Re-thinking Crafts

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How do we re-think crafts? Do we need to? There are many debates amongst the craft community on how craft should evolve, be perceived or supported in light of rapid changes in our society. Advances in technology, disruption of supply of natural materials, declining demand, low-level appreciation, fewer skilled artisans and the dying heritage of making things by hand are just some challenges highlighted by craft communities.

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The British Council held a Re-thinking Crafts Conference on 6-8 March 2020 in Cebu, Philippines. I had the opportunity to speak on craft in Malaysia, how craft should be integrated into the Malaysian creative industry and why. I share here some highlights from my presentation as well as valuable insights from the craft industry experts who attended the conference.

Malaysia’s craft industry – a snapshot

Malaysia’s craft industry generates estimated USD170 million revenue annually (from recent Kraftangan Malaysia data). Craft is a part of Malaysia’s growing creative industry, which was estimated to be USD6 billion in 2015 (UNCTAD’s Creative Economy Report 2018). Kraftangan Malaysia keeps track of registered artisans and craft businesses in Malaysia. As a snapshot on our craft industry, we estimate that there are 11,296 craft workers, 5817 craft businesses, 56 master artisans (Adiguru) and 6 national craft icons (Tokoh Kraf Negara).

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A policy and structural gap in Malaysia’s creative industry

Craft is part of Malaysia’s creative industry and the national creative industry policy (the last one dated 2008) applies to craft. However, there is a gap in the way the ministries are structured in Malaysia for the creative industry. Inexplicably, several important Malaysian creative industries including craft, visual art, fashion, music and performing arts are under the authority of Ministry of Tourism, Art, Culture and Heritage.

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The creative economy policy on the other hand, is crafted by another Ministry – the Ministry of Communications and Multimedia, which is in charge of other different parts of the Malaysian creative industry: telecommunications, film, publishing, advertising, design and creative digital industry.

As a result of this separation, craft is in danger of being linked to low value tourism merchandise or as a byproduct of tourism, or narrowly perceived as a cultural heritage for preservation that is separated from design. UNCTAD Creative Economy Report 2018 cites Malaysia’s highest creative exports as design items – and creative exports have increased from USD1.9 billion in 2004 to USD 6 billion in 2008. Tellingly, craft is not deemed in the report as design items although more and more, categories of Malaysian crafts can certainly qualify as design items, especially in the area of fashion and interiors.

 

The Malaysian creative economy policy interventions and incentives have been criticized to refer narrowly to the creative digital industry, linking it to technology and e-commerce. This is inevitable when the Ministry in charge of creative policy is not in charge of the other substantial parts of the creative industry. There appears to be minimal coordination to integrate all the creative industries including craft under one umbrella body to enable a strong, integrated approach to grow the Malaysian creative industry (see “Making Creative Industries Policy: The Malaysian Case by Thomas Barker and Lee Yuen Beng). This gap means Malaysia has not adequately or at all addressed wider structural issues for the creative industry that could optimize and energize the creative industry including craft as a whole. This holistic approach includes strengthening the ecosystem and upgrading cultural infrastructure, integrating creative education and raising public awareness.

My presentation in Cebu highlighted that the Malaysian craft industry will benefit greatly from a disruption of innovation, creativity and sustainability. This is why our creative industry is important enough to be developed under a single Ministry for Creative Industry or a focused, integrated body to harness Malaysia’s creative industry to its full potential.

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Craft when engaged with visual arts, architecture, design, film and creative technology will increase the value of craft and expand its audience. Brands like Fern, Bikin Studio, Dapo, Bendang Studio, Batik Tektura and Ruzz Gaharaare some of the Malaysian made brands based on traditional craftsmanship but are design or architecture led.

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The creative industry on the other hand, will be enriched by craft through adding character, depth, authenticity and diversity. These are some recent examples: Malaysia’s short animated film based on traditional batik drawing “The Batik Girl” won international awards in 2018 in Japan and in 2019 in Chile. Google Arts & Culture Project has uploaded the first 100 Malaysian crafts on its online Museum this year in 2020 in collaboration with Kraftangan Malaysia, signaling the first global footprint of Malaysian crafts to the world. Malaysia’s architecture pavilion “Woven Matness” in Hong Kong’s Urban Design Biennale in December 2019 was highlighted for its creativity using traditional woven mats and QR code technology woven into the mats to tell the story of Malaysian weavers, also in collaboration with Kraftangan Malaysia.

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Contemporary art has shown resurgence in utilizing craft as a medium for contemporary expression of art – Yee Ii-Lann, a Malaysian artist from Sabah undertook to create an artwork in the form of a huge mural woven like a traditional mat commissioned by the Singapore’s National Art Gallery, in collaboration with Sabahan traditional weavers from the Bajau community.

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As has been shown above, craft can drive innovation, influencing amongst others, the aesthetic and structural approach to film, architecture and visual arts.

Where should craft be? Craft as a philosophy of life

Although craft should benefit from being in the creative industry, its policy and incentives, craft should not necessarily be expected to be a mass industry. A presentation from Adi Nugraha, a professor and designer from Bandung Institute of Technology, Indonesia rightly spoke of craft first and foremost as a life philosophy that bestows satisfaction, happiness and contentment to the maker. Craft also connects us to nature. Craft is highly relevant in our contemporary modern life because it provides the antidote to the fast paced, materialistic, modern lifestyle’s bad side effects – stress, greed, unsustainable use of nature.

Craft industry can present an alternative model for an industry – as its value is not purely economic but in addition, it improves our quality of life and the way we think and live, and place importance on preserving local communities.

Instead of the conventional economic push to “scale up” for small and medium industries, craft can remain slow and small, yet open and connected through linking craft communities via global communication and logistical networks. The “Slow, Local, Open and Connected (SLOC)” model (Manzini, 2011)The “Slow, Local, Open and Connected (SLOC)” model (Manzini, 2011)is worth studying as a way forward for craft. By being connected, craft need not be confined to “low value, conventional crafts” where artisans are paid very little for each handmade item despite the creativity involved, time spent and skills used.

How can craft assert its value? Crafts led by or interpreted through art and design should readily be acknowledged as categories of crafts of high value – design crafts. Craft interpreted through visual art is already presented as high value art using the medium of craft. Art and design have become the dominant new language for expression in current times, so should craft.

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Works created by skilled craftsmen and craftswomen when explained with the contemporary medium could add value. Through high quality storytelling via video and writing made viral through social media, craft can acquire a bigger audience, higher appreciation, and subsequently, attain higher value without having to necessarily scale up production.

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Isn’t it time we re-think and re-present crafts as a vital way of living a community based, ecologically sustainable life but communicated globally to remain relevant?

Kite Making and the Wau Maker from Kelantan

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Did you know that there are many types of traditional kites in Malaysia? The famous “Wau” or traditional kites are mostly made in and associated with Kelantan. The kites are made of split bamboo and coloured paper with tassels and strings. The art of making kites is not easy. The kites need to be of a certain composition, structure and weight, and made of specific materials so they can fly well. The span of a wau can go up to 12 feet from nose to tail, yet it can still fly well. Wau Bulan, the traditional, crescent moon shaped kite from Kelantan is well known for its ability to be stable and fly well.

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The artistic element of a wau, or its beauty is as important as its function. The images on a wau and its shape reflect its origins and surrounding, whilst the coloured papers of a wau are meticulously cut and pasted together in multi-layers to create a sense of harmony in colours and reflect the light as a wau flies in the sky. Often, a wau competition awards points for both its beauty when it is on the ground, and its function when it is flying in the sky.

The name “Wau” apparently came from the Arabic letter, which resembles the shape of the kite. However, it is also said that the name Wau comes from the sound the kite makes – a low droning repetitive sound from the string when it is moved from side to side or when it moves in the wind.

In Malaysia, the kites have been in use for centuries. Farmers have been known to use the kites as scarecrows in the paddy fields as well as to lull their babies to sleep with the repetitive, droning sounds. The legendary Wau Bulan apparently was created during the Srivijaya Empire (from as early as the 7th century). According to the legend, a young prince Dewa Muda used the framework of the kite to map territories that he will then conquer and later illustrate on the map. As his territories grow, the kite illustrations will too.

Other types of Wau include “Wau Dodo Helang”, “Wau Kebayak”, “Wau Daun”, “Wau Kikik”, “Wau Merak”, “Wau Puyuh”, “Wau Kapal”, “Wau Seri Bulan”, “Wau Helang”, “Wau Kangkang”, and the “Wau Seri Negeri”. Although beauty is important, to the Wau enthusiast, the most important factor to determine a good wau is actually the sound or ‘dengung’ that resonates from the Wau when it is high up in the air flying against the strong winds.

The art of making kites is still alive in Malaysia, though less people play kites as a past time or grow up flying kites compared to before. If we stop to think, the traditional wau has entered our visual vocabulary for a long time. MAS airline uses the Wau as a brand image. The iconic shape of “Wau Kucing” appears on the tail of each plane of Malaysia’s national airline. Pak Sapie, the late master wau maker from Kelantan was prominently featured in a Visit Malaysia Year poster. The popular Johor International Kite Festival is a highlight every year for Malaysians and tourists.

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We visited a Wau maker recently in Kelantan – the wau maker inherited his special skills from his father, who was a famous Adiguru or master Wau Maker, none other than Pak Sapie.  Pak Sapie was a master kite-maker who innovated a way to make foldable kites so that they can be collapsed into smaller pieces for better transport.

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The wau maker now makes kites to order from his workshop along Pantai Cahaya Bulan in Kelantan. He makes a wide variety of traditional kites by hand. He works with his wife, who designs the kites. Although the demand for kites has lessened, some of his biggest customers come from Johor or people who want to compete and participate in the Johor International Kite Festival every year.

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People also order kites for ornaments and souvenirs. He laments that not many young people play with kites anymore although he still gets students to come to his workshop to make, then go out to the beach or nearby open spaces to play kites. The thought of getting more young people being interested in the art of making and playing kites brings a big smile to his face: “Our tradition is important, and must not be lost. The young people must carry on our tradition for us, that is why I am still making kites”.

 

The Remaking of a National Craft Retail Space

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Karyaneka’s look before the remodelling

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What makes a craft retail space attractive to a customer? What do people look for when they want to buy crafts? How can we tell the story of crafts in a shop? What can a national craft retail store offer that no other store can offer? These are some of the questions that went through my mind when re-thinking the concept of the national craft retail store, Karyaneka.

Karyaneka is the retail arm of Kraftangan Malaysia, the national handicraft development corporation of Malaysia. Karyaneka is tasked with promoting and marketing our local artisans and their crafts through its retail outlets. There are four major craft complexes in the country namely in KL, Langkawi, Melaka and Johor whilst other smaller outlets are in selective airports and other cities.

 

Every year during National Craft Day, hundreds of artisans from all over Malaysia set up booths at Kompleks Kraf KL, at Jalan Conlay, KL, which is where Kraftangan Malaysia is headquartered and Karyaneka flagship store is located . This year was supposed to be a special National Craft Day as it is Visit Malaysia Year 2020. Karyaneka was asked to present a special display of craft for visitors. It was an opportunity to refresh Karyaneka’s flagship store.

Branding Craft – What is in a Name?

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I spent some time with Karyaneka team, designer Imaya Wong  to brainstorm and re-conceptualise Karyaneka as brand that is strong on the heritage of crafts but contemporary in display and presentation.

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I felt in our discussions that Karyaneka had very strong elements residing within its own name: “Karya” could represent artistic creations of crafts by highly skilled artisans with high artistic value;  “Aneka” could represent the diversity of Malaysian crafts and how versatile Malaysian crafts from a variety of natural materials can be used in our everyday life. Finally “Neka” could represent designer crafts that have evolved from traditional crafts through the language of contemporary designs.

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Storytelling Craft

What would be unique about Karyaneka that you could not get anywhere else? I strongly felt that as a national craft retail store, Karyaneka could offer uniquely featured products by virtue of access to master crafts persons and artisan communities from all over Malaysia including from remote parts of the country.

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Malaysia’s heritage and knowledge of crafts are being kept alive by our unique Adigurus, a selection of master craftspersons from all over Malaysia who have been awarded the title “Adiguru” by Kraftangan to acknowledge their superior craftsmanship.

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In addition, Kraftangan’s artisan community outreach is far and wide – they have access to almost 6000 artisans and artisan entrepreneurs including in rural and remote areas.

 

With these elements in mind, the design team re-conceptualized a dedicated space in Karyaneka in time for National Craft Day. The newly designed space created sections based on Karya, Aneka and Neka. To distinguish Karyaneka from the ordinary craft stores, we created a special mini exhibition space displaying a selection of Adiguru crafts, highlighting the personal story of each Adiguru.

Storytelling is vital for the national craft retail store as people still have a relatively low level of awareness on Malaysian crafts. An engagement with customers through storytelling often brings about a higher level of awareness and a real appreciation of the value of crafts. With this in mind, the visitors to the new Karyaneka section was greeted by a write up on the introduction to Malaysian crafts, the Adiguru exhibition write ups and each section of Karyaneka had descriptions of crafts and the featured craft brands.

 

The story of Malaysian craft continues in the Neka section with a crop of new designers who have used a different design language to interpret traditional crafts – these stories need to be told. We featured craft designs by Bendang Studio, Studio Bikin, Batik Tektura, Tanoti House, Ruzz Gahara, Dapo and Muni amongst others to showcase how Malaysian designers are paving the way for traditional crafts to evolve into innovative design items.

 

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Craft, Architecture and Technology

In addition, the two latest initiatives by Kraftangan Malaysia to document and highlight Malaysian crafts internationally were displayed in Karyaneka. These initiatives highlight the important role with Kraftangan and Karyaneka of championing and bringing Malaysian crafts to the world. The following projects also indicate how craft can firmly be part of and enrich the Malaysian creative industry ecosystem.IMG_7284

First, the Google Arts & Culture Project became a reality when Kraftangan Malaysia became the first cultural institution in Malaysia to be Google’s partner. On 20th February 2020, the first 100 craft images of Malaysia were uploaded on Google online museum, creating the first global footprint of Malaysian crafts online. This means that Malaysian crafts are now accessible for study, research, reference and inspiration for the global online community.

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The second project involved collaboration between craft, architecture and digital technology for a biennale in Hong Kong. An installation made of hand woven traditional mats by artisans in Terengganu was designed and built to display as an architecture pavilion.

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The mats included a QR code woven into the mats as motifs that would enable the international audience to scan and discover the story of Malaysian weavers through a website. This pavilion called “Woven Matness” was displayed at the “2019 Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture” in Hong Kong from December 2019. Malaysian architect Shin Tseng and his creative partners, Digital Creative Director Fadil Fuad of C27 and Designer Wen Yee Kok of Studio Wen teamed up with Kraftangan Malaysia who sourced the traditional colorful “Daun Mengkuang” (screw pine leaves) mats from artisans in the east coast state of Terengganu, Malaysia. Fadil designed the QR code that would be woven into plain, natural colored mats.

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The images of the exhibition in Hong Kong and the creative process for the design of the pavilion were put up on National Craft Day and remains to be exhibited in Karyaneka.

Craft is Instagrammable

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Finally, in the age of social media, what would attract crowds to engage in a craft store? Instagrammable spaces of course! Imaya designed a few areas in Karyaneka that highlight craft products as Instagram friendly shots.

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These “instagrammable” spaces became a big hit during National Craft Day especially the ones featuring Ranee Artisan’s colourful basket trays made of recycled standing fan covers and hand woven by Long House communities in Sarawak, pop and techno colored mats on various walls woven by Bajau Laut communities on islands in Sabah and an area of hanging baskets that came from all over Malaysia.

Re-thinking Craft Retail Space

Although we still have a long way to go to revive Malaysian crafts and make our artisans known nationally and internationally, the re-making of Karyaneka retail space opened up the space for re-thinking, re-learning and representing our crafts.  Malaysians and non-Malaysians are starting to engage with our national, living heritage of crafts differently, simply because we made an effort by telling the story of craft through the new mediums of art, design and technology.