Part I: Traditions
Fatiha Ait Ouagadir of Cooperative Tifawin, just before becoming an artisan leader, sat in Anou’s office with an unusual request: use colored pencils to sketch out a new idea for a rug. Fatiha sat in her chair struggling to put a pencil to paper. She eventually sketched a design she had woven many times before. When pressed to create something new or simply rearrange the design she had sketched, she struggled more and eventually gave up. It just wasn’t possible, she said.
Fatiha’s story points to the widely held idea that artisans are not designers. Research artisan businesses and you’ll see an economy that embodies this. It may be easy to conclude that artisans can’t design because they’re not capable, but it is actually the result something much more systemic.
Most businesses design products and then have artisans make the product. Rarely, if ever, are artisans truly consulted on design work. Generally, a Moroccan artisan’s input goes only as far as a designer gaining inspiration from the artisan’s culture and traditions. Outside designers then drive innovation and change by refreshing, revitalizing or incorporating a western twist on artisan traditions. The language of innovation and change is often used to describe the outside designer, but rarely the Moroccan artisan. This is because if artisans were to drive change, the traditions they represent might be lost forever. Instead of change and progress, the language that surrounds artisans focuses more on preservation and tradition.
The artisan sector as a whole seems to have accepted all of this as a natural symbiosis between a designer and artisan. Yet this relationship is structurally flawed. The reason is that the artisan and designer are not equal in today’s economy. The designer, who normally controls market access, has full control over the design and can dip into an artisan’s tradition as much or as little as she/he wants.
The less obvious reasons can be uncovered by asking what traditions are artisans expected to preserve? As Ashley Miller, a PhD candidate of art history at the University of Michigan writes in Negotiating Design, “We commonly imagine tradition as a fixed, unchanging set of practices or beliefs; it is something that can be contained, something already complete.” But the reality is many traditions, as Ashley goes on to write, may appear to be timeless but in fact can be dated to a specific time not that long ago. A great example is this rug, which is commonly sold as a vintage, tribal Berber rug, when in fact it is commonly known amongst artisans that it was first designed by a European artist in the 1990’s.
In fact, it is not difficult to argue that most traditional Moroccan designs that many gain their inspiration from aren’t even firmly rooted in the history and culture of Moroccan artisans. In 1914, the French Protectorate initiated a massive campaign via what was called the Native Arts Service to revitalize Morocco’s craft industries. Through their efforts, Moroccan artisans produced work that largely embodied a French colonial notion of traditional Moroccan craft. Even to this day, revered publications on Moroccan design follow the language and structure that the French Protectorate created to preserve what was ultimately their perspective of Moroccan craft and tradition.
If we continue to believe that the purpose of the artisan community of Morocco exists to preserve tradition, then we have to ask if what they are expected to preserve is truly theirs. And if we continue with the belief that artisans can’t design, how will artisans ever be able to drive the progress of their own traditions and craft? If we accept that artisans can’t design then we must accept the incorrect museumification of artisan craft through the sale of vintage products, which omits today’s artisans from the economy completely.
This deeply matters to Anou. Our vision is to create a growing, vibrant, inclusive community of all Moroccan artisans. How can a community possibly grow if it is restricted to a fixed idea of tradition and the creativity and ideas of others? You only need so many artisans to recreate what exists. And in an increasingly mechanized world, it’s not hard for some to question whether artisans are needed at all. In this context, it is unsurprising that the number of Moroccan artisans has decreased from 1.2 million to 400,000 in a very short period of time.
For us at Anou, it’s a false question to ask if artisans like Fatiha are capable of design or if they even should. Rather, Fatiha represents the actual questions that must be answered: How can an economy be created that is capable of unlocking the creative potential and evolving traditions of Moroccan artisans? This is the heart of our vision in creating the future of artisan design in Morocco.
Part II: Artisans, Designers & Customers: At the Center of Innovation
Part III: Anou’s Collaboration Tool