Recently, the British Council in Kuala Lumpur approached me to assist them with the first South East Asia Craft Forum to discuss the future of craft amongst craft practitioners, social entrepreneurs, students, craft institutions and universities. The Forum was held at the Islamic Arts Museum on 23 October 2018. Wendy Teo of Borneo Lab was the curator of the Forum. She and I joined forces to create the Forum’s content so that the Forum would be useful and meaningful to the discussion on craft for the region, especially for Malaysia.
Amongst the important questions at the Forum: Why is craft important? What is the future of craft? What do we need and what don’t we need? What needs to happen?
The importance of craft
To put in context how important craft is, in the UK for example, the craft industry generates GPB3.4 billion a year. The physical act of making crafts has been proven to be beneficial to society spiritually and intellectually. Craft making encourages critical thinking, problem solving and even assists with pain management. Craft also helps a country and the community to strengthen their cultural identities.
Challenges in Malaysia
In Malaysia, we learnt that there are many challenges that could affect the future of our craft. Amongst the bigger ones include the lack of awareness and appreciation of craft, a low level of design and innovation and declining motivation amongst our artisans. How do we surmount these challenges?
What the youth think about craft
Firstly, it was important to first listen to what the younger generation had to say about the future of craft. We heard from students of Institut Kraf Negara (National Craft Institute) as well as a few young social entrepreneurs that it was important to engage young Malaysians from an early age to appreciate craft. We should include craft in our education curriculum from the primary level in order to inculcate cultural appreciation. We could reap from an early age the intellectual, physical and spiritual benefits from craft making. In this technological age, we could easily use amongst other platforms, the social media to engage the young on how important craft is. Some participants at the Forum felt that Malaysian needs a National Blueprint for Craft so that we have a common direction and clear policy on craft.
The level of design and innovation of Malaysian crafts can improve greatly through training. We heard from Dr. Joseph Lo, Chief Consultant (Asia) for Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage (https://folklife.si.edu) that in fact, there are modules for training artisans to innovate. Traditional artisans could be designers and vice versa. There are many ways to innovate. One of them is simply using everyday life and objects that become references or stories for craft product designs. Dr. Joseph Lo demonstrated to us at the Forum that crafted products could emerge from a community’s cultural lifestyle – something as simple as the items in your grandmother’s kitchen, or how a woman carries a child.
It is alarming to hear that there is declining motivation amongst artisans. Despite this, we heard with hope that there are success stories in Malaysia, Thailand and Myanmar on how crafts can be branded globally, elevating the status of artisans and the value of their products. One of the ways to motivate artisans to continue and simultaneously branding the craft of a particular country is for the government to distinguish artisans with superior skills by creating an official seal of excellence. This seal can distinguish a particular craft product as a high quality product that is authentic and skillfully made, giving it a higher value.
Including craft in our everyday life is certainly challenging but not impossible. If we encourage and support more collaboration between artisans and designers, architects, entrepreneurs and academics, we could incorporate craft in everyday life. The architectural practice in Malaysia is to a certain extent already finding ways to incorporate craft practices or elements into our buildings and surroundings. However, we have a long way to go before we see character in the majority of our modern buildings, streets and city landscapes that could be contributed by craftsmen or inspired by craft elements. The commercial reality required by developers hits home, and the awareness and pride in our craft remain relatively under developed. However, the small, human-level details that craft can provide could make designs around us more engaging and noticeable. The Malaysian cultural identity could only strengthen if craft is included in our daily lives. So what are we waiting for?