All peoples, races, and nations have their stories to tell. Oftentimes textiles, like any art form, are the keepers of stories that, with some coaxing and diplomacy, have much to share. For example, textiles of yesteryear and yester-place such as a carpet or a piece of lace are able to reveal details of the environment, society, and even the seamstress’ or weaver’s station in life. Now take the idea of tribal, or Orientalist, art and the myriad ways it’s knitted into today’s “ethnic” styles of fashion and décor.
To begin, let’s establish Orientalism within the context of art. Orientalism is a 1900s western construct of the Levantine world (in today’s parlance, the Near East, Middle East and North Africa), which developed as European and American artists, scholars, explorers and traders traversed the regions bordering the Mediterranean Sea. These western travelers conjured up an exotic vision of Levantine aesthetics. As visitors in the Levantine lands, they experienced (what felt to them) an aura of exotica; and it was beguilingly just beyond their reach. Their concept of Orientalism, however, was able to bring the exotic within reach—if only through imitation and borrowing, or exploitation and manipulation. Removed from traditional or religious contexts, Orientalist design, ornamentation, textiles, and works of art were looked upon as mysterious and glamorous.
The Protestant West in particular had a push-pull relationship with its contrived notion of Orientalism—not only in arts and culture, but in politics and economics. We’ll save the political discussion for another time. But suffice it to say that these western explorers, scholars, traders and diplomats discovered a convenient “other” over which they lorded a certain superiority. While simultaneously achieving justification for their prejudices toward the Levantine peoples, they also developed a fascination with their arts and culture. Despite an Occidental mindset of a superiority that verged on oppression, their conception of Orientalism, nonetheless, was one of mystery and allure.
Increasing interaction between the Orient and Occident resulted in a juxtaposition of Orientalist indigenous craft and artistry amongst western culture. Imprinted with their experience of “foreignness,” these Occidental travellers returned home to weave their impressions, or what they thought they knew of the Levant, into their own societies. Imagery of such was appropriated to European and American fashion, decorative arts, pop culture and film; popular consumerism in the early 1900s perpetuated the notion of an exotic and erotic Orient. Western-styled Orientalism eventually met and mingled with other 19th century artistic movements such as Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts; thus, lending an air of esoterica to the Occident. In other words, their plainer, Calvinist sensibilities of design and fashion got a bit spicier and more dramatic.
How is this relevant to artistry and handmade commerce today?
Largely due to their durability, textiles have survived centuries, offering themselves as useful not only in an ethnographic or historical context, but in affecting modern creations. The old soul of the cradle of civilization is called forth and reimagined via contemporary tastes, whether through haute couture or in individual handcrafts.
Fashion-forward westerners past and present remain fascinated with ethnic textiles; and each subsequent generation interprets them anew. Orientalist (or to be more politically correct, Near and Middle Eastern) design is consistently recognizable, and often prevalent in the current world of design. Brilliant colors and patterns, sumptuous textures, and opulent fabrics are reminiscent of faraway lands that, even in the age of globetrotting, still feel sexy and mysterious.
Economies of culture
While the migration and mixing of cultures worldwide has, at times, equaled loss of a textile’s or artwork’s fundamental meaning, the work is still of value, as evidenced in the 21st century stakes claimed by folk arts and crafts. Museums and antique collectors aside, collectives of commerce nowadays such as Etsy.com, community-based business cooperatives and peer groups (a la Grameen model, for instance) serve as revivalists for handmade arts. Such communities begin with a renewed appreciation for artistic beauty, quality, the spirit of the craftsperson, and the ever-popular buzz word, local. Since Industrialization and hyper-capitalism, we’ve disconnected from the makers and producers. We generally have no idea from where our products come. Handmade commerce allows consumers to know and interact with the source of their purchase, thereby lending a degree of greater consciousness in choice and spending, and better aligned with a more authentic sense of society.
Globalization as a way back to the village
As tribal goes global, curiosity and interesting discourse are generated. Cultural gaps can be bridged through objects of beauty and craft. Take, for example, the textiles and artistry of displaced peoples such as the Palestinians and Armenians.
Their respective Diasporas and host nations, and the world beyond become a marketplace for their wares, as well as means for creating awareness around their circumstances. Commerce then becomes a vehicle for connection to ancient roots, the preservation of cultural heritage, and a method of meaningful communication. The Invisible Hand continues to demand handcrafts and object d’art from the Orientalist/Near and Middle Eastern traditions; and to the degree that non-western handcrafts wind up in the western handmade market, globalization is a supportive, rather than exploitative, vector.
The Internet, as well as local initiatives have reformulated the tribe and village. Once again artists and artisans are able to interface with their patrons. The specialness of art and craft is valued for its appearance as much as for it utility. Artists are returning to the “village” to make their living and to employ a more sustainable way of doing business.
By connecting the traditions of a tribe, village or region to the world beyond, we manage to sidestep some models of business that have proven to be our downfall.
Communicating directly with craftspersons and artists is a way of growing a community. It is coalition-building—the promotion of interdependence and self-reliance all at once.
Mischa Geracoulis is an interviewer, essayist, reviewer, and editor in Los Angeles and frequently writes on Greek and Armenian cultures. With a background in political and social sciences of the Near and Middle East, her body of work reflects issues of identity, exile, and the multifaceted human condition.