Back in 2012, when Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State, she helped launch an organization aimed at preserving and elevating traditional crafts. The Alliance for Artisan Enterprise (AAE) now has members operating in sixty-nine countries, creating jobs, increasing income, enhancing cultural heritage, and promoting development in ways that are respectful of the people and their cultures. This is not a small deal—artisan crafts are a $34 billion industry (not counting tourist transactions on the street), the largest income-producer after agriculture in developing countries.
I’ve been on both sides of this movement—in corporate meetings where the talk is about economic sectors and best practices, and in villages where the talk is about getting food on the table right now, today. Bringing those two worlds together requires finesse.
A recent competition sponsored by the AAE did it well. Individuals and groups were invited to submit multimedia presentations that demonstrate the power and importance of artisan activity—and 150 of them did, representing forty-two countries. Some entries were sophisticated videos, some were simple photos augmenting a display of handmade goods. All were powerful expressions of the cultural value and the economic potential of this activity.
I feel lucky to have personal connections with two of the fifteen finalists. The Maya Women’s Rug Hooking Group was founded in 2013, an outgrowth of design and production workshops taught in Guatemala by my friend Maryanne Wise. I traveled through the Guatemalan highlands with Maryanne and her partner Jody Slocum as their ideas percolated for creating goods and finding markets for them that could truly make a difference in the lives of the women we encountered. Rug hooking is not a traditional craft in Guatemala, but using recycled textiles and traditional motifs to express this new art form has resulted in one-of-a-kind, deeply cultural rugs that are now sought by designers and collectors all over the world. The group is run by Maya women, led by Reyna Pretzantzin. The business skills they have mastered, in addition to the design sense and hand skills, have made them successful beyond imagining.
And then there’s Eric F.O.N. Mindling. (Force of Nature, in case you wondered.) You’ll hear a lot more about Eric in coming months, as we work on a book of his photography and story-telling to be released in October, 2017. Eric started twenty years ago as an importer of Oaxacan pottery into the U.S. He became deeply knowledgeable about the craft and closely connected to the artisans that produced it. One result was a splendid book, Barro y Fuego. When we approached Eric about doing a book focused on Oaxacan textiles, we were surprised to learn that he’s a passionate and skilled photographer too. Traveling with him in the highland villages, I also learned that he is likewise passionate and skillful at finding his way into the homes and hearts of the people, many of whom don’t even share a common language. The originality and intimacy of his portraits of people wearing their traditional dress will result in a real page-turner come next fall. Stay tuned.
As for the Alliance for Artisan Enterprise event, both Eric and Reyna noted the value of making connections with other artisans from around the globe—not to mention meet-and-greet opportunities with the likes of Secretary of State John Kerry. No less valuable was the validation of the work they represent—the work of human hands expressing individual creativity.