Monday, February 22, 2010

The karen artisans' way of life

One of the first things journalists invariably ask me is why I started work with the hilltribe artisans. The easy answer is that they make beautiful silver work that fit into the label’s design philosophy of organic beauty and asymmetry.

More than that however, is that the hill tribe people come from a rich history of silver-smithing. Historically, they have a huge distrust of paper money, preferring to trade and keep silver as assets instead. The different hilltribe cultures have their women decked out in silver, some more lavishly than others, but the sentiment underlying all the tribes was the same – silver was revered and valued.

As with most indigenous cultures all over the world, it is fast beginning to be replaced by the ubiquitous “modernity”. There is nothing inherently wrong with that of course, because culture is fluid and change is inevitable.

However, there are times where we forget that there is inherent beauty and meaning and utility in the rich diversity of cultures; I was especially moved by Wade Davis’ lecture on TED, whereby he articulated the tragic consequences of the loss of endangered cultures.

I doubt that he is advocating for the forced or artificial preservation of indigenous cultures and neither am I, but rather, in the course of the label’s work, I have hoped and advocated for a more organic development and evolution of culture. Additionally, we have hoped to facilitate their choice to preserve their centuries-held silver-smithing culture while embracing whatever change they may choose to at their own pace.

I visited their villages in early 2009, and perhaps it was telling that I could get no classic National Geographic-type shots of their work and their life. There were young girls who were listening to Mariah Carey on MTV and wore large, rhinestone necklace pendants. The silver work was amidst plastic buckets and beer cans, and myriad mobile ring tones could be heard. In the midst of all of this, the older Karen people were still dressed in their traditional clothes, and looking at all of this with seeming sense of calm and peace – as if Mariah Carey and traditional silver-smithing belonged in the same universe. And it did, or at least globalisation enabled that, for good or bad.

What I liked about what I saw though, was that it was a unique combination of traditional and modern, and this was seemingly determined entirely by them. For example, I was told that a significant amount of the traditional way of life was continued. During agricultural months, silversmithing production would slow down, as everyone would be called to help – client orders be damned ;). The guide, who had lived amongst the hilltribe people for years, told me that the money gotten from silversmithing was used to supplement other material goods, some necessities (like food) and others, modern luxuries – like cable TV, cars (sometimes multiple ones) and rhinestone necklaces. Education was also important.

The main takeaway for me was that there was a choice to how they’d live; they could choose to make a financially viable living through doing traditional silversmithing. This which would allow them to remain in their villages and continue a relatively traditional way of life, or they could choose to leave their villages after school to go to the cities to work in a classically “modern” job.

I have hesitated to write about this for a long time because I didn’t want to come across as romanticising “the noble savage”, nor did I want to applaud economic progress over a less "developed" culture. Because neither is true – the reality is that it’s a wonderfully nuanced integration of the two worlds, for good or for bad, and they have chosen it for themselves.


D said...

This was a really great read. I love that you're tackling some big issues that a lot people get bogged down or buried in. Keep sharing these ideas and I hope you generate lots of discussion that pulls people away from their stringent thinking about these issues. Thanks

*Wink* said...

i think modernization is about balance...that there are different ways of living and we shouldn't look at the world through our experience of what modern living has been. did you get a sense though that more people in the hill tribes would like to get out of the villages and strive for more walkmans and the like? embracing the whole culture of consumerism so to speak...i think the best image in this post is the mariah carey/silver juxtaposition.