A conference is like an experiment which no one can fully predict until it happens. In January 2016, CRAFT FORWARD opened at the Strand Hotel in Yangon with about 160 people sitting in the audience, each invisibly carrying an array of expectations, questions, and opinions. On stage, a line-up of diverse speakers from Myanmar, southeast Asia, Japan and Europe shared their professional experience and ideas for the future; they included designers, researchers, small business owners, professional associations, educators and many more.
As the first conference of its kind in Myanmar, CRAFT FORWARD was designed to open up broad perspectives on the topic of southeast Asian handicrafts and their potential future in a globalised world. Looking at crafts far beyond the idea of commercial product, CRAFT FORWARD aimed to reach outward by linking multiple dimensions of the sector such as social responsibility, environmental impact, and cultural identity. The two-day event was an attempt to map out the challenges and opportunities facing the industry during this time of rapid economic transition in the region.
As the conference unfolded, questions opened up like endless roads before us, and speakers’ presentations were quickly complemented by the audience’s reactions. Burmese artisans who made long train journeys across the country to attend the event, bravely voiced their desires and concerns:
How can we sustain our local livelihoods and ensure that our practices don’t disappear?
How can we compete against mass manufactured goods?
Who will support us in acquiring new skills and find new opportunities?
Simple questions that cannot meet easy answers often reveal the complexities and difficulties facing craft-practicing communities all around the world. Myanmar is not an isolated case, and local contexts from southeast Asia resemble one another. These challenges have been ongoing for decades to the detriment of traditional cultures that have been permanently lost. One step forward is to confront such realities and learn from existing and past projects. There are few shortcuts when it comes to supporting handicrafts and many practices will be lost in the years ahead. Tourism is not an all-encompassing solution for crafts in southeast Asia and it is imperative for local cultural ownership to be restored through creative education and capacity-building among local youth.
Alongside this “reality check”, a positive attitude toward risk is also important to acquire across different segments of society from grassroots communities to governments. Risk-taking implies the beginning of unconventional approaches such as:
• Alternative value-chains respectful of “slow life” and which can create a renewed perception of crafts.
• The recognition that traditional practices can be innovative by design and fit meaningfully in a post-industrial age.
• The application of local cultural influences as sources of inspiration instead of the ubiquitous global trends.
In a transition process, various players must work together to trigger a collective behavior that can have a positive ripple effect within a locality, a country or even a region. At the same time, the meaning and cost of progress should often be questioned:
Economic development should be implemented while caring for human life and environmental well-being.
Foreign support in developing countries needs to take place without creating strong dependencies.
“New” ideas should not be systematically perceived as an improvement on the “old”.
The list goes on…
Among the presentations given by the conference speakers, common traits were time and perseverance. Working in the craft industry is not easy and success in this context ought to be measured through discipline and focus. It took more than a decade for Indonesian designer Singgih Susilo Kartono to set up his line of wooden and bamboo products that turned his village and community into a world-renowned symbol of eco-living and slow life. Countless reiterations of the “dragon” shoes were imagined and carved by a local Vietnamese artisan in collaboration with the social enterprise Fashion4Freedom to achieve a high-end product. A few years ago, Emi Weir owner of Ma Te Sai was close to giving up on her business until she received some encouraging support that changed her mind and allowed her to pursue her community-driven passion involving different ethnic communities in Lao PDR. UN consultant Joseph Lo traveled extensively in remote rural areas to learn about craft communities and develop cultural education frameworks in Asian countries like Myanmar.
Courage and perseverance may not sound like practical answers, however they could hold a key for future generations who need to adapt to globalization and still remain true to their culture. Working in the craft sector requires the ability to see beyond hurdles that are very real and widespread. The very challenges that are inherent to craft as a professional practice can push people to believe in larger possibilities and experiment with alternative ways. Therefore in this case, a problem should be positively viewed as the beginning of a solution that could bring meaningful change.
Organised by the British Council (Myanmar), the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and New Zero Art Space.