Making the artisan visible

As the Sri Lanka Design Festival ended its five-day run, Asoka de Zoysa shares some reflections on the "Island Crafts Fashion Show" on November 16 and 17

Seldom does the Sri Lankan store selling useful and decorative items called "handicrafts" ever mention the "artisan" or craftsmen/ craftswomen behind the creation. Very seldom do "Art Exhibitions" devote space for crafts or engage with crafts. The crafts of Sir Lanka are mostly presented at Folk Art Museums, Trade Fairs or at Craft Exhibitions although they share the same design principles with what is marketed as "art" created by "artists".

Visitors to the festival check out the handicrafts on display. Pix by Nilan Maligaspe

More fortunate are the fabric and fashion designers, who from time to time are featured in a glossy magazine and may hold group or solo exhibitions. On the other hand, as crafts have a ritual and social value, there has been a constant urge to feature Ape-Sanskrutiya (our culture) as reflected in the Sri Lankan crafts at Expo Pavilions and Tourism Fairs overseas - here too the Shilpiya (artisan) creating the craft merges with his tools like a pillow used for making beeralu lace, exhibited representing the process.

Always visible are the middlemen who either follow the tourist on the ramparts of the Galle Fort or shop keepers selling souvenirs. In this process of commoditization of culture, words that denote the specific technique such as "beeralu" , "laaksha", "batik" or "handloom" or the far away name of the village the artisans live, like "Dumbara" or "Marthamunai" give the finished product the exotic brand name.

The opening night of the Sri Lanka Design Festival (SLDF) at the Mount Lavinia Hotel on November 16 not only highlighted the different communities scattered around the island creating handloom fabrics, batiks or lace but also made the artisan/craftsmen visible. The "Island Crafts Fashion Show" was the culmination of a long partnership between the students, alumni and lecturers of the Academy of Design (AOD), some international "Designers in Residence" and artisans from Divulapitiya in the Gampaha District, Eruvil and Mullaitivu in the Batticaloa District, Talagune in the Dumbara Valley Marthamunai in Ampara and Dikwella in the south.

The fashion show on the 16th evening showed how the newly created designs could be transformed into contemporary couture. Side by side with the batik designers like Yolanda Aluvihare and Darshi Keerthisena whose recent creations gave the historical frame work for innovation and quality, award winning alumni of the first Degree Programme at the AOD like Lonali Rodrigo, Prabath Sumanasooriya and Kasuni Ratnasuriya showed remarkable designs incorporating crafts.

Continuing the tradition established at the SLDF 2010, the "Island Crafts Fashion Show" was repeated the next day to the artisan-partners arriving from all regions of the island. At this special fashion show they could see how the long days of manufacture - tedious hand work in the real sense - bloomed into dresses worn by beautiful models from Sri Lanka and Italy. This was a unique experience of cultural exchange at the Empire Ball room of the Mt. Lavina Hotel - Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim artisans not knowing each other in the past months, all working for one single project were able to exchange views and experiences over the lunch and discussion that followed.

The Sri Lankan batik industry which began with Soma Udabade, Sybil Wettasingha, Ena de Silva in the sixties gradually lost its demand during the wartime, when tourist arrivals dropped. Many "batik factories" closed down and there was very little innovation seen in design. Other crafts like weaving with palmyrah and handloom faced setbacks in the North and East too during the war. Tsunami and the torrential rains experienced all over the island exactly a year ago robbed some artisans of their existence - specially in the Galle and Ampara Districts. Much of the creative know how was erased due to death, disability and displacement. The 'Design for Sustainable Development' (DFSD) programme implemented by the Academy of Design was launched not only to protect the local craft heritage, but also provide new livelihoods, markets and trade links to marginalized communities.

This means supplying of raw materials at the desired time, coordinating and monitoring the development of the project from Colombo and monitoring the products to maintain standards and deadlines. The designs on the other hand had to meet the "up-market" needs of the Young Upcoming Professionals who demand designer wear for the pool party or promo-evening in Sri Lanka and to be attractive for an international market."Craft Fashion" may become a new brand name in the future and in this verve of globalization the designers will also be expected to maintain the Sri Lankan identity of the craft, even though the Dutch introduced lace and batik was re-introduced in the sixties from Indonesia.

In the ideal situation the artisan producing the craft and the designer who develops the design to meet the global market will be seen as "partners", which means a transparency on both sides with regard to fair prices for raw material, finished craft and final product. Only such a programme would become "ethical" and "responsible" in the true sense of the word and not just be buzz words for the project proposal.

(The writer is a Professor in German Studies at the Department of Modern Languages, University of Kelaniya)

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