Theirs are the hands that weave, embroider, paint and forge, contributing to a present and "future that is handmade". They are the stars that help make the constellation of craftsmen of various continents. Each is an expert in his / her chosen field, fashioning artefacts and textiles that are marked by beauty and precision. We write on the work of a few of these experts from abroad participating in Kaivalam, the world craft summit organised by the World Crafts Council
Mosi weaving — Bang Youn-Ok, Korea
This cloth is literally cool. Gossamer fine but with an interesting texture it makes the wearer look chic and helps the skin breathe even when temperatures soar. Not surprisingly, Mosi or ramie cloth has been used in Korea for 1,500 years.
The fibres are obtained painstakingly from the stalks of the ramie plant. It is woven and dyed in natural colours or sparkles as white or off white.
Bang Youn-Ok deftly works her traditional loom with the ease born of the practise of 30 years. “The loom looks simple but it is difficult to handle,” she smiles. Ramie cloth weaving is traditionally done by women who passed on their skill to daughters and daughters-in-law. Since the plants thrive in the Hansan — Myeon area, the cloth is known as Hansan-ramie. A museum and Mosi weaving education centre has been set up by the local government.
Bang Youn-Ok is one of the best known names in this craft. She learnt initially from her mother, but went on to learn further from her teacher. Bang Youn-Ok, who has been designated ‘Living Human Treasure’, now trains many students. The material woven is designed into dresses.
Has there been any improvement in technique? “No improvement since the time I learnt the skill. It is not to be seen in terms of technology — it is an art,” she states firmly and politely. As I bid her goodbye, she bows gracefully. In her white ramie blouse and black skirt — the traditional Hanbok, she looks elegant.
Vodou flags — Georges Valris, Haiti
Dazzling colours, eye catching and unusual images, shimmering multicoloured sequins, and intricate bead work on cotton make these flags a stand out. Crochet and sewing go into the making of these pieces. Vodou flags rivet the eye and mind. They have their origins in ritual and the vodou practices in the temples of the island nation. They are an expression of the popularity of banners and flags in West Africa.
“Though many do vodou to appease the spirits, I do not do it,” says Georges Valris who makes these flags mainly as decoration for walls. Some patches of the conversation between him and me remain mystifying though I would love to know more about this fascinating form of art and ritual. The flags are bright and cheerful unlike our perceptions of vodou.
“Many people buy these flags when I take part in exhibitions in Mexico, New Orleans and New York. The big-sized ones take a month to make while the smaller ones can be made in 15 days. I design them myself and get others who work for me, both men and women, to stitch and embroider them. I have five people working for me.”
Legend, myth and individual creativity imbue the art of vodou flag making. The designs at the Kaivalam demonstration and display range from that of the Mother and child to the skeleton (“Banron” — vodou men use it for the ‘first people’ at the cemetery) and a big red heart with green splashes (“that is medicine,” explains Valris). Figures of a woman flanked by two men appear to be a favourite theme.
A shimmering picture that resembles toddy-making with a tree at the centre and a bottle draws the attention of many visitors. Valris’ work has been displayed at the UCLA Fowler museum among other museums and his work, featured in many books.
“I started making vodou flags in 1987. I was making baskets to store clothes before that. Then I made the first flag, and then another and another,” he gives his big happy grin before going off to attend to a vodou flag lover’s query.
Silver jewellery — silversmith Moussa Albaka, Niger (Africa)
The beauty of black and white is striking in the elaborately fashioned yet elegant silver jewellery produced by Moussa Albaka. Necklaces, earrings, amulets, armbands and waistbands display his skill in repousse, the style in which the craftsman hammers the back of the metal piece to tease out the design on the obverse side. Moussa is hammering away at an amulet when he gets up to talk to me.
He also makes jewellery with engraving and pieces inlaid with semi-precious stones. His geometric designs lure the viewer with their dramatic appeal. “My father taught me this art, and I have been making traditional jewellery in Tuareg silver (silver mixed with brass) and sterling silver since I was ten. Now my brother Muhamad and cousin Sahid also work with me,” says the genial craftsman who is a Tuareg tribesman from Niger. “I also make jewellery in a mix of ebony and silver,” he says lifting up a classy piece — heavy to look at but quite light when picked up. “I make my own designs too, which do very well.” Albaka sells his traditional and modern work both in his country and abroad, especially in Europe and the U.S. His traditional piece, a long intricately worked pendant strung on agate beads “sourced from Saudi Arabia” is stunningly beautiful while the earrings in the shape of locks are unusual.
“I have a plan to build a school and teach children this tradition,” says Moussa who has four sons, one of whom — a computer engineer — is into this craft full time. So that he can become as famous as his dad?
“I don’t know whether I’m famous,” he flashes his smile. “But I’m happy. I can’t think of doing any other job.”