Peace by Piece

Crafts-entrepreneurs as Peace Makers

What a shock to read last week the catastrophic subject header on my morning e-mail news update: “Kyrgyz leader: Up to 2,000 dead”. The ethnic violence that pitted Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the Ferghana Valley town of Osh had been raging for several days, but who could have imagined such a devastating death toll - ten times larger than the official one released just hours before.

I felt deep shame knowing that the world would once again learn about Kyrgyzstan and the Central Asian region as a place shaded in violence, fear, and catastrophe. When would the world hear the stories that we at Craftspring know so deeply—stories of joy, of committed entrepreneurship, of beautiful femininity, of community, creativity, faith, and fun?

The need to counter traditional Western (mis)conceptions of Central Asia as a war-torn, backward and dangerous region—and to share the beauty, amazing artisanal traditions, and incredible business acumen of Central Asian craftsmen and women—are some of the key motivations that led me to start Craftspring last year, and recently build a small and fantastic team of designers and business-gurus.

We want to surprise people with our stories of color, entrepreneurship, and creativity. We are convinced that by bringing the beautiful love-made products of our collaboration with Central Asian artisans to the West, we can build understanding, knowledge, and exchange . . . perhaps even peace.

Craftspring’s mission is to support exceptional craftsmen and women from Central Asia who are looking to expand their sales and consumer base beyond the Central Asian region. We partner with interested craftspeople and their workshops to help design and develop products, which we then help to sell in retail outlets in both Europe and North America. By linking the artisans of Central Asia to European and North American consumers we hope to tap into the opportunities of our global economy, and provide key Central Asian traditions with the markets they need to stay afloat, survive, and even expand.

We like to use the word “bad-ass” because we think that our project is so exciting—making beautiful products and sharing stories, color and texture! For our first collection—the Nomad Collection—the varied items (from throws to toys all made from sustainable textiles) are entirely designed and created in Kyrgyzstani workshops founded and run by an amazing group of women entrepreneurs.

The quality and “soul” of our products are at the center of our business model. We want to make long-lasting items, whose beauty embodies a sustainable and wholesome production process. So we partner with workshops anchored in their communities that source their production inputs locally, employ local men and women, provide employees with fair-wages, and comfortable working conditions. This means we work with some of the most forward-thinking community leaders and artisans—people committed to not only preserving their traditional crafts, but also determined to build a strong and stable future for their communities. The caliber of the women we team with inspires and keeps us on our toes!

Take Gulnara, for example. Gulnara is a single mom who also takes care of her aging mother. She has been running a crafts NGO for the past several years, through which she works with underprivileged or at-risk rural women, to design and produce felt crafts. Gulnara is a trained psychiatrist, and also works as a social worker in a local Bishkek-based emergency call-center for battered women. Her NGO not only provides employment for dozens of young women, but her presence in her home-based studio ensures that everyone receives support and good advice. Every piece crafted is like a mini-therapy. (Peace by Piece, you could say). I first met Gulnara in 2007, when I was conducting research on crafts in Kyrgyzstan. In 2009, Craftspring partnered with her to produce two ornaments for Anthropologie’s Christmas ornament line-up.

We think that Gulnara’s ornaments clearly reflect the collaborative environment, partnership, community, and respect, as well as the sunshine, mountain-air, soul, care, and joy that go into making each of her objects. And, that’s the kind of product Craftspring wants to make: one where you can see and feel the wholesome and beautiful process of its creation, and get a sense for the beauty and joy of another place.

Craftspring’s next collection—Oasis—consists of all-natural handmade wooden combs and brushes created by one of the last Shaona (wooden comb) makers in Tajikistan. Without access to a socially conscious consumer base—committed to the slow, traditional, and beautiful creative processes of master craftsmen—this key and ancient Shaona craft is on the brink of disappearing. The Craftspring team fell in love with Sadik’s Shaona combs—and we are working hard to find a steady and sustainable outlet for his soulful wooden combs.
 
Our latest adventure is building up our sales network and retail partnerships. This fall Craftspring will launch our online store; we will also participate in Christmas Fairs around New York City and Brooklyn, and we are introducing our home décor products in design stores around the city too. So if you’re in the New York area this November and December—come say hello, or visit our partner stores! And if you have any ideas or suggestions, we’d love to hear from you. We look forward to being in touch!
 
Anne-Laure Py is the founder and director of Central Asian Craftspring. She lives in Beijing, China and travels often to Central Asia. To learn more about Craftspring, please visit, www.cacraftspring.com .

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