able to respond by describing the Oxfam model. She admitted that the purpose of the trading arm is to make money. But she distinguished this from corporate model where profit flows to shareholders. Instead, it is the producers who benefit. For Chalmers, overarching concern is the broader Oxfam goal of poverty alleviation. She informed us that they currently have 23 shops in Australia which last year sold works to the value of $11m. They represent 100 producer networks from 30 countries. When Oxfam engages with design, it is usually on a philanthropic basis and the designer does not receive any benefit. Part of the partnership is for the designer to pass on their skills so they are no longer needed. Linda advocated for Fair Trade as an evolving system that offered the best deal in working with producers.

Donald Feaver presented a typology of Codes of Practice. He argued that purely internal Codes rarely work. But as globalisation is extending supply chains, it has become increasingly important to find ways of ensuring common standards from beginning to end. Because these extend beyond national boundaries, the development of these codes has been largely beyond the scope of individual nation states, and has instead become largely a private concern. Feaver spoke particularly of the development of a code for CIBJO, the world jewellery body. This provoked much animated discussion about whether a private organisation could be the best vehicle for an ethical code.

The ensuing discussion highlighted a divide between the Fair Trade model and the ‘high end’ of the market. The textile artist Samorn Sanixay spoke about being approached by an exclusive design store to stock her product made in Laos. On being a given a price for her scarves, they responded that they were ‘too cheap to sell’ – their customers would only buy these if they were triple the price. She queried how Fair Trade could reach this end of the market.

The discussion identified a current limit to the Fair Trade model in how it deals with creative products, such as ‘designer goods’ or art works. Fair Trade has been identified particularly with agriculture where the primary focus is worker’s wages and conditions. In creative products, there are less easily measured values such as authenticity and intellectual property. Standards for these differ between and within cultures.

At the moment, there are important moves within Fair Trade to accommodate these issues. For instance, the draft Sustainable Fair Trade Management System has a provision:

6.5.4 Where the Organisation produces direct copies of existing designs that have not been produced by its own designers, it obtains and retains documentary evidence that the copying of a design is agreed upon by the original designer or producer group.

Fair Trade is providing an important base on which supply chains can be made equitable. But as the forum’s discussion identified, there can be problems with a system of accreditation which enables retailers to tick boxes without critically appraising what’s happening on the ground. This is not a problem with Fair Trade per se, but with the limits of an international and necessary bureaucratic structure.

Designers like Samorn Sanixay seem to be wanting something in addition. The issue of cultural sensitivity was raised as critical in developing partnerships with traditional producers. It’s difficult to imagine any system of accreditation being able to cover issues such as appropriateness of designs used in different contexts. This requires trust and openness between the guest designer and host community. A well-built relationship has the potential to involve producers more creatively in the process of product development.

There seems a need for an extension of the Fair Trade system which enables critical reflection on the issues involved in collaboration. This would both set out important principles in how partnerships are developed and provide a conversation where individual experiences could add to a collective wisdom. In addition to the minimal standards for accreditation, this could pose aspirational goals for ideal practice.

Fair Trade is certainly one of the most significant developments this century in the promotion of world craft. It’s enabled hundreds of craft cooperatives to find a market for their work and assured consumers about the benefits of their purchase to producers. It’s currently in a state of rapid evolution as it tries to keep step with ever expanding expectations of a Fair Trade model. Could we imagine a Fair Trade art? That’s a question still to be answered, but it is likely to involve more than fulfilling accreditation criteria. What might that be?

This conversation will continue next month at the UNESCO workshop on craft-design collaborations in Santiago. Craft Unbound will continue to feature examples of artists, craftspersons and designers working across the cultural divide. As they straddle rich and poor worlds, heritage and sustainability values, their stories deepen our understanding of how the world fits together. In the future, we can begin to identify what these principles are.

One possible place to start would be with Nelson Mandela’s advice, ‘the first thing is to be honest with yourself’.

On the one hand Spring, and on the other, Autumn



Today in the South our calendars tell us that this is the beginning of spring. But as trees come into blossom here, the leaves will begin to wither and die in the North.

In his novel Rasselas, Samuel Johnson attempted to discover the secret of happiness. After many adventures, he concluded that any happiness is always accompanied by a loss, ‘That nature sets her gifts on the right hand and on the left’. You can choose to have either worldly fame or a bountiful garden. It seems that full happiness can only be experienced collectively.

Two hands is a symbol of a world made from the separation of two halves – North and South, thinking and doing.

Aristotle saw the world as made by two kinds of persons: the user who determines the form and the producer who realises it. In much of everyday life, these two sides work together: we want a cup of tea and we find the materials and equipment to make one. As human society evolves, these two sides are drawn apart. In the West, there is a hierarchy that places the thinker above the doer, the architect above the builder. Globalisation has put increasing distance between the consuming ‘first world’ and the producing ‘third world’.

It seems this arrangement is reaching its limits. Environmentally and financially, the world is out of kilter. In the West there are movements such as the Slow Movement and DIY that seek to re-incorporate making into daily life. And in the emerging economies, there is a call for increasing consumption and agency. The Kyoto Protocol has set up a framework where the future of the planet depends on a consensus between these two worlds.

On the ground, there is increasing activity in a kind of product development that involves designers working with artisans. For artisans, this collaboration offers the opportunity to find new markets that can replace the local sales lost through cheap imports. For designers, there is the potential to add an ethical value to their products. In a small but tangible way, craft-design collaborations provide models of north-south partnerships.

Such collaborations face challenges. Some in the crafts believe it is essential to maintain a link with tradition – craft is a way of keeping our authentic cultural identity. They think design ties craft to a short-term fashion cycle, as the whims of a distant market dictate what an artisan can do. And some in design world see the making as unimportant: as long as it is good quality and cheap, designs can be produced by anyone anywhere. Good design transcends its materials.

Of course, collaboration is not for everyone. There are circumstances were ancient crafts need to be preserved for the sake of our cultural diversity. And others where design operates at a purely speculative level in order to forge new ideas.

But in our world today, it is essential that we construct a bridge to encourage traffic between the two. The water below is turbulent. A legacy of colonialism, dictatorships and exploitation make it difficult to bridge the two worlds. Dialogue does not imply the denial of difference. But a common interest in the success of a product can help develop trust. What’s needed is a leap of faith.

Craft Unbound is a place for reviewing attempts to bridge these worlds. One bridging project is the Code of Practice for Craft-Design Collaborations. It begins by gathering information from both sides – a frank and open review of the experiences of designers, artisans, community leaders, activists, historians, anthropologists, wholesalers, retailers and consumers. Having surveyed the different perspectives, we can then bring together relevant organisations to construct a set of guidelines that best aligns the different interests.

To begin, we need to acknowledge that there a two sides to this story – the craft skills developed over millennia and the design concepts that give these skills a meaningful role to play.

Good craft is well-designed and good design is well-crafted.

Missionaries – the end of after

We had the last of the After the Missionaries discussions last night. The conversation first started at the beginning of a dark and stormy winter. It ended in what has proven to be Melbourne’s warmest winter on record. It seemed a fitting context for a discussion about art and the Kyoto Protocol at the Institute of Postcolonial Studies.

The discussion was premised on the operation of the Kyoto Protocol as a means to address climate change through a global consensus, requiring agreement between the two halves of the world. Many of the artists discussed in After the Missionaries explored new paths that connect the global North and South.

The process of writers speaking to their articles proved quite fruitful. The four local writers were able to provide new layers to the articles they originally published in Artlink. In a way, it provided an immediate demonstration of value-adding.

Neil Fettling reflected on the dilemma of the Archibald Prize for David Griggs – how, if he had won, he would have to deal with the issue of co-authorship with the Philippine billboard artist Rene Oserin. Helen Vivian explored in more detail the way Jonathan Kimberley’s canvases engaged with Jim Everitt’s words. Kelly Fliedner spoke more broadly about how artists react defensively to writing which places their work in an ethical context. And Emily Potter reflected on the dilemma of symbolic acts at a time when immediate direct action seems called for.

A common theme was the technique of palimpsest. The layering of images provided a means of combining two very different points of view without assuming they could be merged into a single position.

The intense discussion that followed focused on the subject of global art involving traditional artisans. A position began to evolve that collaborations were possible as long as their was open negotiation between both commissioning artist and artisan. But the example of ‘sex tourism’, when it could be claimed that there is free negotiation between the Western client and a young local prostitute, prompted a need to consider the parameters of negotiation more closely. There was also a question about why this commissioning must always come from the rich countries. There were relatively few examples when artists or artisans from poor countries had initiated collaboration.

There was broad consensus that art had an important role to play in bridging the global divide and reflecting critically on the ways we inhabit the world. There seemed a feeling that there was still important work to do in responding critically to the new forms of global art that are beginning to emerge.

But alongside all that, there was a recognition that there would always be something about art that could not fit neatly into ethical or utilitarian frames. This very freedom of art helps propose new possibilities and alternative ways of seeing. How do we sustain the creative freedom of art while seeking ways of making a better world?

As we dispersed into the night, this seemed a particularly verdant question with which to greet the coming spring.

The ‘Art of Making’ in Castlemaine



Typical Castlemaine scene of detritus from the mechanical age

While much of regional Victoria is recovering from the devastation of recent bushfires, something positive beckons in the horizon. The central Victoria town of Castlemaine is home to a long tradition of making. Artisanship continues from its early days as a gold town to the present population of artists and makers who keep the foundries and workshops busy.

Here’s the media release for an upcoming Castlemaine Festival (27 March – 5 April) that draws from this heritage:

This year introduces the inaugural 2009 Castlemaine Visual Arts Biennial with the theme of The Art of Making: invention and artisanship. Invention is about resourcefulness and pursuing original ideas to create unique solutions. Artisanship is about the process of making, often by hand, objects that resonate with the finely honed skill of the artist. Artists will talk about these and other key ideas, including methodology and technique, public and private space, urban and regional perspectives, and sustainability. The 45 artists participating in the Biennial were selected by The Biennial curatorial team: Dr Chris McAuliffe, Kevin Murray, Julie Millowick and Visual Arts Coordinator Zoe Amor, and are all Victorian.

Castlemaine’s iconic Market Building will show 3-dimensional works, 2-dimensional works will be shown at the Continuing Education building, and public art installations will be located throughout Castlemaine. The 3-D artworks in the Castlemaine Market Building include work by artists including Kerry Cannon, Noah Grosz, Kate Meade, Kathryn McAllister, Jane Sanderson, Dean Smith, Trefor Prest, Gretchen Hillhouse, Ricky Swallow, Marcos Davidson, Nicholas Jones, Conrad Dudley-Bateman, Kate Spencer, Brydee Rood, Lynette Wallworth, Helen Bodycomb & Vipoo Srivilasa. An installation of contemporary lapidary jewellers will be curated by Lillyan Shirrington.

The Castlemaine & District Continuing Education building will be the venue for 2-D artworks by artists including Tim Jones, Raafat Ishak, Wendy Stavrianos, Donna Bailey, Steph Tout, James Kenyon, Martine Whitcroft, Jennifer Bartholomew, Tamara Marwood, Helen Seligman, James McArdle, Kynan Sutherland, Juliana Hilton & a collaborative piece coordinated by Ashley Mariani.

Public art installations will be located at various sites throughout Castlemaine, including Victory Park, Castlemaine Railway Station and at road entry points to the town. Six local public artists — Lynne Edey, Craig MacDonald, Greg Smith, Roger McKindley, Candy Stevens & James Kenyon – will express a unique vision for the central Victorian landscape; drawing attention to the cultural, environmental and historical qualities of this region.

Other venues include the Old Plumber’s Shop, where Alice Steel will launch her comic SPACEANGEL, & the Old Castlemaine Gaol, where Robyn Spicer, local illustrator, designer & writer, will show Weird Critters.

On each day of the 2009 Castlemaine State Festival there will be free talks by artists, to facilitate the engagement of the public with the artists and their ideas. Artists include Donna Bailey, Steph Tout, Helen Bodycomb, Marcos Davidson, Kerry Cannon, Greg Smith, Roger McKindley, Candy Stevens, Gretchen Hillhouse, Tamara Marwood, Helen Seligman, Kynan Sutherland and Robyn Spicer.

Here’s good reason to return to central Victoria for the healing autumn breezes and mysteries of making in the venerable country town of Castlemaine.

The ethical turn, turn, turn

‘The rich swell up with pride, the poor from hunger.’
Sholom Aleichem



As we saw a ‘linguistic turn’ transform humanities in the late 20th century, on our side of the millennium it seems that we are witnessing a wave of cultural accountability – an ‘ethical turn’.

Culture is no longer ‘innocent’ of politics. An artist cannot draw inspiration from the third world without accounting for his or her economic privileges. Similarly in disciplines such as anthropology and archaeology it is an expectation that the researcher works in partnership with the community – the knowledge which they glean must be paid for, usually in services.

This ethical turn may seem rather negative. Guilt can lead towards greater distance between cultures, as those from rich countries are hesitant to be seen as cultural predators. But there are positive developments too.

The existence of a just partnership between rich and poor is a valuable ideal, and increasingly we seem willing to pay for it. Fair Trade sales in commodities such as chocolate and coffee have risen greatly, up to 50% a year. Given the modest nature of these purchases, it is unlikely that they will be affected by the economic downturn.

Previously, it was the ‘customer is always right’. But now the interests of the producer have become relevant. There is a multitude of products that advertise their benefits to the community of origin, including bottled water, textiles, furniture, cosmetics and medicines.

As this trend continues the build, it naturally becomes commodified. We cringe to learn that McDonalds is now a member of the Rainbow Alliance. What guarantee do we have that such associations are more than marketing gimmicks, there to enhance the primary brand? As Nestlé, Coca-Cola and other global brands jump on the ethical bandwagon, we are tempted to become cynical about the whole ethical turn. How can we tell the difference between substance and advertising?

At this point, it seems important that those designing these products find a way of sustaining the trust of the consumer. The challenge is to provide the consumer with convincing information about the arrangement with the producing community. It’s hard to convey this information just as dry facts, there needs to be a compelling narrative about the challenges faced by the community and their current aspirations.

This is partly a design challenge. How do you develop products that ‘feel good’? How might the consumer feel that his or her purchase not only promises themselves goodness, but in a small way makes the world a better place? This product might be the exception. This product may not be not drawing on an unsustainable resource, subjecting displaced peoples to sweatshop conditions, exporting industrial pollution from first to third worlds, etc.

So we need to find a way of designing ethical value that will last. It’s not good enough to make ethics fashionable. Today’s trend is tomorrow’s dumpster. And it’s not enough to be dewy-eyed. Today’s romantic myth is tomorrows hardened realism.

The project of a Code of Practice for Craft-Design Collaborations is designed to strengthen this ethical turn in product development. The initial phase is to open this question up for discussion in a way where no view is excluded, from the most idealistic to the most cynical. It is this openness that will serve to help develop an enduring understanding of the nature of an object’s ethical value.

This year, there are already two workshops planned to start this discussion. The first will be at Selling Yarns next month. The second will be in Santiago, Chile, in September.