Crafting a lifestyle | Daily News

Crafting a lifestyle

Annemari de Silva
Annemari de Silva

From traditional masks, the rattan weaved furniture in our homes, to the carved ornaments we sell to tourists, crafts are a medium through which we in Sri Lanka construct, communicate and marketise our national self-conception.

The crafts sector has been one of immense cultural significance, but what happens to the artisans on whom this industry relies? What are the forces which shape their work and lives and how do the state institutions created to protect them figure in this story?

These are the questions explored by Annemari de Silva in her new book ‘Craft Artisans and State Institutions’ published by the International Centre for Ethnic Studies. The Daily News had the chance to speak to de Silva to find out more about her research on the issues facing Sri Lanka’s craft makers.

Q: Early on in the book, you talk about the post-colonial significance of crafts as well as their role as part of a counterculture to mass production. Can you tell us a bit more about the salience of crafts within these contexts? Why is it that you decided to look at the crafts sector?

Sri Lanka is in the midst of creating a national policy on Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) since we are a signatory to the 2003 Convention on the Safeguarding of ICH. Early in 2017 when I was helping with some of the initial stages, I was struck by a few things during the course of the meetings, working groups, and visits to crafts communities. Firstly, there are phenomenal policies and practices used internationallyby which traditional crafts and knowledge can be protected, nurtured, and innovated on. Secondly, I was struck by the imminent decline of handicrafts – the people we spoke to mourned the loss of intergenerational knowledge transfer, the difficulty in finding income from their trade, and how their economy had deteriorated so much within the recent decades. This seemed paradoxical to me because I was well aware of the boom in tourism, of luxury brands producing tradition-inspired goods, and the high demand for crafts goods. Why weren’t crafts communities reaping the rewards?

This question spurred the research. Handicrafts are incredibly important right now, though they are taken for granted and devalued. We believe crafts will continue to be produced by some mythical, self-generating part of ‘culture’ without recognizing the real economic and welfare consideration of the individuals creating them. If the producers don’t survive, the crafts won’t either.

In order to support the sector adequately though, we need to understand why there is a demand for crafts and thereby how to sustain it. For instance, in tourism, we know that foreigners come to countries like Sri Lanka seeking ‘escape’ – but what do we actually mean by escape? Tourists are often from industrialised countries who are reacting to the dehumanized, mass production cultures they come from and instead seek ‘connection with self’ and ‘community’ in some exotic elsewhere.Within this is the desire for handicrafts which represents a pre-industrial connection between a person and the object s/he creates. The boom of artisan platforms like Etsy, craftconsumables (e.g. beer, coffee, etc.), and industrialized countries’ expanded investment in crafts is all testament to this growing international trend. This is what I mean by handicrafts being a counterculture to mass production. There is a growing demand for this as a salve, an alternative to mass-produced goods. It’s an international trend but, aside from a few companies here, we are hardly constructively tapping into it. Instead, there’s a trend where we take traditional motifs, get them mass-produced from China and resell them here. This is counterproductive to what actually drives the demand. There are ways to creatively imagine how to cater to demands for handicrafts while sustainably supporting the people creating them – but we are not there yet.

Q: What factors have led to the deterioration in the support given to craft makers by state institutions?

Part of the problem is that the state offered very extensive support for handicrafts; they were involved from the levels of raw materials and equipment, to marketing, to welfare. It seems unsustainable in the context of an open economy for the state to look after all of this, especially considering the unwieldy, slow bureaucracy of the state that struggles to keep up with fast-paced commercialism. And yet, what we see is that the state’s relationship with craftspeople still remained quite supportive and constructive even up to the late 1990s, early 2000s.

This is where the second part of the problem then comes in: corruption. There were a series of financial scandals that saw a lot of money allocated from the state to sustain handicrafts siphoned off. For instance, in 2018, the Coalition against Corruption lodged a complaint with CIABOC about fraud amounting to over Rs 2,700 million by some personnel from Laksala. However, the defendants were tried and released on bail with sureties of Rs 10,000 each and two personal sureties totaling Rs 2 million – altogether less than 0.001% of the amount put forward in the case. In another instance, the Auditor-General in his 2013 report remarked how unreasonable it was that only about 35% of the income earned by the Sri Lanka Handicrafts Board was paid to craftspeople whereas 65% was used for operational expenses. So, both through institutional mismanagement and outright fraud, the wealth of the handicrafts sector has been benefitting those in higher echelons and not the crafts communities themselves.

As at December 2017, there was over Rs 284 million in outstanding payments delayed by three months or more (no upper limit of time) for about 430 crafts suppliers. Some were owed as little as Rs 5,000 to Rs 800 for over three months.

The challenge now is that those who have taken up the reins of these institutions are desperately trying to rectify these problems and revive the institutions and the crafts communities they work with. But with this level of damage, it is a Herculean task.

Q: In the book you speak about attitudes and approaches in the crafts sector; do you think there needs to be a paradigm shift in the way we think about crafts? What are the frameworks that need replacing and what are some alternative approaches?

One of the fundamental problems of how we approach handicrafts production is the expectations of entrepreneurialism from craftspeople. This applies across the board for any of these fad ‘micro-entrepreneurship’ or ‘self-employment’ schemes that are peddled by the state, NGOs, private sector alike as a poverty alleviation strategy. The essence of entrepreneurship is the ability to take risk, which in turn depends on the availability of capital to sink. Why, then, are we expecting capital-poor communities to take on the financial and mental/emotional risks of entrepreneurship?

Craftspeople are expected to carry out all aspects of their trade alone: acquiring and processing raw materials, producing the object, marketing and sales, manage accounts, and also handle their own welfare. They are expected, by corollary, to account for: climate fluctuations affecting raw material availability, market fluctuations (especially to account for tourism, which in itself is dependent on politics), fluctuations of consumer price expectations, fluxes in customers at markets, and more. The point is, there is nosupported ecosystem of different actors involved at different stages of the handicraft supply chain (apart from middlemen supporting sales, which as we have seen can be often problematic).

Hence the burden is squarely on the craftsperson, which furthers his/her vulnerability.There needs to be holistic support for the crafts industry as a whole, instead of simplymaking more market opportunities, training programmes, and entrepreneurial loanschemes, all of which still put the burden of production and selling on the craftspersonalone. Ironically, while craftspeople are expected to be entrepreneurial in their production, the welfare schemes offered to them expect them to save as though they had a regular income. Welfare schemes are modelled after contributory schemes that would work with individuals who have a regular, say monthly, income and are able to make long-term-thinking, regularized savings decisions. However, craftspeople earn upon sales – their income is sporadic and varies in quantity.

There needs to be a new imagination about what schemes are offered to craftspeople, one that is capable of taking into account the irregularity of their income and resembles savings/investment attitudes taken towards entrepreneurs rather than salaried workers.

Q: In one section, you look at the tension between tradition and modernity in the crafts sector. How have craft makers navigated the terrain of modernity?

Craftspeople are constantly innovating and adapting through commercially driven processes. It is obviously satisfying to reap a monetary reward for what you produce. There are a lot of ‘trainings’ the NGOs and the state provide on design, etc., but these are less effective. Rather, when artisans are able to interact with buyers and consumers, the fiscal reward naturally spurs them into innovating in the direction of demand.

Several have also gone ‘online’, selling their wares through Facebook. Often, it may be a younger member of their family that handles this online aspect while the craft is done by someone of the older generation. In more than one instance, a parent may have been a traditional crafter, then one of the children may have studied design or taken up the craft and pivoted it to a modern turn. There are a lot of interesting intergenerational dynamics going on.

However, there is one problematic aspect of this imagined ideal of a ‘handicrafts family’. In interviews carried out with multiple stakeholders, a consistent lament was that “younger generations are not taking it up”. What’s implicit in that question is that we are expecting younger generations within the family to take it up, as though it ought to be passed down in some historical caste-based sense – which is problematic to say the least! It is unfair to expect new generations from within the same community to continue craft-making when it is not even financially sustainable for the current generation. For youth, the open economy has offered other jobs such as work in export processing zones (EPZs), garment factories, migration overseas, which offer the advantages that (a) they are not caste-associated (b) they guaranteesteady income and (c) they are easily-learnt skills, while handicrafts can take yearsto complete a proper apprenticeship. It is absurd to expect that they will take up crafts for the sake of some national-level desire to keep these cultural symbols alive.

Q: Do you have any proposals as to where we ought to go now with regard to allowing state institutions to better support craft makers?

Firstly, craft-making needs to be treated like a vocation and adequately remunerated. Rather than forcing the trade on traditional families, if the profession is made financially viable then people would naturally be attracted to it. This was the case in the 1970s: handicraft production was a financially rewarding enterprise, so many young men and women intentionally learnt the trades of batik, lace-making, reed weaving and so on. For this turn to happen, the state needs to work collaboratively with the private sector, that is currently doing a much better job at stimulating the crafts sector to innovate, be adequately paid, and preserve knowledge. The state, unlike the private sector, already has the networks of craftspeople and the apparatus to understand the demographics of artisans. Understanding the landscape of the sector will help better inform sector stakeholders on how to move forward.

Secondly, we need to take stock of the international frameworks available to protect and promote traditional crafts and leverage it in a way to promote our local industry. Sri Lanka has many avenues open to us. We hold one of only four seats available for Asia-Pacific members of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage for 2018-2022. In 2018, String Puppet Drama (Rookada Natya) was officially recognized by UNESCO as part of the World’s Intangible Cultural Heritage, joining the ranks of reggae music from Jamaica, yoga from India, and Cuban Rumba dancing. Although it has now taken about 20 years and counting to come up with a global regime on Intellectual Property protections for traditional knowledge, there are legal precedents available internationally that can be learnt from. There are a string of legal cases in India and South America that provide precedent for traditional knowledge to be protected from global giants exploiting them for commercial purposes without rightful permissions from origin communities. All of these global mechanisms can be used to elevate the value of traditional crafts, alongside other forms of traditional cultural expressions – but this must be done by the state.

Finally, aside from these lofty goals above, simply rectifying the existent problems – the delayed payments, the lapsed welfare mechanisms – would suffice for an immediate salve for the crafts communities. 

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