Empowerment

Connecting with artisans in Egypt

Sometimes life sends you to places that you hadn’t quite planned, hadn’t even really considered, but says go do something interesting there. So I went to Egypt!

  Women artisans celebrating their new bonds of friendships and their accomplishments together from the program.

Women artisans celebrating their new bonds of friendships and their accomplishments together from the program.

Together with my dear friend, soul sister, fellow creative, and empowering trainer Sharmila Karamchandani, this summer we were invited by the wonderful DC-based non-profit Hands Along the Nile Development Services (HANDS) to design and deliver a customized four-day training on product innovation, quality, and marketing to artisans in Cairo. This was in partnership with CEOSS, an Egyptian-based development non-profit, with the support of the US Embassy’s Young Entrepreneurs Program Grant. 

 Sharmila Karamchandani (co-trainer), Ivana Smucker (Director of Programs at HANDS), Amir Roshdy (Programs Supervisor at CEOSS), and me.

Sharmila Karamchandani (co-trainer), Ivana Smucker (Director of Programs at HANDS), Amir Roshdy (Programs Supervisor at CEOSS), and me.

Sharmila and I have known each other for six years, having worked together at Empowered Women International, a non-profit that provides entrepreneurship training and mentorship to immigrant, refugee and low-income women to turn their ideas into successful businesses. She’s a creative multipotentialite – a design educator at the college level, founder of Khush Designs specializing in customized projects, and an artist whose experimentation and command of multiple media is evident in her range of artwork. We were beyond excited for this dream opportunity.

To discover in more detail what the artisans’ particular needs and challenges were, their range of handcrafts, and the cultural context in which we would be working, we met several times with Ivana Smucker, Director of Programs at HANDS.

The program and activities we designed had to be engaging. Everything was to be translated. It had to meet them where they were as artisans and entrepreneurs. It was customized and unique to them. And here’s what happened:

  What's your handmade craft telling you? An activity about seeing, feeling, and describing their handmade craft, and about story and connection. Then sharing with each other and they didn't want to stop.

What's your handmade craft telling you? An activity about seeing, feeling, and describing their handmade craft, and about story and connection. Then sharing with each other and they didn't want to stop.

Their potential as creatives was tapped for developing new and improving on their handmade products. 

Their own voice and unique story in connecting with their handmade products was validated. 

  Woman artisans who sew, embroider, and crochet unique handmade clothing and accessories for their local market.

Woman artisans who sew, embroider, and crochet unique handmade clothing and accessories for their local market.

Their understanding of how creating a step-by-step checklist in producing their products was an ‘ah-ha’ moment – for improving on their time and efforts, their skills, and ensuring greater quality control. 

  Coffee pod jewelry, can top purses, rolled paper jewelry and place mats, and recycled decorative paper, all innovative handmade products.

Coffee pod jewelry, can top purses, rolled paper jewelry and place mats, and recycled decorative paper, all innovative handmade products.

Their ingenuity for finding creative ways to recycle found materials, reuse leftover materials in their production process, and discovering creative ways to salvage imperfect products was a highlight.

And more – a daughter takes all the leftover items from her mother’s handcrafts and makes new, smaller handcrafts (below); a woman takes leftover fabric clothing from her community and remakes them into child and infant clothing; another doesn’t waste even the tiniest of threads from her embroidery, instead stuffing them inside small pillows. A few of them even started discussing how they could reuse each other’s leftover materials in their own products. That was powerful. 

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It was honestly a wild success, beyond anyone’s expectations. It was a combination of all the right elements that made it so. First, accolades go to the CEOSS staff for organizing everything on their end, especially Amir and Remon, and for the honest guidance and support of Ivana Smucker and Jennifer Cate, Executive Director of HANDS.

Then for our phenomenal interpreter Ragaa Ezat, our cultural bridge.

  Ragaa (center), with two artisan participants, made all the difference in the world during the training. She conveyed our collective voices and intensions, our hearts and ideas across Arabic and English. We were all so grateful!

Ragaa (center), with two artisan participants, made all the difference in the world during the training. She conveyed our collective voices and intensions, our hearts and ideas across Arabic and English. We were all so grateful!

And most importantly, all the artisans who showed up. They felt heard. They were seen. They felt valued as artisans and women with ideas. They learned new things about their handmade craft and about themselves. 

  Woodcrafter, candlemaker, and string artist – these phenomenal women were stars. Engy (center) said at the end that she had endless inspiration now.

Woodcrafter, candlemaker, and string artist – these phenomenal women were stars. Engy (center) said at the end that she had endless inspiration now.

Across language, culture, class, religion, and much that would seem to separate us, instead we all came together from the heart – as creatives, as change-makers, as peacemakers, as women can, as women do. 

What happens when we choose artisans and their beauty

  An elder woman of the Hong Phoi village in Nagaland, India, sharing her traditional crafted adornments typically worn for the annual Hornbill Festival.

An elder woman of the Hong Phoi village in Nagaland, India, sharing her traditional crafted adornments typically worn for the annual Hornbill Festival.

When I’ve traveled abroad and met artisans directly, even when no common language enables us to understand each other (or even when a willing translator doesn’t have much patience), a subtle kind of conversation begins to emerge.

It’s a kind of conversation where gestures speak, expressions are felt, body language conveys and nuanced intonations are understood. There is little spoken between us, if any. What brings us together is a connection over one thing - her beautifully handmade craft. It’s in that moment that I know more intimately her talented gifts. And perhaps she knows something about me, that I genuinely love what she’s made and appreciate a glimpse into her world.

I believe in this kind of beauty that delights the senses and inspires the heart. The beauty of the handmade object connects us with others, and them with us, through these subtle conversations and exchanges. Global handmade brings people, culture, place, and creativity together.

  Far Left and Right: cotton scarf and throw with Naga designs by Chin ethnic weavers from Myanmar; Second left: cotton shaman shawl from the Apatani tribe, Ziro Valley in Arunachal Pradesh, India; Second right: silk and lotus thread scarf from Paw Khone Village, Myanmar.

Far Left and Right: cotton scarf and throw with Naga designs by Chin ethnic weavers from Myanmar; Second left: cotton shaman shawl from the Apatani tribe, Ziro Valley in Arunachal Pradesh, India; Second right: silk and lotus thread scarf from Paw Khone Village, Myanmar.

We can positively influence the sustainability of the diverse global aesthetic and cultural heritage of our world. Our relationship with global artisans and their handmade craft matters a great deal. We do have a role in this; it affects change.

When we choose artisans and the beauty of handmade, we make a statement to the world:

As conscious consumers we seek transparency and expect fairness to artisans. As global citizens we advocate for equality and advance opportunity to artisans. As human beings we respect diversity and celebrate the creativity of artisans.

  A master weaver at Khang, a center for fine silks, textile design, Lao fashion and traditional weaving in Luang Prabang, Laos.

A master weaver at Khang, a center for fine silks, textile design, Lao fashion and traditional weaving in Luang Prabang, Laos.

This kind of beauty that delights the senses and inspires the heart is needed in our world. Without global artisans and their handmade craft, the world would be a much duller and narrower place, indeed.

Let’s choose artisans and their beauty.

How we empower positive change for global artisans

Our relationship with global artisans and their handmade craft matters a great deal. We do have a role in this; it affects change.

When we choose artisans and the beauty of handmade, we make a statement to the world.


  The sophisticated detail and symbolic motifs of handwoven silk textiles from the Tai Daeng and Tai Phouan ethnic groups in Laos, part of an initiative of Ock Pop Tok’s  Village Weaver’s Project  in Luang Prabang, Laos.

The sophisticated detail and symbolic motifs of handwoven silk textiles from the Tai Daeng and Tai Phouan ethnic groups in Laos, part of an initiative of Ock Pop Tok’s Village Weaver’s Project in Luang Prabang, Laos.

They are the women and men around the globe who make, innovate and create handcrafted objects that are a delight for the eyes, rich to the touch, and accent uniquely in our homes and on our bodies. Their work is exceptionally fine crafted and designed, blending their cultural aesthetics with our modern lifestyles.

Global artisans are the keepers of their cultural heritage, preserving ancient craft traditions, passing their knowledge and talent down through generations.

But as the effects of colonization, war, displacement, and globalization have challenged their lives over the past centuries, so too have their livelihoods and cultures been threatened.

  Living in remote mountain villages in Northern Laos, the Lanten ethnic group make and wear distinctive black indigo-dyed cotton clothing. Here women are meticulously preparing the threads of a handloom for weaving.

Living in remote mountain villages in Northern Laos, the Lanten ethnic group make and wear distinctive black indigo-dyed cotton clothing. Here women are meticulously preparing the threads of a handloom for weaving.

Movements by international organizations began to address the needs of artisans around the world, working with them as income-generating initiatives to revitalize their crafts and create market access. The social and economic movement we now refer to as fair trade had its beginnings nearly seven decades ago.

Fair trade organizations positioned a more equitable international trading partnership for marginalized small scale producers, assuring them fair wages, better working conditions, equal access, and economic empowerment. US and European buyers, increasingly concerned with exploitive practices of artisans and farmers, helped raise awareness and advocate the benefits of fair trade to their customers. Today, there are thousands of organizations and social enterprises around the world that advance fair trade practices.

  Hemp textile weave with applied batik designs of the Hmong ethnic group in Northern Laos, part of an initiative of Ock Pop Tok’s  Village Weaver’s Project  in Luang Prabang, Laos.

Hemp textile weave with applied batik designs of the Hmong ethnic group in Northern Laos, part of an initiative of Ock Pop Tok’s Village Weaver’s Project in Luang Prabang, Laos.

The global artisan sector shows impressive numbers. According to Alliance for Artisan Enterprise Impact Report 2014, it’s the second largest employer in the developing world after agriculture; 65% of artisan activity takes place in developing economies; and it’s a $34 million dollar market.

The social and economic impact to the artisans themselves when fair trade principles are practiced is impressive. There are countless real stories of artisans’ lives transformed when given the opportunity to earn an income for themselves and provide for their families. When given access, training, and resources, they can thrive and inspire others, often becoming agents of change in their own communities. This is the power of women's empowerment in action.

  A master weaver at Khang, a center for fine silks, textile design, Lao fashion and traditional weaving in Luang Prabang, Laos.

A master weaver at Khang, a center for fine silks, textile design, Lao fashion and traditional weaving in Luang Prabang, Laos.

When we choose fair trade handmade, we are choosing to impact local economies in very real and direct ways.

When we choose fair trade handmade, we empower positive change for global artisans. And ourselves.

Why do we care about a person halfway across the globe?

One person halfway across the world, an artisan, has brought me the simple joy from experiencing her created beauty. I may not know her story, but I want to tell her that she has impacted mine.


  Women weavers and leaders from Rengam, an artisan cooperative in Majuli Island, Assam, India, which has supported over 80 women affected by floods and erosion by harnessing the unique weaving traditions of the Mising ethnic group.

Women weavers and leaders from Rengam, an artisan cooperative in Majuli Island, Assam, India, which has supported over 80 women affected by floods and erosion by harnessing the unique weaving traditions of the Mising ethnic group.

“Knowing the story of one person can change the perception of a whole people, of an entire place, its culture and history, and even a war. Knowing the story of one person tells us more than we might not have ever known.”

This is what my friend Sushmita Mazumdar tells me when I ask her the question which has been on my mind lately, why do we care about a person halfway across the globe? Through her StudioPause, Sush’s creative and community work often confronts stereotypes and invites new perspectives through art, writing, and stories.

As if led to more insight, I come across this:

“…how interconnected we are, how our action and our inaction can impact people we might never know, and never meet, every day of our lives, all around the world”.

This is from Jacqueline Novogratz, innovative founder of Acumen, a nonprofit venture fund, sharing the story of the blue sweater (she had donated it to charity as a girl, only to find it a decade later on a boy in Rwanda, confirmed by seeing her name written on the tag).

I love what both of these women are saying. They both speak of a genuine truth born out of their own experience.

  Not only has the artisan cooperative become a source of skills training and income for the women, it has provided a platform for emerging women leaders and collective action. Weaver Jan Moni, second from left, draping the handwoven and hand dyed stole she made from Assamese Eri raw silk.

Not only has the artisan cooperative become a source of skills training and income for the women, it has provided a platform for emerging women leaders and collective action. Weaver Jan Moni, second from left, draping the handwoven and hand dyed stole she made from Assamese Eri raw silk.

When I ask myself that question, why do I care about a person halfway across the globe, my first leaning is towards artisans. It is because they bring a rich beauty into the world that is unlike my own.

For as long as I can remember, I have gravitated towards the beauty in other cultures as if to fill a void experienced in my own American culture. The beauty of other cultures has always allured and illuminated my senses, and in particular handcrafted objects that offer a glimpse into another’s ritual and daily life. By my engaged curiosity, I can feel a connection to the object, to the person who made it, and to the energy that is expressed from the creator’s hands.

  Detail of the handwoven stole that I lovingly acquired. Eri silk, from silkworms only found in Assam, India, is considered a ‘peace silk’. The caterpillars live a full life cycle in the silk spinning process.

Detail of the handwoven stole that I lovingly acquired. Eri silk, from silkworms only found in Assam, India, is considered a ‘peace silk’. The caterpillars live a full life cycle in the silk spinning process.

As an artist, I wish I could do what they do. I am in awe. I have such respect and admiration it’s almost embarrassing. I fall in love. One person halfway across the world, an artisan, has brought me the simple joy from experiencing her created beauty. I may not know her story, but I want to tell her that she has impacted mine.

  Throughout 20 villages, women typically work on hand looms found under their homes. Women also have access to the Rengam workshop for looms and raw materials.

Throughout 20 villages, women typically work on hand looms found under their homes. Women also have access to the Rengam workshop for looms and raw materials.

I want to do whatever I can to create sustainable opportunities for her and other artisans to continue to do what they do and to honor their unique cultural identity and heritage.

And with that, share a glimpse of their cultural beauty with other people halfway across the globe.

Read more about how Rengam began here.  Discover more about the rare Eri silk here

Wanting to know and leaning towards that

I begin to see the nuanced colors and intricate details. I touch the natural materials and feel its texture, letting my hands caress its form. The smell of place, the sense of culture, the energy of its creation made by someone far away.


  [Earthy warm tones in a fine striped pattern, tiny white beads nested as diamonds, staccato to the touch against a thick tight weave textile. Inviting table runners handwoven by women of the Katu ethnic group in Salavan Provence, Laos. Curated by  Ma Te Sai , a lovely fair trade boutique and social enterprise working closely with artisans in Laos.]

[Earthy warm tones in a fine striped pattern, tiny white beads nested as diamonds, staccato to the touch against a thick tight weave textile. Inviting table runners handwoven by women of the Katu ethnic group in Salavan Provence, Laos. Curated by Ma Te Sai, a lovely fair trade boutique and social enterprise working closely with artisans in Laos.]

When we can't have that direct connection with artisans, nor them with us, whether because of geographic, cultural, or technical barriers, there are other ways that a conversation can begin, I've found. If by letting our imaginations free, we can still share our stories around their handmade craft. What happens when we have their handmade craft in our hands? Doesn’t our curiosity get sparked? Mine does. I may be able to find out a little from a tag, or a website, or social media post. Or ask a salesperson at the store, if they know anything more. Or from the friend who travelled and gave me that beautiful gift. It’s just often never enough to satisfy my curiosity. I just want to know more.

So a different kind of conversation starts to happen. All my questions rise to ask the handmade craft itself, as if it knows. Surely it knows, it’s a messenger of sorts, a carrier from its creator to me, the enthusiastic admirer. Won’t it tell me anything? The silence, the unknowing, is obvious. And powerfully revealing.

  [Natural colors in peach yellow and indigo blue, in easy even stripes, cozy and soft squeezed together. Dreamy cushion covers handwoven by women of the Tai Leu ethnic group in Banayan village Laos. Also curated by  Ma Te Sai .

[Natural colors in peach yellow and indigo blue, in easy even stripes, cozy and soft squeezed together. Dreamy cushion covers handwoven by women of the Tai Leu ethnic group in Banayan village Laos. Also curated by Ma Te Sai.

I begin to see. I begin to see the nuanced colors and intricate details. I touch the natural materials and feel its texture, letting my hands caress its form.The smell of place, the sense of culture, the energy of its creation made by someone far away. I am too momentarily away—drawing associations, what it reminds me of, memories of past, imaginations of future. I am momentarily away, imagining the life of the artisan—the questions of livelihood, of culture, her story.

  [Fishbone bamboo weave and I wonder how it was made with alternating light dark. Following the weave of the hemp patterned trim and my curiosity wanders, wondering whose artisan hands crafted this, her name and about her life. Bamboo clutch handcrafted by women of the Tai Lao ethnic group, Phonsong Village. Curated by  Ma Te Sai .]

[Fishbone bamboo weave and I wonder how it was made with alternating light dark. Following the weave of the hemp patterned trim and my curiosity wanders, wondering whose artisan hands crafted this, her name and about her life. Bamboo clutch handcrafted by women of the Tai Lao ethnic group, Phonsong Village. Curated by Ma Te Sai.]

But there is only silence, of course, and no answers. Even so, this time it’s okay. Wanting to know and leaning towards that, allows me to see, touch, and sense in a way that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

Curiosity often doesn’t seek answers, it finds all the questions.

 

Our mutual curiosity can find each other

What if instead of only us hearing the stories about artisans, we share our stories with them too? Why not share our stories with them about our enthusiasm and love for their handmade craft.


  Like a field of flowers before blooming in full color, ceramic beads in the making at the Clay Cult studio workshop, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Like a field of flowers before blooming in full color, ceramic beads in the making at the Clay Cult studio workshop, Siem Reap, Cambodia

What would happen if she, the artisan, knew of my conversation with her? Is she having similar conversations to some anonymous me, the “American customer”? Is she thinking, who will appreciate this, or who is that person who will eventually buy this, or does that person care who made this?

I care. And I believe there are are others too, like me, like her, who actually care very much. Shouldn’t we then find a way to connect with each other? To let our mutual curiosity about the other and the handmade craft that binds us have a beautiful conversation?

  A string bouquet of one of a kind beads - big bulbous bespeckled - adorning each other to speak boldly in this statement necklace from Clay Cult, Siem Reap, Cambodia

A string bouquet of one of a kind beads - big bulbous bespeckled - adorning each other to speak boldly in this statement necklace from Clay Cult, Siem Reap, Cambodia

It does seem possible. So why isn’t it happening? In the global artisan sector some things are happening but not enough of a happening. Meaning, I’m able to find out much more about the stories of artisans if I choose, but I don’t have access to sharing my admiration and curiosity with them and they doubtful have access to sharing their thoughts or curiosity with me if they choose.

We’re ready. Let's go. We’re ready as a kind of gathering tribe wishing to connect, discover, and create. We can do it, technically, globally, and communally. We can take on that challenge and create a kind of social change around this. It then leaves us to find each other and make great conversations about something we all care about, don’t you think?

What if instead of only us hearing the stories about artisans, we share our stories with them too? Why not share our stories with them about our enthusiasm and love for their handmade craft?

Letting someone know you love their work, sharing our story of why we are drawn to their handmade craft, or even why we bought it, can be a real lift and motivator. I want artisans to feel this, to know they are valued.

  Some of the talented and dedicated artisans at the Clay Cult studio workshop, along with Savat the gentleman who showed me around with great enthusiasm. Its worth finding out more about  Clay Cult , their work in nurturing the talents and providing long-term opportunities for women.

Some of the talented and dedicated artisans at the Clay Cult studio workshop, along with Savat the gentleman who showed me around with great enthusiasm. Its worth finding out more about Clay Cult, their work in nurturing the talents and providing long-term opportunities for women.

What would you say?

The beautiful conversations held in my hands

I feel a glimpse of her culture by its colors and patterns and materials that are not my own, but allow me a moment of wonder about hers.


  Striped colors of ruby magenta, sky blue and inchworm green among the inviting handcrafted silk scarves of Colors of Life, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Striped colors of ruby magenta, sky blue and inchworm green among the inviting handcrafted silk scarves of Colors of Life, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Global artisans around the world make exceptional handmade craft. They infuse it with their cultural heritage and it connects them with their livelihoods and stories. Beautiful handmade crafts brings out a delight in me for the unique and meaningful and a curiosity about who made it and why.

Where can we go to find global handmade crafts? Perhaps in a fair trade shop in our region. Or on our travels when we go to a bazaar or a shop. Maybe it was a gift from a friend on one of their travels. We might know where it’s from and something about its materials. If we’re lucky, we might know more about the artisans or the mission of an artisan enterprise they’re associated with.

But this only spikes my curiosity to know more about the artisan, her life, her culture, who she is. I want to know more about her handmade craft, about its cultural significance and traditions, or techniques or materials.

  Adjusting the threads of her loom with an eye for perfection, the lead weaver at the Colors for Life workshop in Krang Phnong village, Cambodia

Adjusting the threads of her loom with an eye for perfection, the lead weaver at the Colors for Life workshop in Krang Phnong village, Cambodia

Most importantly, I want to tell her how much I genuinely love what she’s made. I want to tell her that holding it in my hands is a delight, as if I can feel its energy knowing that she’s held it before me. I feel a glimpse of her culture by its colors and patterns and materials that are not my own, but allow me a moment of wonder about hers. I want to thank her for sharing it with me and tell her to keep making more because there are many others who would enjoy experiencing this too. This is my conversation, held in my hands, what I want to tell her. And in that moment we are connected, if only in my mind, around the one thing we do have in common, that we both held in our hands her beautiful handmade craft.

 

Embarking on a journey

  Me, in Tuscon

Me, in Tuscon

A passion for art, global cultures, and women's empowerment continues to lead me on my journey. As an artist and in my travels abroad over the decades, I’ve long been fascinated by beautifully crafted objects and their stories. I’m embarking on a long-held entrepreneurial dream of opening a global artisan boutique to further engage in women’s economic empowerment and invite cultural understanding.

Indigo Lion Global Handmade is about curating beautiful conversations. It’s a place to discover unique and meaningful global handmade gifts for home and lifestyle. It’s a space for connection, creativity, and discovery.

I’d love to connect with you along the way!

Mary Louise Marino