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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?