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.

5 thoughts on “Hypothetical #1 – Secret designs”

  1. Typically, the western consumers want authenticity at the price of someone else’s integrity. But perhaps the company would be happy with a design created by Ganapi artists especially for the cover? Why must it be one of the designs used in the initiation ceremony? Perhaps the cultural wealth of the Ganapi people would allow for a kind of cross-cultural exchange in which something new is created, and sent out into the world. There must be a way to engage, but also maintain Ganapi control of Ganapi culture.

    Maybe the problem with this thought exercise – which is stimulating – is that it allows only winning and losing. It sounds like old-school anthropology, where you are either maintaining traditions (inviolate) or being destroyed by modernity (contagion). I don’t want to avoid the challenge that is articulated here, nor deny the significant challenges to sovereignty and intellectual property that globalisation brings. But how come the friendly anthropologist didn’t think about these issues in developing his proposal? They are not new issues, and some pretty smart people are addressing them all the time.

  2. My advice to Moses would be to put forward a different proposition to that suggested by Infoglobal. It is curious to me that the organisation would choose to get the cover manufactured in China. If the product is so valuable surely it is deserving of a cover which is made by hand by the Ganapi people. Could the Ganapi develop a design which reflects their traditions but does not compromise their cultural integrity? And if they are engaged in the manufacture of the product, they would be passing on their traditions to future generations of Ganapi and I imagine they would have an ongoing income rather than a one-off lump sum.

    PS there’s no link to vote in the poll

  3. I voted ‘yes’ in the poll, but I think the question could have been formulated differently. For instance, just because products with a ‘clear social narrative’ is popular among a certain target market, it does not necessarily mean there is anything beyond that, i.e. it could just be the general trend that motivates an elite group to go for these products rather than an awareness of a deeper issue.

    I think the way the hypothetical is formulated, it presumes that financial value and exposure to a wider world is beneficial to the Ganapi culture, even if that means violating sacred codes held in the community (for instance, the fact that ‘no man can wear the xanak of another’ is ignored when the offer of mass producing the design is made). If the design is mass-produced to function as the cover for a new gadget which has no value other than technological ease and excellence, it is then divorced from the original associations of the xanak and is now served in marketing a product developed with an entirely different set of priorities in mind. I do not think it would help to revive the xanak design no help to regenerate the dying culture of the Ganapi people, but will only create a consumer commodity from a design once held sacred with special meanings.

    Of course there might be other ways for the modern world to engage with the Ganapi culture; but if they are to be meaningful, sacredness (however subjective and relative it may be) cannot be compromised for exposure or financial benefits.

  4. The comments so far seem to suggest that a third solution should be possible – one that helps keep pace with the challenges of the modern world while preserving core elements of culture. That may indeed be the case. But there might also be situations were there is no middle ground. You either sell your culture to stay in the game, or risk noble annihilation. It seems in our pragmatic age, we would tend to prefer the former.

  5. I have many examples of that, like a mapuche weaver which appeared on a Sunday magazine offering “MANTA CACIQUE” in a great amount of money but she said that, please, everyone that get one has to put it over a furniture or on the wall but never in the floor. Do you believe the owner of a Manta Cacique might obey to her demands? Why?Manta Cacique is a “poncho” with ikat technique, dyed in black or red and only the Cacique (or Machi if is a man), can wear it for their ceremonys.
    With the rural comunities I had work, I have the same problem. We go and teach them something, they do their own interpretations and sometimes do something new that born of interaction. But which is the real thing?
    The artisans that do their work every day, have a skill and do changes by their own. The weavers of Valle Hermoso that do the “manta huasa” use acrilic since 1970, more or less. They are doing that for 38 years so acrilic belong to them. They know how to use it, not ironing for don´t make the cloth be brilliant because “una manta nunca debe brillar”.
    The women of Juntas de Valeriano in III Región de Atacama, north of Chile, have traditional looms and do some works on them, but also they have metal looms that somebody gave them 15 years ago or more(some project)and we propose them to work with them in a product that have relation with the cloth that they take from the ancient looms. This issue is very dificult because they are declared by our president “diaguita people” (indian people) and our project has to teach them what diaguitas have to weave, without information because it doesnt exist research about diaguita ancient textiles.
    So when and what. Manta Cacique has a place in the mapuche world and the cilean world also (and Argentina ), but there are some products that are no so significant but belong to a comunity. Were they created by the people or somebody, like us, told them to do that? In any case, the artisans take the new idea and do what they believe is good. Which is the value of that?
    Well, for the Ganapi I think they don´t have to put their treasure, that treasure, in profane hands. I don´t think also that a great amount of money will save the men of the tribe from alcohol and discourage. I believe that they could give to others what they want to give. Like in love, if you give evrything you will be “vulnerable” (I don´t know the word).
    And, why the company Infoglobal needs such gancho to sell their product?
    The client of Infoglobal, is he interested on Ganapi people to have something of them? Isn´t rather snob to do that?
    No, the Ganapi people has to do some other thing to go out of poverty but not sell their soul.

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