• Program book

Cloth, Culture and Development Program

Report of: 


Sunday, 24 August 2014 to Monday, 25 August 2014


At the Meeting Room of Social Research Institute, Chiang Mai University Chiang Mai

At the Roundtable Cloth, Culture and Development we explore the use of culture in articulations of artisanal cloth (and its production) in Asia. Representations of artisans as repositories of cultural ingenuity, together with their own acquiescence to this archetypal status, illuminates dominant national and global ideologies impinging upon lives of artisanal producers. There is also the problem of the heightened marginalization of Third World artisans under the impact of economic globalization and its attendant commodification of culture. Competition from mass produced craft goods, shifting patterns of consumption and taste, and global standards and policies for trade protection and intellectual property are forcing artisanal producers to lead “precarious” lives in a rapidly changing world. Most recently the attention being given to places of artisanal production via global bodies like the UNESCO and WTO have invigorated debates pertaining to re-articulations of culture among countries of the South. The drive for gaining certification from global bodies like the UNESCO for the protection of nation’s cultural “intangible” (artisanal) heritage, as in the example of Indonesia for Batik textiles, and the national-level Geographical Indications (GI) label for the Kanchipuram sari by the state government of Tamil Nadu in south India, are cases in point.

Accommodation of artisans within the neatly defined sphere of modern political engagement and state dispensation – the community, further exacerbates their vulnerability. Refracted through the lens of a non-modern conception of community - “traditional” and “self-contained”, artisanal producers are seen by the state to be spatially and temporally out of sync with progress and change. The continued representation of community as the site of a timeless sphere of culture, local knowledge and subsistence economy in such discourses has only deepened the modernist denial of on-going constructions of community together with their politics and economics beyond national borders (Walker, 2009). Often reinforced in state-led implementations of development and preservation provisions, such depictions of artisanal producers rarely take cognizance of the fact that notions of what constitutes “culture” itself could be the basis of their domination (Herzfeld, 2010).

Authorised notions of cultural heritage (Smith, 2006) – those that privilege autochthony, place, possession and aesthetic judgment on the international stage of civilizational achievement, in fact pervade popular beliefs, expert opinions and state-led policies and practices, namely trade, design, development and museology, pertaining to artisanal products world-wide. The need to draw firm cultural and spatial boundaries between groups as well as their spatialisation within colonial, postcolonial (and crypto-colonial) cartographies of craft only serves to reinforce their alleged naturalness as markers of cultural difference (Kawlra, 2014). Significantly, it obscures the fact that artisanal producers inhabit historically contingent everyday lives imbricated within dominant narratives of culture and development.