Tag Archives: hypothetical

Craft in Fiji – more than souvenirs

Senaloli Sovea at the Wasawasa Festival of the Oceans

Senaloli Sovea at the Wasawasa Festival of the Oceans

As a matriarch of the Fijian craft scene, Seniloli expresses a strong commitment to traditional values. The first value is silence when being taught. ‘You watch! If you ask questions, half the time you forget. Your head will be creating new ideas.’ The second is to keep it personal. ‘I don’t want to be taken in by retailers. I’d rather sell it on the price that I am happy, and that’s it.’ This doesn’t just mean a good return to the craftsperson – it can also mean giving something away as a gift.

I was in Fiji to participate in a craft workshop organised by the Fiji Arts Council with the Pacific Arts Alliance. This coincided with a remarkable cultural feast.

The second Wasawasa Festival of the Oceans brought craftspeople from across the Pacific. Under one tent were gathered makers from Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, Cooke Islands, French Polynesia, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Aotearoa and, of course Fiji. It was a spirited gathering, particularly when the Tongans were in full song.

The festival coincided with the Miss South Pacific Pageant, which may sound clichéd, but turned out to be quite serious. Environment was the theme of this year’s contest. Over a gruelling week, each island’s representative had to demonstrate not only their beauty and charm, but also their cultural depth and political aptitude. As much as anything, the contestants provided elegant hosts for some stunning traditional fabrics and jewellery. Thankfully, Miss Fiji ended up winning the crown, and her thoughtful speech would put most politicians to shame. Next year it moves to PNG.

The Wasawasa Festival also included the first in what will hopefully be a series of craft workshops for local practitioners. For an outsider palagi (white person) like me, it was a wonderful way to learn about the local scene. Where people happy in their craft or did they seek something more? Was it becoming increasingly difficult to produce traditional craft? Did the tourist market seem limited to kitsch curios? Was there interest in product development and export?

One has to be careful here. Hidden in this questions is the assumption that it is the responsibility of the outsider to fix the problems in a poorer country. This certainly seems the foundation of much Australian involvement in the region. But craft challenges that position. As Seniloli noted during the workshop, packaging your culture for foreign markets involves many compromises. What was previously exchanged as part of meaningful rituals is now reduced to the universal currency of dollar bills. Objects disappear into the ether, rather than building a chain of reciprocation.

But if it’s a choice between sustaining or losing a tradition, it may be a compromise that makers feel is necessary. In which case, there are ways of building on the phenomenon of ethical consumerism to extend this symbolic chain across cultures.

Representatives of the ANZ Bank discussing micro-finance

Representatives of the ANZ Bank discussing micro-finance

The workshop covered a range of topics, including ethical trends, supply chains, micro-finance, Fair Trade and Traditional Knowledge as Intellectual Property. Fiji is pioneering quite an important application of Regional Framework for the Protection of Traditional Knowledge and Expressions of Culture developed by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community in 2002 (can be downloaded here). This involves a cultural mapping of traditional knowledge throughout the villages of Fiji and the establishment of a system whereby use of these materials can be vetted and authorised. It’s a daunting project, but they are nearly half way.

During the workshop we heard a number of stories about opportunities for export had been lost because local makers were unable to meet deadlines due to unexpected contingencies. While this was initially attributed to lack of experience in doing business, there were some who thought that they were right to put personal obligations first.

To bring out the issues further, we adapted the role play previously titled ‘Good Intentions are Not Enough’. This time, the ‘Big Picture’ focused on the supply chain that stretched from an Andean village to a craft store in Vancouver. As happened previously, there were many hitches initially as the first products failed to gain sales in the urban market. However, this time, two new strategies emerged. First, the artisans decided rather than change their traditional methods to style a poncho, they would simply produce the yardage and have it finished in a factory down in Cuzco. Second, one of the parents decided to directly support the designers and artisans, rather then purchasing their products. The workshop showed how new pathways open up when there is a sense of partnership between producer and consumer.

The workshop concluded with a feeling that more needed to be done to connect craftspersons together, to learn of opportunities and to host future workshops dealing with specific issues like business skills and packaging. This provided an auspicious context for the launch of the Pacific Craft Network, as part of the Pacific Arts Alliance. This has the potential to re-establish a presence for the World Craft Council in the Pacific region.

In all, the workshop was powerful testament to a renewed spirit in craft across Fiji and the Pacific. This craft is much more than kitschy souvenirs for tourists. The challenge now seems to be how to build on these strong foundations.

The following days gave me the opportunity to get to know the craftspersons a little better. But that’s for the next post.

Tradition For Modern Times: Selling Yarns workshop



Here’s an outline for the workshop that’s being offered for the Selling Yarns conference. This will be the first in a series of workshops taking place across the South this year. They will lay the ground for the development of the Code of Practice for Craft-Design Collaborations that aims to bolster the ethical value of the handmade.

Seminar 1: Ethical consumerism – Tradition for Modern Times

How to sustain trust in products developed from craft communities
Cost of seminar: $50.00
Monday 9 March, 9:00 am – 1:00 pm

This seminar explores the ethics of craft development and how this can add value to the final product.

Ethical consumerism considers not only the product itself but also the positive impact which purchasing this product has in the world. So, even a global brand like Starbucks tries to demonstrate its fair dealings with third world producers. Ethical consumerism is becoming increasing popular in design, with great interest in stories about how the product was made. The negative impact of sweatshop stories on Nike’s brand has shown how important it is for consumers to know that they are part of a positive process.

Many designers are now working with craft communities, particularly in remote regions where traditional manual skills have not yet been eroded by globalisation. While noble in intention, these collaborations are vulnerable. Designers often have little training and experience in working with traditional communities. Being tied to the fashion cycle can mean that the designer’s involvement in the community is short-term, leaving high expectations and great disappointments in their wake. A few bad stories about craft sweatshops can turn consumers cynical about products that have a ‘handmade by traditional community’ story.

So how can designers develop relationships with craft persons who are likely to live up to consumer expectations and have a sustainable benefit to the community?

This seminar develops principles for the collaboration between designer and craftsperson. While identifying ethical ideals of this collaboration, it is also mindful of the pragmatic issues and the need for all parties to make a livelihood from their work.

The workshop program will include:

  1. Presentation of craft-design case studies from a range of regions and models
  2. Discuss the UNESCO model for Designers Meet Artisans
  3. Present hypothetical scenarios involving role play to explore the different interests at play in product development
  4. Identifying core principles towards a Code of Practice for Designers and Artisans

Intended audience:

  • Designers, including product developers
  • Crafts-persons, interested in working with communities
  • Anthropologists, committed to partnership with their community
  • Retailers, promoting world craft to local market

You can register for the workshop and conference here.

Hypothetical #1 – Secret designs

What do you think about ‘world craft’? Here’s an opportunity to test your views.

Presented in partnership with the Craft Revival Trust and Craft Australia.


The world is becoming ever more inter-connected. Globalisation has led to chains of production that are spread across the world, from textile factories to call centres. And now with campaigns such as ‘We’re in this together’, the issue of climate change has sharpened our awareness that the future our planet is a shared responsibility. The climate change talks in Bali late last year reinforced the need for first and third world to work together. It’s a good opportunity to think about the nature of this cooperation.

A key to recent climate change negotiations has been the recognition of the need for economic development in third world countries. In the crafts, there is already considerable collaboration between first world designers and third world artisans. Such collaboration promises to build trust between the two halves of the world, as well as encourage the development of environmentally-friendly industries .

But trust is a fragile thing. Miscommunication and inappropriate assumptions can lead to suspicion and anger. Greater understanding is required of the interests, hopes and consequences that might be entailed in such collaborations. To develop an understanding of these complexities, a number of hypotheticals will be presented dealing with different kinds of relationships between designers and artisans. Responses are sought from those in the field about the issues evoked. These will form the groundwork for a more extensive study of this activity and the future potential development of a Code of Practice.

Can you sell culture to save culture?

The Ganapi people live in a village in the remote highlands of Gananda, a small tropical nation increasingly dependent on income from its copper mines. Ganapi culture is under great pressure. The male villagers are increasingly drawn to jobs with the mines in a distant province. Local craft traditions are threatened by the influx of cheap commodities. And overall, the Ganapi suffer from a decline in confidence and social cohesion.

A key element of Ganapi culture is the initiation of young men into adulthood. This involves an elaborate and highly secret ritual, during which the men are scarred and adorned with an ornately woven string bag, known as the xanak. This bag is produced during the ceremonies and its design is said to prophesise the future of its owner.

Herbert Downer is an anthropologist who has taken great interest in the Ganapi. He feels it is important to contribute something back to the culture that has helped establish his academic career. An old school friend has established a very successful technology company that markets products to the exclusive global elite. InfoGlobal have developed a device which combines Skype, GPS, MP3 player, language translation, email and news feeds. At the high price of US$1,200, it is designed for a limited market. Research has revealed that their target market is motivated to consume products that have a clear narrative of social responsibility. Elite consumers like to drink fair trade coffee and purchase hand-made goods. But at the same time, they are not averse to cutting edge technology.

Downer proposed that InfoGlobal commission the Ganapi people to design a cover for this new device using a traditional design. The cover would be mass-produced in the China, where the device is manufactured. The final product would be called a Xanak and be sold with a narrative about the cover, explaining the special meaning of the design as a guarantee of the wearer’s safety and success. InfoGlobal are thrilled with the idea and keen for their product designer to visit Ganada to secure the design.

Downer now visits his trusted confidante, Moses Fenami, and presents him with the idea. ‘I have a solution to the troubles now afflicting the village. A friend of mine is keen to buy one of the Xanak designs that are part of the cultural treasures of the Ganapi people. This design will be worn by very important people who travel widely around the world. The Ganapi story will be spread far and wide. Not only that, but the village will also receive a generous fee of $250,000 which will be donated for community projects, including a tourist centre to increase trade and draw people back to the village. I think it’s a golden opportunity to save Ganapi culture. What do you think?’

Moses replies, ‘Dear brother professor Downer. It is very kind that you have sought ways of helping the Ganapi. You are a true brother of the Ganapi. We certainly do need help. Our people have gone crazy with all these new things. Our men go to the copper mines and spend their money on drink and gambling. No one seems to care for the old ways any more. I fear greatly that our children will not know about their ancestors.

‘Perhaps this the way forward. Rather than just keeping our sacred stories and beautiful objects to ourselves, we learn to share them with other people. Other people can then help us re-build our culture.

‘But your solution is worrying too. These designs that you talk about are sacred to us. They are not produced lightly. Usually when everyone knows something in our culture, it is no longer important. We have strict rules. No man can wear another’s xanak. This might break one of the last ties that keep us together. So I’m not sure if the medicine would be worse than the disease. Please give me some time to consult with the other elders before I give you an answer.’

What do you think?

So, if you were a Ganapi elder, how would you advise Moses to answer Professor Downer:

  • YES, to seek resources and interest of the modern world to help strengthen Ganapi culture
  • NO, to preserve the sacred bed-rock of Ganapi values

Please register your opinion in the poll on this site. If there is more you’d like to add, such as an alternative solution, please leave a comment here.