Refugee Art in Thailand



Recent literature on refugees has paid little attention to refugee arts and crafts production. Yet, many refugees give artistic expression to their traumatic experiences; their forced leisure can be used for the production of art and craft objects as a secondary source of economic support. However, since they rarely have direct access to markets, production is limited, unknown to potential customers or bought by middlemen who derive profits from refugees' labor. In some instances, humanitarian and aid organizations step in to promote and channel the arts production and to develop potential markets, but, as refugees are usually ethnographically interesting, the chief interest in their work is "touristic." As camps are for the most part inaccessible, refugees are drawn into a system of what is known as indirect tourism. Their products are distributed through middlemen and non-profit organizations to local tourist markets or to larger ethnic craft markets abroad. Thus, refugee artisans become involved with the tourist markets without direct contact with customers.

The Laotian Hill Tribe Refugees in Thailand

After the Communist takeover in Laos in 1975, many hill tribe people crossed into Thailand where they were settled in five camps. The refugee population in 1979 included 60,000 Meo (Hmong), 9,500 Yao (Mien), 500 Lahu, and smaller numbers of other tribal refugees, Despite resettlement abroad, the number of refugees in camps did not change; new arrivals offset departures.

Camps are closed to outsiders, and refugees cannot leave them or work in Thailand without permission. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees provides their basic necessities. While a few have independent means, the majority are destitute and idle.

With the collapse of their traditional life-style during the war and after their flight, the Laotian hill tribe people discontinued the production of crafts and arts for their own use. After their arrival in Thailand, however, some Meo and Yao tribesmen initiated the production of crafts and acted as middlemen for their distribution. Soon afterwards, several foreign non-profit organizations initiated projects for the production and commercialization of tribal refugee crafts. Both tribal middlemen and foreign non-profit organizations market embroidered, batiked or appliqued textiles, produced by Meo and Yao women and embroidered in adapted tribal designs, and basketry, produced by Lahu men.

There were significant differences in the approach and the cultural and economic consequences of the two marketing groups. The tribal middlemen initially sold the refugee products primarily to shops and to stall keepers in the night market in Chiang Mai, the major tourist center of the north, where they were purchased by both Thai and foreign tourists. Their policy was to concentrate on simple and cheap items, such as "patches" (small, colorfully designed pieces used as decorations on fashionable modern clothing), Meo squares and Yao shoulder bags, most of which were soon mass produced for a little remuneration by hundreds of refugee women.

The non-profit organizations, while also marketing simple, mass-produced items, initiated more comprehensive policies intended to reach a wider clientele in Thailand and abroad. They used as far as possible, non-commercial channels - particularly church organizations - for the marketing of their products. Initially, their principal outlets were the monthly Hill Tribe Sales at the International School in Bangkok, patronized mainly by the foreign expatriate community. Recently, exports outnumbered local sales. Market expansion facilitated increased refugee production, but also created a situation whereby products are sold to a public which has little, if any, notion of hill tribe culture or of the present predicament of the refugees.

The primary motives for the promotion of tribal refugee art are economic: profit in the case of the middlemen, support for the refugees in the case of the nonprofit organizations. Both, however, pay some consideration to the problems of cultural change involved in the commercialization of tribal arts. Owing to the richness of the material culture of both the Meo and the Yao, no need arose to introduce crafts, techniques or designs completely alien to the hill tribe people.

Traditional tribal designs were retained, albeit in an adapted form - colors, materials, form and type of objects were changed considerably for Thai and foreign customers - collectors are concerned with authenticity. Most customers buy items which they like and can wear, exhibit in the home or use in the household, but which still have some distinct ethnic or exotic flavor.

Tribal people were asked to produce a variety of wearing apparel, such as blouses and shoulder bags; decorative items, such as wall hangings, bedspreads, cushion covers, table cloths; and objects of daily use such as pot holders, pads and bell straps. Most of these items were completely alien to the tribal cultures, and the producers have been only dimly, if at all, aware of their use. Thus, distinct "transitional" art styles emerged, rooted in the artistic traditions of the tribes, but developing, under the sponsorship 6f external agents, along new, unfamiliar lines.

The unexpected proliferation of innovative and elaborate designs, colors and color combinations on these objects appears, superficially, as an unexpected cultural revival. Indeed, some organizations purposely encouraged inventiveness and the development of original and imaginative designs, leading to the production of items of astonishing complexity and elegance (ill. 3). This proliferation of creative innovation was facilitated by the fact that in tribal culture inventiveness was also esteemed. Moreover, since potential labor supplies exceeded market demands, women vied with one another, not only to insure themselves of preferred treatment when demand is low or to obtain a marginally higher remuneration, but also in the spirit of a competitive social game, to break the monotony of camp life.

In contrast to this largely sponsored direction of change, another, spontaneous, but more radical, artistic innovation emerged among the Meo refugees.

While traditional art was purely ornamental, some women now turned to figurative designs, embroidering animals, trees, houses and human figures on bedspreads and hangings. Some designs were influenced by pictures seen or copied from school books and journals, others represented traditional costumes and customs. Though intended for sale, such creations expressed a desire to recapture the life of their past and to draw the attention of the Western public to their plight.

Some pieces have brief inscriptions in English, "I'm Hmong Lady I made [this] on June 3 at refugee camp." Yet most creations remain unsigned - an indication that the idea of personal "authorship" is not yet common among the Meo refugees, as it has become in other tribal societies, such as the Eskimos.

Though alien to the spirit of the "traditional" Meo art, such pieces give artistic expression to some of the experiences and problems engendered by the refugees' predicament. They appear to be more culturally significant than the widespread elaboration of traditional ornamental motifs.

The aid organizations, and to a lesser extent the private middlemen, developed a fairly strict quality control over the refugees' output. The refugees depended on them to mediate with shops or customers. The high quality of the products was maintained under conditions of sometimes very low remuneration - especially from the middlemen, who paid little more than US 25$ for a day's work. The women had no alternative employment. Besides, the UN took care of their basic needs, thereby subsidizing the middlemen. The aid organizations, on the other hand, aimed at daily wages ranging from US $.50-1.00 a day. While such incomes are low by Western standards, they are comparable to wages tribal agricultural laborers were receiving in northern Thailand.

Middlemen's gross profits from refugee products frequently reached 100%. They also had some expenses and risks. They are not always able to re-sell all the produce. The aid organizations operate with a 30-40% mark-up retail. In both cases, inflation of prices increases steeply with distance from the site of production.

While tribal refugee craft production appears to have had considerable success both as an auxiliary source of income and as a means of preserving artistic skills, its future is in question. The turnover of the refugees in the camps poses serious problems. Many of the more skilled women have already emigrated to the West, where only a few are able to continue their trade. In the US, however, some efforts are being made to renew production. The women remaining in the camps, often from remote areas of Laos, are less skilled and occasionally must be trained in so-called traditional tribal skills to reach a minimum acceptable level of production. The proliferation of interesting and high quality Laotian tribal refugee products could be a brief episode - manifesting the artistic potential of these uprooted people whose skills will in all probability get lost as their resettlement and absorption in a new, Western environment progresses. However, arts and crafts production did prove useful in providing revenues to refugees while at the same time providing a source of cultural cohesion during a period that would have otherwise been completely disruptive.

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