TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Plight of the Nomadic Spirit: Roma and Banjara

Vintage Gypsy Postcards available on Vintage Charmings

From time to time, I buy a bunch of Banjara patches from a woman in India. Wild, gaudy, and bright, they are among my favorite indigenous textiles. I love the shisha mirrors, coins, and use of color. Coveted by belly dancers as costume decorations, the patches are also great to use as accents on other accessories like pillows, bags, hats and larger textiles. My interest in an object, style or technique often leads me to dig deeper into the origin. Who made this? What is the cultural context? How is it used? What materials enrich this piece? With indigenous textiles, the story often has a dark side, one of abuse that can point to cultural annihilation. Such is the case with the extended family of the Banjara: the Roma (commonly known as gypsies throughout the world although they find that name pejorative).

The Romani people have long been associated with the Banjara as their languages and customs have similar roots. Yet, only since DNA analysis has become available has their connection been accepted as fact within the academic community. The Banjara have in their oral tradition stories of how part of their people left over one thousand years ago, never to come back. Most historians believe that the diaspora was spread initially through military contracts and then later continued as their descendants continued to move east, on into Europe and then to the New World.

Both the Banjara and the Roma have resisted assimilation into their dominant host societies. Marriage outside of the clan is discouraged and both retain similar dress codes and mores. Although the Roma have largely converted to Christianity, especially Roman Catholicism, in Europe, they have sincretized old beliefs into new ones.

I had read about the connection between the Banjara and the Roma in the past and knew I wanted to write a post about it for this blog. As always, the information is larger and more disturbing than I expected at the outset. The Roma have been persecuted wherever they have been for centuries. Most people know that they were also exterminated during the holocaust, but I was shocked at the numbers. The accepted guess is between 220,000-500,000 although some believe that the number was in the millions. Orders by the Nazis were to shoot them on sight, so who knows how many actually perished... (Roma People) More shocking to me was reading about forced sterilization of women without their consent in Europe as recent as 2005. The United Nations reported in 2000:

"It is a well-known fact that whenever the human rights of a group are trampled upon, the children and women bear the brunt of such abuse. They become, in fact, the victims of double discrimination. There have unfortunately been reports from Roma NGOs of sexual violence and also of forced sterilization suffered by Roma women. Moreover, there is information that young Roma women are lured or forced into prostitution, ending up as subjects of international trafficking. Particular attention should therefore be paid to their situation and national strategies in favour of the Roma should include a specific action plan for women."
Roma People states that much of this is done through State policies:

"In Communist Eastern Europe, Roma experienced assimilation schemes and restrictions of cultural freedom. The Romany language and Romani music were banned from public performance in Bulgaria. In Czechoslovakia, they were labeled a "socially degraded stratum," and Roma women were sterilized as part of a state policy to reduce their population. This policy was implemented with large financial incentives, threats of denying future welfare payments, with misinformation, or after administering drugs (Silverman 1995; Helsinki Watch 1991). An official inquiry from the Czech Republic, resulting in a report (December 2005), concluded that the Communist authorities had practiced an assimilation policy towards Roma, which "included efforts by social services to control the birth rate in the Romani community" and that "the problem of sexual sterilization carried out in the Czech Republic, either with improper motivation or illegally, exists."

The following video is a news report about some of the conditions Roma face in Europe today:

This is all so depressing! When I read and see things like this, I just cannot stomach the kind of world we live in! Yet, part of the reason the Roma are so persecuted is that they also play into the stereotypes that surround them: being filthy, procreating like rabbits, stealing, lying, using the system to have an easier life, etc. I worked in social service in a very poor area in Chicago and have always lived in urban neighborhoods where there are obvious extremes of poverty and wealth. The question always comes down to the chicken and the egg, which came first? Do the Roma exhibit "in-your-face" behavior because of how they are treated or are they treated the way they are because of their "in-your-face" behavior?

I believe that there are people who cannot and refuse to live in the systems which we have created and labeled as "civil". AND, these people include many artists I know! Somehow they survive, but they are always on the fringes, living a bare existence, drinking and smoking too much, mooching off of others when they can, unable to cope with responsibility, but also adding an interesting twist to what we perceive as reality. I'm somewhere between the tamed and the dregs. But, most of us have choices that the Roma, Banjara and others of nomadic traditions do not. In order to fit in, they have to deny the very core of their identity.

If I may speak for the American subconscious of the Roma stereotype, we are not as aggressive as the Europeans. Probably because we have more land, more diversity, and a bad record for how we have treated other minorities such as the Native Americans, Blacks and Chinese who were either here first or helped build this country. Oh, let's not forget the Mexicans!

Oliver Lee Willie Lee and Matthew Wood near Caernarvon,
June 1914
University of Liverpool

We see the Roma, still referred to by the media as gypsies here, as romantic but dangerous, mysterious but unreliable, sexy but scary.... we love the music, the dance, the freedom, but only if it is at arm's length. Johnny Depp in "The Man Who Cried" embodies this perfectly. He oozes sex, is close to his horse, watches everything from a distance, signs his name with an X, and has absolutely no power. We want him, we envy him, but we don't want to be him.

Johnny Depp in "The Man Who Cried"

One of the most interesting Roma personalities for me is that of Sir Richard Burton, not the actor, but the British spy from the late 1800's. I read one of his biographies several years ago and was transfixed! Supposedly, he had Gypsy blood and was thus dark in features. Because of that, he easily assimilated into many different ethnic groups and was sent as a spy by the East India Company, then went on assignment for the Royal Geographical Society (one goal was to find the source of the Nile River), and has such credited translations to his name as the The Book of One Thousand Nights and A Night and the Kama Sutra! Burton was gifted with the ability to learn languages easily, slept with local women wherever he went, was one of the first Westerners to document the woman's perspective on many issues in Central and South Asia (this all while he was married to a controlling English woman!), and felt so strongly about the remedial properties of good sex that he translated and printed the Kama Sutra in his own basement, subversively, of course, in Victorian England. He later became a devout Muslim and was the first Westerner to enter Mecca (in disguise, but unnoticed).

And, the female gypsy is even more alluring and scary. She is controlling, powerful and has control of magical powers. Don't get her mad at you! Our portrayal of the gypsy woman has always been one of romanticism. She knows all and has no heart.

I didn't find any such dark references to the Banjara. Instead, they are recognized mostly for their music, dance and needlework. Interestingly enough, the Banjara and Roma have recognized each other as "family" and speak out together on issues concerning both of them. They have had several joint festivals and their leadership meets regularly. (See Banjara Times)

What to do with an untamed people? The latest strategy proposed for saving endangered large mammals around the globe, oh, this does include insects and birds, involves setting up safe corridors where they are likely to migrate. Would this be the solution for nomadic humans, too? Perhaps corridors between state and national parks where the untamed can roam free? This is a big issue for those of us who love tribal and indigenous textiles, where wool is the material and sheep are its provider. If nomads with their sheep cannot roam, they can no longer produce the material or the lifestyle which grants us such beautiful gifts.

Whatever the solution, my focus is in the arts and it is my hope that both the Banjara and the Romani will find at least part of their voice expressed through their artistic talent. In 2008 the New York Times reported a dismal show given in Bucharest where the Romani were given space in a show at the National Gallery. The report stated that the Romani make up 10% of Hungary's population but suffer 80% unemployment. They described the show more as a flea market than as an up-scale art exhibit. Yet, one important fact was noted in that the Hungarian Guard, a Hungarian right-wing extremist group known for its attacks on the Romani, left the exhibit alone. A small victory?

I often wonder what I would do, how I would be, if I were one of the persecuted. I know that I am a coward at heart, so I could never be one of those French resistance women who biked along with a loaf of bread in their basket, secrets hid in their bras... But, I can see myself as angry and bitter, ready to lash out at those who have mistreated me for so long. I have dogs. I love them and they respond. I see other dogs in the neighborhood who are tied, day in and day out, and they still seem so willing to please, so hopeful for love. Would I be like that? I think not. I think I would be foaming at the mouth, ready to bite, even as I, the coward, peed in my pants.

In the end, we need to find a balance where both the wild and the tame are protected. There has to be room for all of us and it must be in the context of nonviolence and human rights. Maybe some of us have a problem with the "wild", the uneducated, with those who lack an understanding of boundaries and private property. Then, I believe, it begins with us treating them how we would like to be treated. You know.... the Golden Rule.

See my Etsy store for my Banjara offerings.

See Pesha's Gypsy Blog for the Romani perspective on what's going on...

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Harry Belafonte Speaks: Race, Identity and Clarity

I just happened to find this video on youtube and thought it important enough to share. Harry Belafonte has always represented dignity, gentleness and grace to me. I admit that I started listening to the video because I was a bit surprised at his baldness, but then his words, his beautiful ability to see deeply into our history captivated my attention:

An old man now, Belafonte does not come to this deep-sightedness as a sudden revelation, but rather from a long struggle and hard work in the civil rights movement. He was in the middle of it all in the 1960's and continued to advocate not only for equality among blacks and whites, but that all of us might reach our potential as whole people, as a whole nation.

Unafraid to speak out against the Bush Administration, Harry Belafonte engaged himself in debating the deterioration of all of our civil liberties. I grew up with this smooth, soft voice. In him I see a role model who can excel at his gift, be filled with laughter and joy, extend a hand to artists in other nations, live fully and yet find deliberation, meaning and depth in every step of the way. A beautiful man, I count myself blessed to have had him as one of my shining stars in the great night of life!


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

How To Make Bias Tubes For Quilt Top Appliqué by Donna Hussain

The most common use for bias tubes when making quilt tops is for the appliqué of stems in floral bouquets. The tubes can also serve as window sills, chair legs, door frames, vines, fence posts, tree trunks, and lettering. I have also seen the tubes used to appliqué woven baskets, a jungle gym, the reins of a horse, and the rope of a swing. My favorite use of bias tubes is to sew interlacing designs on quilt tops. (See previous post, Interlacing Design for Quilt Borders)

Interlacing Design Using Bias Tubes

Although bias tubes can be purchased at most fabric stores the colors are limited and buyers generally have only one choice of tube width. Sewing your own bias tubes has many advantages. You can choose tube fabric from your stash to match the colors of your quilt. The cost of making tubes at home is minimal, and you have a variety of width options. In this article I describe the construction method I favor when sewing home-made bias tubes.

A bias tube begins with a strip of fabric that is cut on the bias. Why cut on the bias? Because bias strips stretch. In most quilting projects the fabric is cut on the straight of the grain to avoid stretching so that quilt blocks come out square. In bias tube appliqué stretching is an advantage. It allows you to appliqué the tubes in curves and circles without puckering. In addition, the threads on a bias cut do not unravel as they sometimes do when fabric is cut on the straight of the grain. So I favor tubes made from bias strips for straight-line appliqué as well as for curves.

A common method of making a bias tube is folding a strip of fabric with right sides together, then stitching the raw edges together. The sewn tube must then be turned inside out to hide the seam, often a struggle. I recommend an easier process for sewing the tubes, the use of bias bars available at most fabric and quilt stores. Bias bars are available in plastic and metal (your choice) and usually come in packets with at least three bars of different sizes ranging from 1/8” to 2” wide. For most of my projects, I favor the ¼” bar which makes a ¼” tube. The width of the bias bar you use determines the width of the tube you sew.

Metal Bias Bars

To make a bias tube, start with a square of fabric cut on the straight of the grain.

Align the 45 degree angle mark on your plastic ruler with the edge of the fabric. Use a rotary cutter to make a bias cut.

Measuring from the bias-cut edge, cut strips of fabric for use in making bias tubes. The strip width will depend on the width of the bias bar you are planning to use. Here is a helpful rule of thumb:

Strip width = (bias bar width x 2) + ½” (for seam allowances)

For example, if you are using a bias bar ¼” wide, cut 1 inch wide fabric strips.
( ¼” x 2) + ½” = 1”)

You are now ready to sew bias tubes from the fabric strips. Here are directions.

1. Fold each bias strip in half lengthwise, wrong sides together. Press.

2. Raise your sewing machine needle to the up position. Place your bias bar in a folded, pressed fabric strip. Place the bar and strip under the presser foot aligning the fold with the outer edge of the foot. Adjust the needle position to the right of left as necessary to encase the bias bar snuggly. Once the needle position is set remove the bias bar. If you start sewing before the bias bar is removed from the folded fabric you risk breaking your needle.

(If your sewing machine does not have the feature of a movable needle position you can move the folded strip to the right or left of the presser-foot edge until the needle encases the bias bar snugly. Remove the bias bar. As you sew, try to keep the same distance from the fold to the edge of the presser foot.)

3. Sew the length of the folded strip keeping the fold aligned with the presser-foot edge. The use of lightweight thread will reduce seam bulk.

4. Re-insert the bias bar into the sewn tube. Trim the raw edges as close to the stitching as possible (1/8” or less).

5. Twist the seam to the middle of the bias bar. With the bar in the tube, press the seam allowance flat against the tube. Both metal and plastic bias bars can be safely pressed though the metal bars do get hot. Be careful.

6. Remove the bias bar and press the tube again, once with the seam side up, once with the seam side down.

When you are ready to appliqué a bias tube to your quilt top you have several options for hiding the two raw ends of the tubes. You can simply turn under a tube ends and stitch them in place. Or you can hide the end under another appliqué element such as a flower petal. Sometimes ends can be sewn into seams.

If you use bias tubes in innovative ways in your quilting, please leave a comment. I would like to hear from you. If you have photos of your work using bias tubes, leave the link so we can all come visit!

January 19, 2010

A reader asks "When you need an extra long piece of the bias strip & you are sewing them with wrong sides together, how do you connect the pieces to get a longer piece?"

When crossovers needed to hide the introduction of  a new tube segment are far apart (as illustrated below) an extra long bias tube may be necessary in order to sew an interlacing pattern. 

Quilt diagram

This extra long bias tube is made by joining two (or more) bias strips with a seam.  This joining must be prior to pressing the strip in half lengthwise in preparation for making a bias tube. Unfortunately this seam will create bulk that will reduce the tube’s flexibility for sewing curved designs but will work for straight line sewing.  I minimize the bulk by placing the two strips at right angles with right sides together, then machine stitch a diagonal seam.  Trim the seam.

California quilter, Donna Hussain, has exhibited in major quilt shows around the country, authored books, and is a regular contributor to Fiber Focus. Click on her name to see all of her past articles.

The photo shows Donna with her husband, Pascha.


Friday, March 13, 2009

New Arrival: Banjara Patches at 10% Off!!!!

Older Banjara patch

Banjara needlework captured a place in my list of favorites many years ago. Often gaudy, the spontaneous flavor of color, shisha mirror work, and ornaments always speaks to me of joy and happiness. The Banjara are often referred to as the "gypsies" of India and some draw a historical connection with them to the Roma.

Red is often the color of choice for the Banjara.

Wikipedia did not have much info on the Banjara, but here is a bit on their origin:

"Banjaras originally belong to Rajasthan and they were Rajputs who migrated to southern parts of India for trade and agriculture. They settled down in the southern or central areal of the country and slowly loosened contacts with Rajasthan, and their original community.

Over a period of time both the communities separated and they adopted the local culture. The language spoken by Banjaras settled in Yavatmal district of Vidarbha, Maharashtra is an admixture of Hindi,Rajasthani and Marathi. The word "Banjara" itself means " the one who travels and dosent have their own Home" The Banjara are (together with the
Domba) sometimes called the "Gypsies of India".[2]"

I just got a batch of Banjara patches in and finished photographing them. I buy them directly from India from a woman who focuses on Banjara textiles. I thought I would offer them to all of you at 10% off before I start listing them on Etsy and eBay. I bought 40 of them and most are between 3-5" square. You will find them on my website with instructions on how to purchase. Prices range between $7.50 and $17.50, depending on size and workmanship. You won't get the dimensions with this offer as the discount is offered in exchange for my listing time.

Banjara Patch, $12.50 Rayela Art

Surya's Garden is working with Banjara women on an embroidery project. Visit their site for a description of their goals and for more information on the Banjara culture. Here is a snippet from their site which talks about Banjara embroidery:

"Signaling their ethnic membership, all Banjaras embroideries are designed for a nomadic life style and, while featuring geometric, floral and animal motifs used by a majority of India’s village peoples, Banjara embroidery design is strikingly different.

For dancing and ordinary ceremonial wear, women use traditional skirts, shawls and backless blouses generally made of commercial textiles, synthetic yarns and locally available mirrors and metal ornaments. The blouses usually are ornamented on the sleeves and fully embroidered with mirrors across the front. Embroidered flaps with metal ornaments are added to the blouses of married women. The shawls have embroidered borders along the top and bottom edges with a wider more elaborate strip of mirror embroidery at the center top that frames the face. The skirts, hanging low on the hips, are worn with the kodi sadak, a long rope of cowries; the waist bands are generally reinforced with sturdy embroidery, worked on a red quilted or twined ground.

Particularly fine pieces are made for prospective brides.
Banjara women throughout India wear elaborate twisted and braided hairdos that support and display jewelry and textiles; those styles are typical of Rajasthan. The traditional dress is completed with rows of ivory or bone bracelets, nowadays made of white plastic, worn on the arms, with silver bangles, nose gold ring (bhuria), beads or silver coins necklaces."

An older Banjara patch with shisha mirrors and cowrie shells.

I'm also gathering information on the Banjara on my other website, Artezano Links. I have a few videos posted and will add books and other resources over the next week.

Banjara embroidery incorporates dimensional objects like mirrors, coins, shells, beads, ric rac and anything else they can find. Some of the results can be on the gaudy side, but they can never be described as boring! Belly dancers covet these patches to decorate their outfits, but why should they have all the fun? These are great accents on jean jackets, bags, pillows, and incorporated into larger fiber art pieces.

Are you in love yet? Go take a look while they are still available! Again, here is the link. Once I start listing them, they will go quickly. But, I would much rather sell them directly to you, then to go through the hassle of listing each one! So, the 10% off is also a thank you! Enjoy!


Thursday, March 12, 2009

Vintage Victorian Stereograph Cards on Rayela Art

Veiled Arab Woman Stereocard, Late 1800's

A local antique store here in Kentucky recently had a moving sale and I found a bunch of interesting stereo cards. For those of you who are not familiar with them, these cards were popular in the late 1800's and early 1900's until movies replaced them. The card has two images which, when viewed through a stereograph, becomes a 3d image.

"The Eskimo at Home" Stereogram

Conexion has a wonderful article on the history of the stereograph, from which I took the following excerpt:

"Between the 1840s and the 1920s, stereographs served as an important method of entertainment, education, and virtual travel—predecessors to contemporary forms of media such as television and movies. As Burke Long argues, “Mass-produced and relatively cheap, the integrated system of mechanical viewer and photographs became fashionable for classroom pedagogy, tourist mementos, and parlor travel to exotic places of the world” (90).

People viewed stereographs at homes, schools, and churches, gazing at images documenting almost every subject imaginable from
astronomy to zoology. According to stereograph collector and historian William Darrah, stereographs were used to teach millions of American children about geography, natural history, and a range of other subejcts (50). Many in the nineteenth century embraced photography as a medium that, unlike other arts such as painting, presented the “truth” through exact rendering of a scene.

Stereographs seemed even more real and more engaging by simulating three dimensions. Oliver Wendell Holmes called stereographs “sun sculptures” and commented, “All pictures in which perspective and light and shade are properly managed, have more or less the effect of solidity; but by this instrument that effect is so heightened as to produce an appearance of reality which cheats the senses with its seeming truth” (16)."

Hindu Fakirs, India, Antique Stereogram

I've always liked these images and look through them whenever I am in stores which carry them. Rarely do I find anything that I would seriously want to keep. But, these images interested me as they recorded ethnographic information regarding dress and lifestyle of a time gone by. I am always curious to see what kind of language was also used back then, especially regarding people from other countries or native Americans. The example below is of particular importance as it describes the Philippine villagers as insurgents:

Stereograph cards used many different types of viewers, but the most common were hand-held devices, similar to the one pictured below:

Stereoscopes and stereo cards have made a recent come-back. The photo above comes from a do-it-yourself tutorial by Dick Oakes on 3-d photography and there are plenty of other resources online.

Visit my Etsy store to see the cards and view more detailed information. I think they would look great framed!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Karoda's Quilted Poetry: The Design Element of Words

Words on Fabric, Postcard by Karoda

by Karoda (aka Karen R. Davis)

I never thought of myself as a visual artist until a few years ago. My first calling was that of a poet which I embraced at a young age, but after years of dealing with pulmonary disease as an adult, I found myself in a space of not being able to hear the poems inside of me. Hearing is essential to a poet. Instead I started dreaming in images and seeing inspiration in quilt designs in architecture, from reading literature, etc. What I was dreaming and seeing intuitively I knew to be quilts. Much of where I started in 2003, when I jump-started this journey for the 2nd time, felt like learning to walk when I really wanted to just dance (similar to those teen-age years when I wanted to grow up too fast). I often was side tracked by responding to the work of other quilters and what I liked…I wanted to try every technique and not miss any of the fun. I worked small, not wanting to commit in size to a technique that I hadn’t mastered or enjoyed. I still have much of those small studies around wondering what I’m going to do with them.

Words, dye and circular quilting as design elements.

Juanita Yeager, my quilt guru, had planted the idea of doing “series” work and keeping a journal and working a bit larger. I begin to pay attention more closely to my body, thoughts, and emotions and what I responded to with passion. Quilts with text, particularly hand writing, excited me. After seeing the quilts of Angela Moll, it still didn’t strike me to do it in my own work. The turning points started at the end of 2007 when poet Estella Majozo invited me to be a part of the Artist-In-Revolution Poet’s series, a community arts project conducted from her downtown studio. I had the month of December and although it had been many, many years since I did a public reading, I didn’t have any new work to share and was somewhat reluctant, but that experience showed itself to be the fire I needed to begin my second series work, aptly named Poetry Series. I immediately started writing my poems onto my hand dyed cloth in hues of red, green, yellow. The colours where chosen to align with the African American cultural flag except for the yellow which is the colour for spirit based on the flag Rastafarians made world famous. These colours communicate vibrancy and life to me. Drawing upon my culture and heritage, making the collective meaningful in a well integrated way personally, has been a preoccupation since my early teen years and something I committed to developing as I matured and this is being interjected to what I do visually.

Superimposing layers of dye and letters, with an applique focal point.

I wanted this series to come from the deepest part of my interior and in order to make sure I stay in that space, I answer questions I pose to myself around why and what for each step in the process for The Poetry Series. Allowing some words to show through and others not, I ask myself why and what does it mean to me…when stamping on the circles, I repeat the questions, and so on for the following layers. I know that it will never be possible for the viewer to know all of my answers or most of them, but that is not why I do it. I have to answer the questions as a way of getting and staying in the interior space I want these quilts to emerge out of.

"Answer the questions..." Words exploring design.

The second fire for The Poetry Series came while attending a workshop with Leslie Morgan and Claire Benn in Ohio where I learned how to print and write using dye paints and how to evaluate my work to achieve more complexity in the layers I put on my fabrics. The third fire came when I took a very basic intro class in casual lettering with Laurie Doctor. In the workshop with Morgan/Benn I was working with freedom and a wide range of motion in writing and with Doctor it was more about focus and control...opposite skills that provide me a wider range in selecting how to place my poems on the cloth.

Words in the background, giving form to pattern.

My daughter asked me what was the point of writing for it not to be legible. I’m not interested in the poem being completely legible or read in its entirety. For me, that would be a book. I’m interesting in my handwriting being used as an original design element and the viewer seeing the writing as a clue for the quilt’s foundation and as part of the mystery in it. Handwriting is so personal. People can identify you by it. Handwriting is a very intimate and experts in the field can infer personality traits by examining an individual’s handwritten marks.

"Handwriting is very intimate."

Also, the making of these quilts is the embodiment of Sankofa, a concept that translates into knowing where you’ve been in order to progress forward. As I read and re-write my poem onto fabric, it becomes an act of breaking open the seal on my present and future in merging the literary and the visual.

Word and quilting swirl.

So far, I have 3 studies and one completed quilt and two laying on the cutting table that need a binding, and fabrics on the design wall being auditioned for the next one. While working on this series, I’ve concluded that constructing poems and constructing quilts is very similar…weighing the pauses, periods, and words in a poem, its rhythm and texture, and evaluating the effectiveness and intent of a poem is no different from weighing the hues and values of colour, the spaces, shapes and lines, the rhythm and texture, and the effectiveness and intent of a quilt. I don’t know or want to know where this will lead, but I know I’m committed to writing on my cloth and using my poems as a foundation for a long time to come because it feels like the me I love the most.

Bringing the elements together in color and quilting.

***the quilts in the Poetry Series can be viewed at my website and I have documented my journey in my blog.

Find more photos like this on Fiber Focus

Karoda has been an active member in our Fiber Focus Group. Clicking on her slide show will take you to her page there.


Friday, March 6, 2009

Iran: Oil, Textiles, Fear and Some Humor

Mamqan Lotus Embroidery, 7 Zones

Someone I love dearly believes that Iran will nuke the US in the near future. This person is educated, well traveled and a white collar, middle class American. How does one respond to such fears? The media here has successfully created such a dark, foreboding picture of Iran that it's hard to inject some optimism into those who have swallowed the doom pill. I believe that it's much more likely that the US will be the agent of destruction somewhere, sometime, although I am hopeful that an Obama era will be remembered as one of peace.

I believe that fear of a people, all lumped into one pot, comes from lack of contact. My entry into cultures that I don't know is usually through their crafts, especially textiles. That common language of technique, color, texture, function, materials along with the challenges all artisans and artists face in marketing their work makes it easier to connect. It opens new doors that lead to larger social issues and eventually transforms the strange and alien into the familiar.

Most people think of Iran in terms of how it plays the oil game. And, most people will also, at least vaguely, know that some beautiful carpets have come out of this region. In fact, carpets and textile production are third to oil in Iran's exports. Nuts are second. (No pun intended!)

A National Geographic photo of Iranian women weaving a carpet.
Posted by Tehran Times.

Iranica.com has an excellent article that documents the history of textile production in Iran:

"Although Iran’s wool production is large, most of its output is used by the handmade carpet industry, and Iran imports wool for the manufacture of worsted wool fabrics. Iran has 102 commercial wool-spinning mills that produce 24,000 tons of wool yarn each year; its cottage industry produces an equal quantity. Handmade carpets are, next to pistachios, Iran’s most important non-oil export items. Between 1998 and 1999, Iran exported handmade carpets with a value of US $570 million. However, in recent years, Iran’s exports of hand-woven carpets have declined due to fierce competition from other countries."

Clearly, both industrial and handmade production serve important roles for the textile industry in Iran. So important that the Kohan Journal reported in 2007 that the industry deserves enough to compete with oil for attention:

"The Islamic Republic of Iran’s rich petroleum resources — discovered in the Khuzestan province in 1908 — along with its natural gas reserves, have undoubtedly played a prominent role in the economy of that Middle Eastern country. Oil now accounts for 70 percent of all export revenues for the country, which possesses about 10 percent of the world’s crude oil reserves and is a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. However, Iran’s government has shifted its attention away from oil exports in recent decades and focused instead on the development of other sources of value-added products, such as the textile industry."

Although the carpet industry generally gets most of the attention, Iran has a rich history in other craft areas as well. The Persian empire was known for its sculptures, carvings, metal work, and other needle arts. Many of those skills continue to flourish, although much diminished from times past. Even in this diminished form, they achieve honors. In 2008, Isfahan, an area known for its crafts in Iran, received the Unesco Award for Excellence:

"The four key criteria for judging products were excellence, authenticity, innovation and marketability. Besides, conditions of 'respect for the environment in materials and production techniques' and 'social responsibility' were not ignored."

Iran's anti-Western leadership makes it difficult for groups who would like to work with these artisans. Thousands of artisans find employment through their skills. Iran Daily reports that there are currently over 300 Cooperatives in Kermanshah:

"Over 327 women-run cooperative companies are active across Kermanshah province, IRNA reported.

Managing director of Kermanshah Women’s Cooperative Department said over 11,000 people are actively involved in provincial cooperatives. “The companies have created job opportunities for 5,600 women by now,“ Aziz Golrokhsari noted.

“Kermanshah’s women-run cooperatives are engaged in conversion industries, production and agriculture units, textile factories, handicrafts and carpet weaving,“ the official stated.
According to Golrokhsari, 88 cooperatives have been established during the past eleven months with 2,700 members and 6 billion rials worth of investment. He concluded that some 41 billion rials in credits had been allocated to the provincial cooperative companies in the current year (ending March 20).

Local women do embroidery in Sistan-Baluchestan province. (Photo by Asghar Azaddel)

Two organizations who have engaged in a long term relationship with some of these artisans carry some of the beautiful embroidery made around Mamqan. Both 7 Zones and Faces of Fair Trade operate under fair trade principles. 7 Zones was started by an Iranian architect and is a member of Faces of Fair Trade.

Those of us who love textiles and the cultures they represent are really a minority, a niche... We have no real impact on larger social values, on the messages of fear that circulate out there. A counter message has to come from other places: from Iranians themselves through their literature, their blogs, magazines, magazines and any other platform they can get. I can't tell my beloved that this fear he has is as obscure as the fear we might have of all the nuts in our own backyard... The urge to blow each other up is nurtured by our violence in our own culture, our own media, so why bother being afraid of the violence that is alive somewhere else? Instead, how about if we do a little laughing together?

Yes, humor is a powerful tool for breaking down these barriers. I think my friend would listen and enjoy these ambassadors of peace, the Axis of Evil, and especially, with this focus on Iran, Maz Jobrani. My friend doesn't read my blog, so this if for you, the reader:

Laughter sure can heal and enlighten. It makes fear small. But, Jobrani uses his humor in all seriousness, for he knows to the core this fear of the other can do. Al Jazeera English has an excellent interview on their show One on One. It's in two parts, but goes quickly:

Enjoy the beauty of Iran, laugh a little with Maz Jobrani, and if you are afraid of a people, study them a bit and see if that fear changes shape. Make that fear your clay and sculpt into something wonderful!


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