How does collaborative design practice relate to the traditional craft of block printing?
Block printing is an ancient way of decorating the surface of the fabric by hand using hand-carved blocks (from wood, metal or combining both materials). The craft developed over centuries in different communities across India (and other places in the world). To achieve the final result, the process requires the collaboration of different communities – farmers growing plants used for natural dyes and fiber, block makers who carve wooden blocks, Dhobi (washers), Rangrez (dyers) and Chhipa (printers) among others. Many traditional patterns were developed within the communities and reflecting their beliefs and ways of life.
From a cultural and intellectual perspective, the knowledge and practice of a craft belong to the source communities, often being passed down from generation to generation. Often times outsiders take only the technique and designs without recognizing the intellectual and cultural rights of the community. We believe this behavior is culturally unethical. It depletes the intangible cultural heritage of the community, devalues the knowledge of craftspeople and reduces artisans to simple factors of production.
In order to work ethically with Indigenous crafts communities, it is important to consider artisans as equal knowledge partners and recognize their legal rights. Facilitating co-creation and amplifying the creative voice of the artisans enables them to reclaim ownership of their craft heritage. Such an approach also has the power to inspire the new generation of craftspeople and avert the extinction of craft techniques.
Our aim is to support the artisans so they can, in today’s world of post-colonialism, anthropocén, and ecocide, reclaim their rightful ownership of various craft practices and designs.
What does collaborative design with block printing communities look like in reality?
We encourage the artisans we work with to come up with their own designs. The creative process starts in joined workshops in Bagru where various artists and designers work directly with women artisans. The artisans are being introduced to basic principles of pattern making. They learn to work with different techniques (drawing, cyanotypes, outline drawing, a combination of lines and patterns, cutouts, etc.). Since the workshops take them away from their printing tables, they are being compensated for their time during these workshops.
Once there is enough creative material, together, as a codesign team, we select patterns that will be carved into blocks and printed. The women, many of whom are block printing all their lives, have never really had an opportunity to make their own blocks and patterns. Economically it is beyond their reach. They also need to print in order to survive and feed their families. Many of them dream about being economically more independent.
When the pattern is printed, the artisan (whether she printed the fabric or not) is paid royalty fees. Every time the pattern is being used (on fabric, paper, etc.), the artisan receives the proper acknowledgment and fair payment for her design in compliance with common customs reserved to professional designers.
Seeing that there is larger and creative space within the craft practice encourages the artisans to draw and think, experiment and proudly take ownership of the craft technique. It is a framework that encourages innovation. We believe that this approach promotes more ethical and sustainable practices within ethical and slow fashion principles.
How do the artisans get compensated?
Thanks to the evolution of online payment gateways, we are now able to directly route percentages of sales to specific bank accounts. This allows us to connect each of the artisan design team members with our payment gateway to ensure near-instant remuneration whenever their designs are purchased online. When holding collaborative design workshops in Bagru, remuneration is predetermined at the time of drafting the collaborative design agreement. This amount is usually a lump sum consultancy fee in addition to a royalty plan.
I am interested in block printing for my brand. I would like women printing my fabrics/designs.
While we applaud everybody interested in this beautiful technique, our model is based strictly on collaboration. There are many opportunities and places where artisans (women and men) can print somebody else's designs. In our opinion, this is not enough. The artisans behind each craft need to be involved in the creative process. We would like to encourage artists and designers to rethink the designing process and find a way for artisan communities to be involved. How they can benefit beyond just providing the work. How their cultural intellectual rights can be recognized and acknowledged.
OK I get it. Is there a way how I can collaborate, maybe have some of my designs done and some in collaboration with the artisans?
Certainly, this is what we would like to see. We respect creative freedom and don’t want in any way to limit artists and designers from making their own work. We would, however, like to see bigger creative involvement with the artisans directly leading to their larger economic freedom. We have many ideas on how you can be involved and are ready to work individually with each artist and designer to fulfill their dreams and hopes. If you want to get involved, contact us directly (firstname.lastname@example.org) and we can start brainstorming.
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Creative freedom, recognition of cultural IP Rights and fair compensation for Women Artisans.
©Mahila Print 2020