It was three years since my last trip home to New York City, a city that likes to call itself the capital of the world. I made a mad dash for the Metropolitan Museum’s Interwoven Globe exhibition on the global textile trade.
The promise of three hundred years of textiles from all over the world, reflecting trade and cross-pollination of cultures across the globe left me full of anticipation. And although the New York Times would like you to believe it’s an incredibly innovative and important show, I was disappointed. It celebrated the breadth of the museums collection and the cleverness of its curatorial staff, indeed. But there was no mention of the craft, the makers, or what it actually took to create each object of shimmering beauty that was so carefully displayed for our voyeuristic pleasure.
I wondered if my personal bias was unfair. Years ago, I worked with textile artisans from the Barefoot College network in rural India and have remained a champion of artisan craft and social entrepreneurship ever since. But while it is my personal knowledge of textile craft that piqued my interest, it’s the complete disregard of the maker movement that annoyed me. The show had an opportunity to tap into one of the largest and most significant social and cultural movements of the 21st Century and it missed the beat.
The maker movement is here to stay. It’s not a fad. It’s a grassroots global group of people who make and appreciate objects and physical artefacts. And that making is fuelled by Internet tools that allow us to connect, experiment, publish and share. In Western countries, it’s a manifestation of people’s desire to make the intangible tangible, to find meaning in materials and self-expression. In developing countries and rural communities like those I worked with, making is a form of survival and artisans need outlets for marketing and distributing their goods. As those artisans struggle to find those outlets, their craft tradition is in danger of fading into obscurity, taking their knowledge and their artifacts with them.
In India, efforts from giants like the Taj hotels and Tata are working to preserve Benarsi silk arts. These are largely CSR efforts, however, and so tend to carry the perception of “do good to feel good”. It might be more powerful if there were a real business imperative to keep artisan enterprises solvent and thriving. I still struggled to figure this one out — how to really give credence and quantifiable business value to artisan craft beyond a voyeuristic connosseurship, hobby projects, or a cause for charitable activity.
I don’t want to live in a world without beauty, craft and community. It’s up to our established pillars of arts and culture, like the Met, to feel the pulse of society and respond accordingly. That means giving more props to the makers, telling the craftswoman’s story behind the artefacts. They are the ones who took influences from other countries’ objects into their own hands and cross-pollinated stylistic decisions. Because while the social and political context is important (most of those fabulous textiles were nothing short of currency for bribery, politcal favours and sometimes slaves) the story of the hands that made them, the dyes that coloured the threads, and the scale of the production is just as relevant to today’s audience (if not more so) than which styles influenced each other.