Book review The Necessity of Craft: Development and Women's Craft Practice in the Asian Pacific Region Edited by Lorna Kaino University of Western Australia Press 1995 RRP $24.95
The Necessity of Craft is an edited volume of twelve papers which discusses women's craft practice in the Asia-Pacific region with respect to social change and development. The volume was occasioned by an exhibition of women's crafts held at the United Nations Fourth Conference of Women in Beijing. A well-produced paperback illustrated with black and white photos, the book surveys a broad range of women's crafts in the region. Two papers in the volume deal with the Pacific, other articles deal with topics as diverse as Chinese dough sculptures and Afghan carpet-making.
Lorna Kaino purposefully includes among her authors a number of women new to academic publishing, providing a diversity of approach to the topic. However, as she comments in her introduction, the volume as a whole looks at women's craft production through the lens of two issues, the status of women and commodification (the production of objects for sale to people outside the community). In considering these issues the book also considers the classification 'craft'. Kaino comments on this in the book's very title, which is a pun on Ernst Fisher's The necessity of art. Many of the objects which Asian and Pacific women make are relegated by western observers to the second class status attributed to craft; as a result their value to people who make and use them is often overlooked. In giving the collection this title Kaino intentionally rejects the 'subordination of craft'; rather she declares her interest in "the actual social conditions in which women produce craft" [p.viii].
In addressing the two issues which are the focus of the collection, the status of women and commodification, the book deals front-on with the conflict between western and non-western ways of seeing the world. This poses problems of perception with respect to the status of women. For example for Kaino, indigenous practices which restrict women, such as restrictions which bar pregnant and menstruating women from involvement in dye production in Luzon, Philippines, 'clearly reinforce women's subordinate status' [p.xi]. From a Luzon perspective, however, such restrictions may show a proper care and concern both for women's products and also for the women themselves. As Alice Guillermo comments in her article on the production of textiles in the Philippines, weaving has been a source of power and pride for women [p.53]. Western perspectives of what constitutes subordinate status may not be shared by Asian and Pacific women.
It is not simply a matter of two different perspectives, however. As the world is more and more influenced by western thought and practice, people in Asia and the Pacific are themselves subscribing more and more to western ideas and influences. The struggle to adapt to economic pressures ultimately deriving from the global economy is often destructive of local ways of thinking and behaving. The commodification of craft is an outcome of such pressures and it is an issue which concerns nearly all the authors in this volume, either because they seek to achieve this desirable economic end, as Soejatni and Sulikanti Agusni do in their account of West Javanese cooperatives, or because they observe that the effect of commodification is a loss of 'old rituals and meanings' [p. 155] as Olivia Tay does in discussing the making of kueh (cakes) in Singapore. Kaino's approach is to raise questions about the effects of commodifying women's crafts, rather than to attempt to answer them.
The two articles directly concerning the Pacific are Phyllis Herda's discussion of women's production of wealth items in Tonga and Penelope Schoeffel's wide-ranging survey Craft: prestige goods and women's roles in the Pacific. Herda points out that in Tonga, fabrics are wealth items, so much so that women are said to produce what one values, while men's labour is seen as work. Here the irrelevance of western ideas about art and craft becomes clear. In Tonga at least, women's fabrics are not craft to be disregarded, but valuables to be preserved, above the products of men.
Schoeffel also emphasises women's production of textiles, going so far as to make a broad distinction between women's production of 'soft' objects, such a ornaments, clothing and other fabrics, and men's production of 'hard' objects of wood and stone, such as carved figures, weapons, canoes and so on, another formulation of the conclusions that the whole volume suggests. She remarks that "the overall trend of economic change ... since contact with the outside world, has been the steady erosion of Pacific women's craft production in terms of the cultural value attached to the goods, the prestige of the producer, and the quality and diversity of the goods produced" [p.2]. The difficulty all the authors consider is how these skills and their significance can be preserved, but there are no easy answers.