Sunday, November 27, 2011

Material Gems of the Third World

    In an earlier blog, I wrote about how I have surrounded myself with memories of my travels in the form of artifacts- paintings, masks, carvings, and other travel mementos. For me the purpose of collecting such items is to remind myself where we have been and to revive memories of our travel experiences. A collector views such items differently however. They are judged by their intrinsic worth. There are wonderful works of art created in one place in the world only that are valuable for the labored and highly aesthetic craftsmanship that they require as well as the hours and energy and beauty that they represent. Such items can be expensive, even for Westerners, although they are surely not as accessible nor as reasonably priced anywhere else in the world other than the locale of their creation. Collecting can be a sidelight of travel for those with an interest in art or the possession of objects that no one else has. I would personally find my travel distracted by seeking out unique objects to place on my walls or my shelves in part because I would not want to spend the time shopping that this would require or endure the worry about getting them home intact and undamaged. Yet I understand people's desire to bring home objects of great beauty or unique design. For that reason, I suggest here a few places where unusual and talented workmen labor (usually at very low wages) to create rare objects. I encourage the shoppers among us to make sure that these artisans receive a fair wage for their efforts. Cooperatives where such objects are sold tend to have better quality merchandise and to pay the artists more equitably.

     Third World craftsmen are quite aware of the existence of collectors who visit their area. They often create rough and inexact replicas of the products of their culture to dupe buyers. Collectors need to become rather expert in evaluating the crafts they are interested in if they are shopping for value. As a person who collects masks for memories rather than show, I have no need to be an expert, yet I find that many places feature tourist masks worth little which represent only the desire of Westerners to bring them home. If you don't care about this or just want them to decorate a wall, no problem. If you prefer authenticity and talent, you have to be careful. Choosing from hundreds of inferior masks in the markets of Chichicastenango or Abidjan does not a positive memory make. Finding a mask maker in a little town in Borneo or Mexico who has just created a piece of work for an upcoming ceremony that has meaning for him and is unlike any other you have seen is exciting and meaningful. By the way, if you share my interest in masks and their place in cultures, you would not be surprised to know that West Africa offers the most extensive array of choices and the greatest variety of materials and forms. Papua New Guinea is next, followed by Mexico. Well-crafted masks may also be found on the islands of Indonesia, the specialty stores of India or Nepal, or anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa.
      There are many other artistic creations that are specific to certain places. The most varied of these are oriental rugs but information about the qualities that make a particular one valuable is definitely required so the collector needs to become a virtual expert to make a wise selection. Southern and central Asia are the most bountiful and productive places to shop for a rug with Turkey following closely behind. My favorites are Iranian tribal rugs but Indian silk rugs, the beautiful woolen pieces from southern China and Tibet and the intricate and delicate creations from Pakistan and the surrounding area are also lovely to choose from.

      One collector's item is even more convenient and more accessible than rugs or masks- woven goods. Weaving is a major craft in many countries and the variety of techniques enables the collector to specialize and find spectacular pieces of work in out of the way places. One example of this was my discovery on the island of Lombok of two distinct styles of weaving which were specialties of that area although they may be found in a few nearby cultural areas as well. The first was Songket Cloth, a style of weaving with silk or cotton woven by interlacing the cloth with threads of gold or silver. These pieces are generally used for fancy dress in places like Sumatra and Bali and Lombok and can be shimmeringly lovely. There is sufficient variety among them to make for a impressive collection. In the same area of the world, Ikat Cloth, a cotton based product which is colored by waxing part of the cloth before dipping it into colored liquid to make the pattern is one of the artistic products. It is a very intricate process which lends itself to producing unique and often very valuable and detailed examples. But fine woven goods can be procured all over the planet. From the market town of Tarabuco, Bolivia to the hill villages of Vietnam and Thailand and Laos, there are outstanding examples of finely woven materials, each style unique and interesting. I even discovered lovely cloths in Burma made by weaving a strand extracted from inside the lotus flower stem in the same way one would work with silk. The degree of care needed for this process is extraordinary.

     Another fine craft is lacquerware; the choice is between Vietnam and Burma. Both places feature very finely painted, detailed examples of this craft. Another place to obtain exceptional examples of fine lacquer pieces is Kashmir where papier mache is molded onto a light wood frame and incredible miniature painting is done by craftsmen using a rat's tail and gold paint to decorate their elaborate creations. And of course there is fine art as well which may be found anywhere by luck. For well done Batiks, East and West Africa and and Southeast Asia are the places to buy. It is good to remember that many of these crafts, while they may be rewarding to collect and show, are the products of families handing designs down from generation to generation for countless years. That is especially true for rugs. The collector is bringing home perhaps one or two hundred years  of accumulated experimentation and skill. That is valuable in and of itself.

 Bronze Tribal Figures from India

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