From handmade scrubs in the UK to earthquake-resistant buildings in Nepal, Rosy Greenlees and Joseph Lo report on the role of craft in crisis response and recovery, and its longer-term contribution to the rehabilitation of disaster-stricken communities.
This is the first in our Future at Hand series.
- This session was chaired by Kendall Robbins (United Kingdom), former Manager of Crafting Futures, British Council
- Panellists were Dr Masanori Nagoaka, UNESCO, (Cambodia); Rebecca Cheng, Project Manager Ishniomaki Laboratory (Japan); Nripal Adhikary, Founder ABARI, Nepal; and Brooke Dennis, Hubs for Scrubs (UK)
- Facilitators were Manjari Nirula, Senior Vice President, World Crafts Council Asia Pacific Region and Maegen Black, Director, Canadian Crafts Federation
In this discussion, the relationship of craft with crisis is approached from two perspectives. The first explores how the craft sector can build resilience as a means to mitigate against future crisis; while the second is how can craft respond to crisis. In both cases, craft’s relationship with crisis has always been one of being the victim: the impact on the craft sector of the Covid-19 pandemic comes to mind. Less visible is craft’s role in crisis response, recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction. Perhaps, this could be due to the nature of craft: it is small scale, flexible, informal, able to bring people together and yet, able to function individually, addressing issues that are not necessarily head-line grabbing but still essential for lives to function.
Craft has played a vital role in crisis situations. During the webinar, two significant craft projects were identified as responses to political crisis.
BOSFAM (The Association Bosnian Family) is an NGO founded in 1993, responding to the Bosnian War (1992 – 1995). During the war, a large number of the victims were women, children and elderly. They were forcefully displaced; expelled from their homes and arrived from different places in Tuzla. Although surrounded by poverty, misery and everything else the war brought, the women still had responsibilities to look after elderly parents and small children whilst suffering from war trauma.
The Handicraft Project was initiated under Oxfam GB as a wartime occupational therapy project: to provide displaced women with a means of livelihood while creating a space for solidarity and social support. It started out with weaving and knitting, and as women gathered, counselling sessions were also provided to those who needed it.
The women participating in this project soon came together officially to establish a local NGO – BOSFAM (from Bosnia Family) and today, they make traditional carpets, knit and crochet products such as sweaters, scarves and soft furnishings for the home. These products are sold online as well as in the local Tuzla bazaar. Other activities included making memorial textiles (quilts and cushions) to commemorate the lives lost or missing during these traumatic times.
Significantly, BOSFAM recognises that beyond generating an income from craft sales and making commemorative pieces, the activity itself – making with hands – has the ability to heal and relax the mind, and to re-orientate the self after disturbing episodes. Socially, coming together as a group on a daily basis to weave and knit provided emotional and psychological support.
Pussy Hat Project
The Pussy Hat Project started as a social movement focused on raising awareness about women’s issues and advancing human rights by promoting dialogue and innovation through arts education and intellectual discourse. The name ‘Pussyhat’™ was chosen as a social response against vulgar comments made by Donald Trump when he referenced women’s genitals. Using the word ‘pussy’ was a way to de-stigmatize the word and transform it into one of empowerment. The ‘hat’ was conceived to keep protesters warm during the march in Washington DC, January 2017 and the colour pink was chosen to make both a bold and powerful visual statement of solidarity. The element of crafts was through hand-knitting, enabling people who could not physically participate in the march to demonstrate their support for women’s rights.
In the more recent past, although the Covid-19 pandemic has affected most sectors negatively, it also provided craft with a prospect to demonstrate its intrinsic worth. During the lockdown period, craft ‘connected’ people together through the making of things, sharing skills and providing a focus while being isolated at home. Beyond ‘connecting’ with people, craft also provided meaningful activities– learning new or refreshing old craft skills, expressing creativity while practicing mindfulness. Craft also enable children to be meaningfully and creatively occupied when school was temporarily suspended.
At the webinar, the presenters elaborated on their own experiences of craft engagement during various environmental crises. From UNESCO, Mr Masanori Nagaoka cited Mount Merapi’s eruption in 1994 (Indonesia). After the eruption, the tourism industry in Borobudur a UNESCO World Heritage Site – collapsed. During the post-eruption clean-up period, the community found that there was an abundance of volcanic ash rocks. The community took advantage of this downturn period to learn new crafts skills and made new products from this material. The motif adopted on many of these products was a Borobudur design of a mystical lion to symbolise the community’s strength and tenacity to re-build their lives.
Significantly, focusing on crafting this new material – volcanic ash rock – was the community’s way of rehabilitation, reconstruction and rebuilding Borobudur’s tourism industry.
In Nepal, Mr Nripal Adhikary elaborated on his experimentation of using low cost bamboo and mud to build public buildings such as schools and homes. The usage of indigenous materials and techniques to build low cost vernacular architecture while advocating for owner self-build enabled economically depressed communities to satisfy one of their basic needs – shelter. It sparked renewed interest and enthusiasm when some of these buildings survived the 2014 Nepal earthquake. These buildings, built with bamboo and mud, suffered less damage than those of concrete and steel. The use of these natural materials and traditional building techniques proved to be resilient to earthquakes. In terms of mitigating against future environmental crisis such as floods, the project found that river banks planted with bamboos were less flood prone than others without bamboo groves. From a community perspective, craft as a building technique brought forth collective solutions and solidarity.
The 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan demonstrated how a craft – handmade furniture – responded to the crisis. Ms Rebekah Cheng from Ishinomaki Laboratory explained that after the disaster, public workshops were set-up to assist communities to access to tools and expertise in order for them to rebuild homes and make new furniture. Interestingly, through the process, Ishinomaki Laboratory found that furniture was identified as a mean of bringing people together as a community. It both enabled people to sit together to relax and chat after a day’s work – the bench could be sat on or used as a table – but also this furniture was self-made by the community, serving as a therapy to heal and rebuild. It resonated with the evolving trends of slow-movement and alternative consumption as a response to the fast-paced, unsustainable consumption of the current global economy.
Looking forward, the discussion focused on ways which the craft sector could be mainstreamed into disaster response and become part of the essential services in rehabilitation of post-disaster communities. The panellists also explored ways to build-in mitigating actions so that the sector can be better prepared for future crisis. The responses to these issues were varied and were not exclusive to either one.
Preparedness – Information and Data
The panelists reported that being prepared is one of the means of integrating the craft sector into the readiness plans for disaster emergency planning and to build resilience in the sector when faced with crisis. One means of being prepared is having information and data readily available. As in the case of Borobudur, mapping of cultural resources and activities, and identification of crafts practitioners, products and markets within the locality are essential so that these can be recalled promptly when necessary. Importantly, such information needs to be updated periodically in order for it to be relevant when the need arises. Having such information is even more critical when engaging with other organisations to mainstream crafts into crisis preparedness.
Technology and Social Media
It is crucial to embed craft into the consciousness of those involved in emergency preparedness or political response. Social media is a way of telling stories and, reaching out to a wide range of audiences on an ad hoc basis and in a relatively short span of time. For example, during the Covid-19 crisis, there was a shortage of surgical materials such as scrubs. Though social media, this message was broadcast and home tailors and sewers were mobilised to produce scrubs to address this shortfall. Furthermore, social media enables immediate and effective story-telling to a large number of people. This is evident in the Pussy Hat Project to generate social pressure and empower the community to respond and act immediately. Being engaged in social media will raise the profile of crafts when the sector engages in crisis situations.
Specifically addressing ways of building-in mitigating actions so that the crafts sector can be better prepared for future crisis, being financially solvent was flagged. The panel talked about the need for the crafts sector to accumulate capital and resources to be self-reliant, not only in terms of long-term sustainability but also putting away surpluses for emergencies. The business model to adopt would be the insurance model where monies are put aside to pull through ‘rainy days’.
It is not uncommon to see crafts products made by crisis victims for sale as a means of fundraising in post-disaster situations. Many of these crafts are produced and sold through charities as sympathy/empathy purchases. Although effective, it only provides temporary solutions as such purchases are one-time buys and are not sustainable initiatives for the community.
Significantly, disaster response is mostly dependent on a volunteer economy: as a reaction to a crisis. Looking at it positively, it demonstrates the resilience of the human spirit but as a long-term strategy, this economy is susceptible to donor and funding fatigue. Thus, a more long-term solution needs to be explored.
Hence, for a long-term solution and importantly, to build resilience in the crafts sector, the panellists advocated the need to inculcate and develop good and simple product designs. Products that will sell beyond the community’s recovery and rehabilitation phases.
Inclusive Development and Prioritising Localism
As Borobudur developed as a tourism site, rather than having non-local agencies (tourist companies and hotels) dominate the tourism industries, the local authorities integrated local communities into its tourism development plans. For example, craft studios were included into the tourism map while vendors were encouraged and organised to set up permanent stalls around the site to sell their products. This promoted more equitable growth in the region whereby local communities were not alienated but became key stakeholders in the industry.
When Mt Merapi erupted and its volcanic ash blanketed the entire monument, the community mobilised themselves to organise the clean-up. They realised that delays in the tourism industry bouncing back would adversely affect their livelihoods. Thus, inclusive development was a means of mitigation against possible future adversaries.
Because of the structure of the global economy, value and supply chains are now international in nature. Although during peace times, this global value and supply network offers diversity of choices and many economic cost advantages, this system is also extremely fragile. Disruption in any section of the chain or network will have concomitant, and often exponential downstream impacts. Hence, an industry that relies heavily on global value and supply chain systems will be extremely vulnerable to global instability, such as in crisis situations. Therefore, the panels suggested that it might be wise for the craft sector to inculcate and develop localism (in terms of supply and value chain networks and also markets for the craft sector’s products), in parallel when engaging with the global economies.
The local building industry in Nepal demonstrated this case in point. Traditional materials such as bamboo and mud to build houses were locally obtained. Conventional building skills and techniques have been tried and tested through time while vernacular architecture designs were suitable and in-line with local environmental conditions. If and when a global crisis occurs, such as during the Covid-19 pandemic, local communities in Nepal continued to build their own homes as they were not overly reliant on imported materials. Ironically the imposition of non-traditional building techniques was halted by the pandemic creating an opportunity for vernacular building methods to demonstrate their value and resilience.
craft skills are democratic
Another factor in prioritising localism as a means of mainstreaming the craft sector in disaster response and building-in mitigating actions is through the ‘made-in-local’ initiatives. It should be acknowledged that craft skills are democratic. They are based on hands-on skills which are not limited or restricted to race, class or beliefs. They are accessible, highly replicable and relatable. Anyone can participate in the making of things. The logic is that if a community has a hands-on approach to making things, as and when disaster strikes, the community will be more resilient in building back. Although, it must be qualified that this may be more applicable to rural communities than urban ones.
In line with this thinking to promote localism, Ishinomaki Laboratory post-2011 business strategy is not to ‘sell’ products but to share product designs. These can be translated into sellable products using local craft skills, techniques and materials which have meaning and relevance. Importantly, the element of ‘local pride’ is embedded within the products as these are made by the community for the community.
However, this approach is not without its challenges. For example, it is not always easy to promote local consumption; given foreign products are often seen as superior to those produced locally. This requires a change of hearts and minds encouraging communities to value craft practice and expressions within their local context.
Finally, ‘made-in-local’ as a means of building resilience needs to be sustained, and not merely applied presently. Sustainability means perpetuating and re-capitalising craft resources, knowledge and skills, and passing them down to the next generation. When a crisis occurs in the future, those generations should be able to rely on craft practices and expression to combat these challenges. Hence, craft legacy planning needs to be initiated now. Without this continuation, the community will be exposed to crisis.
Although not addressed directly, many of these ideas are applicable to crises beyond environmental disasters. For example, prioritising localism is a good means of mitigating against global financial crisis. This is because most artisans are self-employed and thus, more agile and responsive to economic/commercial/market situations and are not necessarily tied up with global systems.
In conclusion, the webinar demonstrated the value of craft, especially in times of crisis. Rather than playing victim, crafts do indeed have an important role to contribute in terms of crisis response, recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction. Notably, it is in the nature of craft– working with one’s hands, either individually or collectively – that it is able to bring solace and comfort as well as empowerment to individual victims whilst providing a means to gather communities together in solidarity.
Unfortunately, the local nature of many of these efforts means they are invisible. Hence, it is important to document these efforts with a centralised depository, for example, with World Crafts Council International, so that information will be readily available if and when needed. For example, which are the craft organisations that can provide assistance in a post-earthquake situation, what can they offer, where are they based, etc. This resonated clearly with the point regarding having information and data ready as a means of preparedness, albeit beyond grassroots/local level. Importantly, evidence of crafts’ inputs in crisis needs continuous documentation and recording. It is only with such empirical evidence that crafts’ role can be mainstreamed into a crisis reaction framework.
Furthermore, once such data and information are readily available, establishing a network of craft organisations working in similar areas can then be established. This will assist in facilitating exchanges and emergency support, if and when necessary, both within the world of crafts and also reaching out to other international emergency aid organisations. This international engagement needs the support and facilitation of global bodies such as WCC International, which is well placed to dialogue with Red Cross International, for example.
Another significant factor that surfaced during the webinar was the reprioritisation of localism as a means of strengthening and building greater resilience. This re-focus is entirely possible because of the nature of craft work; it is adaptable, flexible and transferable.
Significantly, one means of building resilience is to ‘scale up’ the crafts sector within the community. However, ‘scaling up’ is not necessarily understood as growing the industry larger as a monolithic entity but as having a multitude of smaller establishments that are integrated into the community as part of the community’s consciousness and landscape. Thus, when disaster strikes, these smaller entities will be able to respond and reach out faster as it is already within the community.
Other important factors in assisting the crafts sector to build greater resilience or contribute to crisis response include exploring a new financial-business model, engaging in technology and social media and developing design longevity. Significantly, it is important that the crafts sector perceive itself as a human-centred, value-led industry that is empowered to reach out to the community during a crisis while renewing and strengthening the sector will build greater resilience.
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