Empowering the Artists

Interview with Judy Frater

Judy Frater believes the traditional craftsperson is the best designer to make the work of the artisan economically viable to the consumer market. Through practical and pertinent education, Judy is building the expertise of the artisan to make a significant contribution to the sustainability of traditions. Judy Frater is currently the project director at Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya, the first design school for traditional artisans. KRV is a project within Kala Raksha Trust, a grassroots social enterprise in India, promoting and empowering the artisan to make design decisions as a way to remain competitive in the contemporary marketplace. Kala Raksha aims to preserve and present cultures of ethnic communities of Kutch through their traditional arts, as a way to encourage understanding and appreciation.
 
HAND/EYE: How did you get involved in this field of work?
 
Judy Frater: I began as a fine artist.  On my first trip to India in 1970, I discovered traditional art and anthropology, and stopped doing in order to learn.  I eventually did field research for degrees in South Asian languages and museum studies, and became a curator at The Textile Museum in Washington, DC.  While doing research on a Fulbright grant, for an exhibition on which I was working, an artisan popped off the page and said, "Why are you studying us?  Why don't you help us?"  That question changed my perspective, and I have been working with crafts and development-- and trying to listen to artisans-- ever since.
 
H/E: When you hear "women and empowerment" in relation to handicraft, what does that bring up for you?
 
JF: The first thing I think is (groan) buzz word that has lost a lot of meaning….and is even miss-used for exploitation!  Then I take a deep breath and think about what else it can mean. Most craft projects equate money with empowerment.  The two are no doubt related, but I think that empowerment also requires education and experience-- and real opportunity.  If people are thinking that money is empowering, they are usually assuming that artisans are poor and something is better than nothing.  This mutually accepted concept has perpetuated painfully low wages for craft- especially when it is done by women.
 
Women do become stronger when they are earning.  They become more able to think of themselves, to begin to dream and fulfill those dreams… they sometimes are enabled to take a stronger role in family decision-making. But all too often they continue to think of themselves as laborers.
 
Educating women to take decisions and, even more important, to be responsible for their actions and decisions, takes a lot of time and patience.  It is often faster and more immediately effective in terms of the product to just get women to do what they are told.  In the long run, however, I think that women become much more fully empowered when the process-oriented approach is taken.
 
The responsibility part is a big one- and being able to use their creativity.  In India women are mostly treated the same way children are.  They take advantage of that in the sense that they don't have to be responsible.  In our design school, we see again and again, how when an artisan is not able to complete her collection successfully, she blames it on someone else.  …."I did not get the cloth….. Harishbhai told me to use those colors…."  Within the context of their own familiar world this would never happen.  They can think creatively and solve problems.  If there is not one cloth they find another one.  If they are out of flour or time to make rotis, they make biryani. When they can extend these capabilities in the outside world- such as the work world, they begin to be really empowered.
 
H/E:  What do you find you have learned over the years while working with artisan groups?
 

JF: I have learned how incredibly creative they are.  They often don't get an opportunity to exercise that creativity.  They are also very practical and keenly observant.  Their visual communication is amazing, and if you present the problem practically and visually, they can effortlessly solve it.
 
I have also learned how deeply repressed they are in the social hierarchy.  It takes years to make even small improvements in this. The artisan understands him/herself as small, powerless and always beholden.  They have been disempowered by dependence on subsidy as an institutional policy, which in the end reinforces the conception of them as "poor artisans."  The real challenge is to change this perception.
 
H/E: How do you feel about the rising trend of mixing traditional artisan techniques with contemporary design?
 

JF: I think this trend has been going on for a long time.  My concern with it is that it has so much potential to be value laden and can easily dis-empower artisans.  Where they were confident in making their own traditional work, when someone perceived as powerful comes and tells them to do it their way, they begin to feel that what they were doing was "not good." And they need someone to tell them what to do.  They give up their active creativity, which is really their most valuable asset.  (Who designed those traditional pieces that draw people to work with them, anyway?)
 
If the designer has patience and is open to things coming out in ways other than he/ she might have thought- rather than coming with a preconceived idea he/she just wants produced, then unexpected and often delightful results may occur.  Collaboration or co-creating certainly is more enjoyable and empowering for the artisan.
 
H/E:  What else would you like to add in regards to this topic?
 
JF: I guess I would re-emphasize that empowerment requires more than money.  Earning at a labor force level is obviously limiting.  Women need to move on from there.  They need to develop capabilities that can take them to higher levels. Also- I think that in most craft projects, the model used for production is the industrial model.  The goal is faster, cheaper and more standardized.  This is what machines do. In this industrial model, the production is good for the customer but disastrous for the artisan.  The artisan can get phased out of the picture.  When the hand tries to compete with a machine, it will fail.  So we have to think of other models that capitalize on the human quality of the hand.  I think artisans need to become aware of and value their assets.  This in itself could be very empowering!

For more information please visit www.rala-raksha.org.

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