Art, craft and ownership

December 22, 2019

While viewing exquisite artworks, one cannot help ponder over the relationship between vulnerable labour and art

Phulkari, chikankari, tarkashi, arr, aari and booti immediately evoke scenes of a Pakistani bazaar where skilled labour work to create and replicate wearable fashion, all the while remaining faceless. One does not expect, age-old embroidery techniques categorised as ‘craft’ to be displayed as art. Yet, on the 14th and 15th of December, The Baagh, took place at AlHamra Art Gallery in Lahore. The event was a collaboration between Indus Heritage Trust, Handwork Studio and the UNESCO in which “Handwork Studio conceptualised the embroidered artworks, Indus Heritage Trust facilitated the process of working with the artisans and UNESCO provided financial support for the project” says Munira Amin, a co-founder of Handwork Studio.

The embroidered installation pieces featured a rich variety of fabrics and techniques – marked with great cultural and historical significance. The exhibit draws upon the Mughal concept of a garden as a “sacred space for contemplation”. It also incorporated Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist ideals of peace, tranquillity and reflection associated with the spacelessness and timelessness that the architecture of a garden provides.

The News on Sunday (TNS) asked Munira Amin why the collaboration chose an art exhibition rather than a crafts fair. She said, that while “organising craft fairs has its own benefit for the artisanal industry, where the artisans get direct access and exposure to their customers and markets, resulting in immediate financial gains for the artisans. This is a one-time opportunity. Presenting embroidery skills of the artisans with an abstract interpretation recontextualises the traditional work with a contemporary flavor, infuses new energy and inspiration for creating new design and product development. Working collaboratively with other stakeholders creates a stronger collective and better opportunities for a sustainable growth. Presenting these exceptional traditional skills as art influences and helps change social perceptions around handwork”.

An installation titled Bloom, is ironically and refreshingly white. Created by artisans from southern Punjab, a large installation features layers upon layers of sheer muslin fabric, intricately worked on with chikankari (white-on-white) and tarkashi (drawn threadwork) in an array of geometrical, abstract and natural motifs, elevated by the sophistication of design and impeccability of craftsmanship. Lending the viewer a feeling of floating, sublime weightlessness, interspersed with bursts of joy, as individual stitches catch the light.

There was a tribute to the architecture, design and heritage of Punjabi spaces in pieces such as Baradari, Eigh-gah and Diwan-i-Sheesh. Other works, such as Qalamdozi and Chahar Taq, were inspired by metropolitan centres, communal happenings and the overall feel of Punjabi heritage. The installation Chahar Taq, commanded attention as one walked in the room, built upon thirteen separate, canvas-mounted panels of cloth. Seven embroidered panels featured a complex mix of deep greens, purples, browns and reds negotiating their visibility through a blend of symmetrical shapes and natural floral imagery; overwhelming the viewer with the sheer volume and intricacy of stitching. Yet before a feeling of visual excess took over, the eye fell upon six bright red panels, which grounded the viewer through their earthy monotone. Upon closer inspection, one saw that the red panels were actually drafting patterns for the embroidered off-white canvases. Only in a piece of art, can one capture the process and the final product at the same time. The red panels act as humble, if powerful, reminders of the origin of the design, in their bareness - more than the intricately worked upon off-white pieces – the skill, patience and endurance of the artisans can be felt.

Along each installation there was an exhaustive description of the work; from inspiration to technique, these plaques provided the necessary context needed to truly experience it. Yet something was missing; the names of the artists. While the work of 200 artisans was on display, a separate brochure listed only a handful. Serving as a link between various installations, were mounted photographs, documenting the craftswomen at work. However, the display, made it feel as though they were the ‘subjects’ of someone else’s artistic vision, rather than the makers of the work itself. TNS was informed that the artisans were present in Lahore for the inauguration on Saturday, but had had to leave soon after. TNS was unable to speak to any craftswomen involved for this article.

TNS asked Munira Amin how the process balanced the craft/skill of Punjabi artisan women with the art/concept of educated artists from urban centres? She said: “this process has created space for exchange, allowing project participants to work together by reinterpreting imagery, passing ideas back and forth until the work is collectively refined. In such a situation, there is neither division nor hierarchy between conceptual design work and manual labour, but the organic development of a creative collective of artists and artisans.”

However, a designer from Indus Heritage Trust at the exhibit, had a different perspective. She chose to emphasise and elaborate on the difficulties the designers faced, “this is all abstract art, designed by Munira, but their execution was overseen by IHT. It was a taxing process that required patience as we weren’t asking them to simply refine their technique, which is difficult in itself, but also to make pieces that can be ‘art-worthy’ – it was difficult to control them (the artisan women).”

Herein lies the conundrum of not just post-modern art, but also the relationship between class and art. How can real-life divisions and hierarchies not be part of the equation, especially when rural, uneducated women are executing the artistic vision of urban, educated artists? NGOs working on women’s issues in Pakistan are often accused of serving the interests of middle-class personnel who would rather “control” and appropriate the labour of vulnerable lower classes, through the provision of skill and meagre financial benefits, which come at the cost of their autonomy and voice.

Traditionally, artistic vision and skill were two sides of the same coin. However, with the rise of post-modern art, the emphasis has shifted to conception as opposed to execution. In 1917, when Marcel Duchamp presented his work the fountain – a urinal at Alfred Stieglitz’s New York Studio, and said “this is art”, it became art, by virtue of him saying so. The labourers who actually ‘made’ the urinal were never discussed.

Mass-produced items such as urinals or Andy Warhol’s soup cans, cannot be claimed on account of the labour rendered. Similarly fashion brands which employ thousands of skilled labourers for the production of an item of clothing, have an understanding with the labourer, that their wages are for execution and not design or ownership.

In art, however, the debate regarding the skill and the vision, is old enough to be, well argued on both sides. If a sculptor designs a piece, and a welder executes it, who has actually made it? The artist whose creativity envisions it, or the labour whose skill gave it the form?

The link between this embroidery – by marginalised artisans– and works of art is even more complicated. Art pieces are unique – unlike wearable fashion, which loses its monetary value with age, art is an asset which frequently appreciates in value. Who then owns these works and who profits from them? UNESCO who funded the project, Handwork Studio who designed them, the IHT who monitored the execution, or the skilled women who made them?

There is no doubt that this exhibit was well-intentioned and provided a unique perspective on art-and-craft. However in viewing the exquisite artworks, one could not help ponder over the relationship between vulnerable labour and art. There is a good opportunity here for artists, feminists and non-government organisations (NGOs) to discuss the relationship between vision, execution, class, ownership and exploitation among Pakistani artists and artisans.

The author is a staff member

Reminiscing Pakistani bazaars: Art, craft and ownership