At the moment I am deeply engaged in building up a sustainable weaving collaboration focused on the preservation of endangered crafts traditions and women’s empowerment with my dear friend Putu. The collaboration is called Alamanda and it is located in the village Sudaji in the mountainous Sawan district in the Buleleng region in North Bali. The immensely talented craftswomen with whom we work are masters hand weaving, for example the complicated art of songket weaving.
When traditional crafts techniques and traditional crafts expressions disappear, treasured knowledge and skill is lost. Crafts techniques and patterns are rarely enshrined or written down, and the traditional patterns are typically not sketched and stored, as they are often taught orally, or rather by showing the process by hand from one generation to the next. They are characterised by non-verbal transmission.
When artisans seek other earning opportunities, the crafts traditions die out. This is not only a large cultural loss, but a loss of diversity.
In my upcoming book Anti-trend – Resilient Design and The Art of Sustainable Living I investigate how to sustain endangered crafts traditions by engaging in the balancing act of maintaining the core of the craft – the technique, hands-on wisdom, the look of the traditional patterns, the feel of textures, etc. – and updating the overall aesthetics in order to innovate. The difficulty here lies mainly in the curious fact that the significant aesthetics – the look and feel of the crafted product – which is linked to a specific crafts tradition is its strength but simultaneously its Achilles heel.
A craft-tradition is typically accompanied by certain motifs, patterns, textures, color combinations, carvings, or shapes, and is restricted to staying within the limitations of these. The motifs and textures are typically charged with connotations; with metaphysical meaning, allegories, symbols, stories, and signs, and linked to certain events or ceremonies – and only worn or used at these – societal status, family ties, or life-phases. And traditional artisans are trained to carry out these conventional patterns with precision. The problem is that the shapes and motifs of traditionally handcrafted artefacts might not meet the needs and aesthetic preferences of others than the narrow target group these were originally created for. Their symbolism might, so to speak, be lost in translation – or carry no meaning when detached from their origin – their function might be outdated, and their aesthetics might not be comprehensively nourishing.
In relation to patterns, symbols, and motifs in the woven fabric, clarifying which elements are essential and unique for the region, and which ones are pure decoration can be beneficial. When sustaining a craft tradition preserving cultural and regional characteristics is of great importance. Doing so is also a way of underlining that these particular motifs and patterns are “owned” by this specific region and people despite the fact that they do not have the copyright.
Often regional and traditional patterns are incorporated in high fashion without designers giving credit to the original creators. This lack of credit doesn’t only apply to textile design and garments, but also to furniture, ceramics, jewellery, etc. This is another reason that the status-providing identity of being an artisan is vanishing. Giving credit to the original creators of patterns, techniques, motifs, shapes, etc., is empowering. This can be done through storytelling: telling of the inheritance and the people behind the products, and also – in the case of woven fabrics – by highlighting the crucial patterns and motifs.
Many crafts traditions are endangered worldwide. They are taught throughout generations – from hand to hand. And, if the livelihood of artisans is threatened – as it is today due to the overproduction of mass-produced goods that handmade products cannot compete with in terms of price – young generations will seek other kinds of employment (in Bali, typically in tourism).
Right now in Bali, the pandemic has emptied the island from tourists. But instead of feeling despaired, I am touched by experiencing the Balinese people’s incredible resilience: there is hope and there is desire to do things differently and to return to ancient ways and principles that always worked – to farm and grow and create. Furthermore, there is an openness to new ways and new ideas. This is a golden opportunity for balinese crafts.