Introduction - 6.4


The reach into the aesthetic worlds of other cultures spans centuries. Today, a variety of motives incite Western interests in Third World arts and crafts. Multinational corporations, tourists, individual entrepreneurs, private and museum collectors are all appropriators of fine "high" art or its imitations as well as handicrafts, both the rare and the mass-produced. Ethnic arts and crafts have found a permanent home in many developed nations, influencing Western tastes and production.

In 1980 developed countries supplied 37% of the $2.6 billion world demand for handmade products. There are some 2,000 items included in this category - from carved napkin rings to knitted gloves and woven handbags. Demand is greatest for learner clothing (62.4%), footwear, baskets, tortoiseshell, pottery, jewelry, articles of wood and metal and weavings. This does not include articles sold domestically or collected as art.

Ethnic crafts, which are for the most part bought by wealthy Westerners, and designed to fill novel utilitarian needs that Western industry is hard pressed to meet, grew in popularity during the 1960's and 1970's as travel and travel accounts generated an awareness and curiosity about distinct foreign cultures and their material traditions. The exotic has saturated many markets other than handicrafts. A maze of businesses, including restaurants, department stores and nightclubs rely on the appeal of exotic and colorful atmospheres to bolster sales. From House & Garden to Woolworth's, ethnic arts are a hit. Brazilian saddlebags are used as pillowcovers; Tunisian camel muzzles as purses. As part of a survival strategy for indigenous peoples, handicrafts provide foreign exchange earnings, and sometimes attract both consumers' and producers' attention to the values and beliefs they represent.


In most Third World countries, 70-90% of jobs in manufacturing go to individual craftspeople. Crafts also constitute a secondary activity for many rural populations. Most craftspeople are women, for whom sales from crafts provide basic household necessities.

Three basic categories of tribal art and craft products comprise the total market:

* decorative, high quality art pieces for collectors

* used utilitarian crafts, particularly those made from natural materials or those that are integral to a cultural tradition of their producers

* other new articles of high quality design or workmanship

All products are more easily marketed when they are accompanied by facts about their producers and/or the circumstances in which the object was created.

While ethnic and tribal arts are produced throughout the world, their volume and economic significance differs greatly from country to country.

The Solomon Islands sell only $250,000 worth of carvings each year. Although these contribute a mere $1 per inhabitant, some carvers earn as much as $200-$250 a month. By contrast, in Barbados, few handicrafts are exported, yet annual sales to tourists and local residents amount to about $6 million.

Asia dominates the export market. In Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, where over 1 million people earn an income from crafts, yearly exports add up to $100 million. Promotional schemes in museums and stores keep their market expanding at a rate of 20% a year. Many Asian craft-producing workshops are mechanized to the maximum degree that their products can still qualify as handicrafts under the import and trade regulations of receiving countries.

Craft production is also expanding at 20% a year in Kenya where wood carvings alone contribute $3 million. For some 35,000 Kenyans employed in production, principal markets are in the U.S. (60%), West Germany (11%), Britain (9%), Japan (5%), and France (5%).

Handicrafts are also increasingly made by refugees to earn money in their countries of asylum. Handicraft activities are frequently encouraged by refugee assistance agencies sensitive to the problems created when refugees compete with local residents for pre-existing occupations.


"Handicrafts...require a minimum of production machinery. Based on local designs and local raw materials, the handicrafts trade should strengthen rather than disrupt local craft traditions. Craftsmen can work at home, as their own masters, rather than in factories or mines, on plantations or building-sites. Value is added to the raw materials in the developing, not the industrialized countries. Handicrafts can create jobs and an income for men, women and children, while the small-scale organization required in setting up a village is often the kind of grass-roots development most likely to catch on."

Dossier 1980:55

Numerous benefits can result, from increased production of arts and crafts. Craft production can:

* help preserve or even upgrade local craftsmanship;

* generate income which can be invested in health care, land, reforestation or local development programs;

* earn more cash for producers than other activities such as agriculture or working as wage laborers;

* reduce rural to urban migration;

* localize industrialization;

* stimulate local demand for raw materials and thus generate employment in other sectors; and

* provide a link between new and old, preserving cultural integrity while at the same time allowing local producers to participate in international markets.


These may seem negligible if the economic survival of a people is at stake, but should be taken into account in planning economic development programs. Some of the generally recognized negative tendencies of the industry are:

* deterioration of quality of goods (a trip to a local museum will usually confirm this)

* disintegration of meaning to the producer as articles become increasingly mass produced in large shops

* middlemen rather than artisans receive benefits

* transportation to foreign markets is prohibitive, often making crafts more expensive than locally produced items

* production increases deplete raw material supplies

* imitation of crafts:

- popular crafts are machine-made in the West

- Third World producers copy crafts and undersell the original producers

- Western manufacturers produce "authentic" crafts for export to Third World countries where they are sold to tourists.

- consumers in the West begin to produce the crafts themselves


Colonial Governments

Governments often used Third World colonies as markets for their own expanding industries. Treaties and trade regulations normally included provisions to protect the textile and metal goods manufacturers in Europe and later America. These goods prevented local Third World producers from even maintaining their own production.


It has been suggested that it is the erosion of religious beliefs and social customs that caused fundamental changes in African art. Many art objects are associated with cults or religious practices yet with the demise of these beliefs and rituals, the objects become "meaningless fragmentary husks..."

In the Cameroons, for example, missionaries forbid religious and ritual art as well as feasts and ceremonies. Most objects associated with traditional beliefs have been burned. In some cases, African art came to be seen by Africans themselves as "primitive." Ritual art in the Cameroons is today described as stereotyped objects made for sale abroad, not for use at home.


Since the 19th century, museums have either directly collected or purchased tribal and ethnic art from around the world. While their collecting does not approach the scale of contemporary, exports, museums have appropriated the most culturally significant or the most elaborately worked objects.

Most museums now have only a fraction of their total collection on display, yet many continue to collect. Some museums, however, can be credited with attempts to create a more sensitive human and cultural context for the objects they display. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Peabody Museum of Harvard University was a leader in the move not to accept or buy stolen pieces. In a similar vein, they instituted educational and public awareness programs to alert the public to the human story behind the displays. The Peabody Museum is currently cataloguing its entire collection to facilitate inquiries by scholars and indigenous people alike.

However, many controversial questions surrounding museums remain unanswered. What is the status of objects stolen in the past? How can museums more directly contribute to the survival of those that produce showcase wares? The situation is complex, but greater sensitivity should resolve many problems.

"Non-western societies (are) a constituency with legitimate interests in our anthropology museums and their is evident that we have an ethical obligation to respond to the interests of this group."-Karl Hutterer


As reported, tourism has mixed effects on local arts and crafts. Some argue that tourists will "buy anything" and they thereby encourage a decline in producers' standards. Others argue that tourism "resurrects...crafts" that would otherwise have become extinct.

Tourists certainly do buy larger amounts of souvenirs then objects with any cultural or utilitarian value. Yet this has served many local populations, expanding markets in both the host country and abroad. Visitors to the Caribbean, for instance, spend 15% of the cost of their trip on purchases - many of which are handicrafts. In Colombia, tourists spend about $30 each on handicrafts, while in Kenya 350,000 tourists spend about $14 each.

Moreover, hotels, restaurants and other tourist establishments often purchase crafts to enhance their facilities, further contributing to craft revenues.

Contact with Western institutions is not a recent phenomenon, nor does it inevitably lead to entropy.

Since the 15th century, African artists have used European materials in their work. World-renowned Makonde wood-carving began during World War II after the Portuguese military occupation of Mozambique when the tribe was divided and partially displaced to Tanzania.

It is true that an exchange of materials, ideas, realities, have altered indigenous artistic traditions, but in most cases, it has generated innovation and fertilized local undertakings.

The Kuna of Panama make molas embroidered with McDonald's golden arches, Coca-Cola and Santa Claus.

Refugees from Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Central America paint war scenes featuring bombs.

These innovations indicate attempts to integrate and comprehend changing circumstances. In such cases, indigenous art retains its vitality and essential function - to serve and reflect the experience of artists and the people they represent.

Many countries have tightened the laws that regulate the export of culturally significant or sacred items, arts produced before a certain date, or articles no longer produced. In Asia, Africa and Latin America, attempts are being made to protect objects deemed integral to their national heritage.

In 1970, UNESCO adopted a convention on means of prohibiting and preventing the illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property. Ten years later, 44 nations have ratified UNESCO's convention (the U.S. is not among them).

Likewise, international agreements prohibit the international trade of items made with feathers, tortoiseshell, ivory or animal skins. While the outcome of such regulations may go awry, these sanctions do signify efforts to limit what types of items can be sold.

Some governments are becoming directly involved in the production of arts and crafts. In 1975, the government of Botswana took over a company called Botswana Crafts and created a smoothly functioning marketing system for more than 3,000 producer families. Through efficient and prompt payments, producers have been encouraged to improve the quality of their products, yet the government has not attempted to control the sensibility that inspires the artists.

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