Laughter surrounds me as women, and yes, young men too, are sewing colorful embroidery as we try to collaborate: through our new directions of colors and form with their embroidery. They are happily talking about their culture, chants and rice planting, taking pride in that there are “masters” amongst students as the skill and craft of traditional embroidery is being handed down through the School of Living Tradition.
I am an hour or so away from Iloilo City, in the heart of the Panay Bukidnon and Ati tribes. Our development program of the ECHOsi Foundation brings as here in the efforts of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts to introduce a more sustainable market to a dying craft. This is the core of our work– to bridge the gap of small producers towards market testing and access of their products. Our efforts try to bring innovative new directions to old crafts and to enhance livelihood. Today, I am happily feeling creative, overseeing the embroidery and textile group in the airconditioned room of a parish church.
Outside veteran designer Tes Pasola, is busy with the nito basket weavers giving them directions and new forms. Tes was trying out a prototype of merging nito and embroidery into a jewelry accessory and was making promising headway. Back home, Reena Francisco was sending us color combinations, look-books and home works as she couldn’t make it this trip. We had also carried homeworks given by two other producers, accessory and bag manufacturer Zarah Juan and apparel maker Camille Escudero. They too were committed to see how to help make new lifestyle items. Filip+Inna’s Len Cabili use to be with us in such trips but her busy schedule and international success for her hand-embroidered pieces by the ethnic tribes is reason enough we continue the development work for designers.
At the next table, our efficient foundation program manager Imelda Canuel was busy interviewing the women, checking a process by which to begin and create a sustainable supply chain for future orders! And one Facebook post of the embroidery had inquires coming in. This was our role! Preparing them and giving market access!
The visit to the tribes was the exact situation I was in a month back up in the Benguet province when Chit Juan and I visited the Ibaloy tribe, another School of Living Tradition of the NCCA. There, we had a quick assessment of the group and the direction we could take their weaving. The visit was to suggest directions for their weaving patterns.
While the preservation of culture has been NCCA’s main thrust for decades, the sustainability angle or enterprise has not been entered into. Except now, and we were willing to try it out too.
Aside from all the new designs we are trying to prototype with them, we are also attempting to document and record as much as we can of the names of motifs. This we realize is a little crazy as one motif has so many variations all being called the same name! From eye of the bird/eagle per their epic stories, to pythons, ferns and flowers, the folk art motifs depict the innocence of the tribal ancestors in harmony with nature. Bright loud red is a favorite color of valour, courage and strength.
Inevitably, when working with our tribal groups, the issue of the lack of market appreciation is mentioned. There is a chicken and egg issue here, especially since we are sensitively trying to innovate without totally departing from what they are use to doing, and yet, if we don’t change some things, this tradition will never be known outside their little village. Artisans of the world today face such issues when the global world is threatening the very heart of their lifeways. There is no clear answer even for us who try to help the preservation on one side and push the innovation while keeping an eye for their sustainable livelihood. Worldwide, there is also a welcome trend of more consumers buying products made by hand. And we join this, as so many other emerging groups support the power and potential of the artisan sector, to create jobs, increase incomes, enhance cultural heritage and promote development that respects the uniqueness of people and place.