In a world grappling with chronic dilemmas of over population, poverty and climate change, meaningful strategy is needed to address weird problems that come as part and parcel of global citizenship. The 2022 cataclysmic floods in Pakistan is a deafening reality where issues relating to basic survival, food security and livelihood of sizeable rural and urban population needs urgent attention. Among many who lost their lifetime earnings and valuable possessions, a certain demographic struggles to survive already challenged tradition of artisan knowledge and craft heritage of the country.
Patronage of handicraft and cottage industry by governing bodies and legislative organisations has proved to be effective in many countries. On one hand where it provides livelihood opportunity to marginalised communities, it also ensures survival of tangible and intangible heritage by safeguarding cultural practices through endorsements facilitated by government, NGOs and industry.
Designers have played a pivotal role by collaborating with tradition bearers of a particular craft in designing sellable products using skilled craftsmen. This two way relationship is also critical for artisans in prototyping new ideas for contemporary markets. One local story of such collaboration comes from Lahore where a small business ‘Bellisimo Crafts’ has consciously intervened with artisan clusters in south Punjab and Sindh. With its humble beginnings in 2017, the organisation has grown from a hobby craft activity to a purposeful mission with following in Pakistan and its diaspora in North America . The informal birth could perhaps be traced back even further when co-founders Salman and Isbah then young students had developed an ardent association with an indigenous lifestyle during their travels in South Asia.
Interestingly they both separately engaged in craft related projects as part of their undergraduate careers at National College of Arts Lahore.
The unfortunate absence of governing council or legislative bodies to ensure rights of crafts and traditional knowledge created room for exploitation and shameless appropriation in the country. Their struggle to develop an ethically informed model of business practice assisted them in navigating already existing suitable existing structures in other south and East Asian countries. Over time they improvised and developed a model of their own where artisan- designer collaboration resulted in production of unique culturally inspired designs. Their brainchild Bellisimo Crafts made its mark by becoming part of international festivals, markets and craft exhibitions. In 2019, they collaborated with IAC Sanjhok Collective and showcased contemporary hand crafted apparels at public events in Austin (Texas, US). Two years forward, the brand formally diversified into kids clothing and home accessories range.
Currently the company employs skilled workforce including women artisan from Multan, Bahawalpur, Bhit Shah and Tharparkar regions. Master artisans of block printing, tie dye, embroidery, Kashikari and Naqashi crafts create authentic handmade products with assistance of skilled team at their workshops. This has invoked soul in concepts developed by designers and manifested through co-created everyday use products.
They have curated experiences of cultural learning in Pakistan and United States through interactive workshops, lectures, exhibitions and hand on experiences. Their participation at international forums such as ATX+Pak Fashion Forward initiative, University of Texas, Austin Fashion Incubator, Asian American Resource Center, Pop Up Shop South Asia etc has helped in providing insights into artisans’ lives and their important role in sustaining heritage of our country.
Recently Bellisimo Crafts participated at Haryali Entrepreneurs market platform earlier this month. The product line specifically designed for event was result of collaboration between inhouse designers, embroiderers, Kashigars and Naqashi artists. Art direction by co-founders was inspired by their own passion of Indo-Persian miniature painting and arabesque patterns, was paired with traditional painting styles on wood and ceramics. A collection of home accessories featuring French style cheese boards, hand glazed ceramics and hand embroidered table linen. The collection was received with overwhelming surprise by visitors and buyers alike who appreciated the concept and finesse of products presented.
The sales and marketing team was simultaneously educating visitors of the tedious indigenous craft practices involved in making of designs. The event helped in identifying resources and fostering linkages with an aim to generate livelihood opportunities for craftsmen. The company continues to network with NPOs, NGOs, educational institutes and industry partners to effectively contribute in supporting sustainable craft practices in Pakistan.
Salman Afzal is a design researcher and academic with interests in textiles, culture, identity and ethics and management. He has worked at National College of Arts Lahore, University of New South Wales Australia, NUST, Beaconhouse National University etc. He has conducted cultural workshops and master classes at University of Texas, Austin Fashion Incubator. Currently he serves as director at Bellisimo Crafts.