Last week, I went on a wonderful adventure to the highlands, invited by a third-tier cooperative to give advice as a designer. What’s that, you ask? I didn’t know either. CONFECOOP works with multiple federations of cooperatives to provide different kinds of assistance, one of those being linking designers/buyers (me) to providers (cooperatives). So of course I said yes, yes to visiting cooperatives and yes to going to parts of Guatemala that I love so much!
We visited a federation of cooperatives in Xela, a glass-blowing cooperative there too, and a weaving cooperatives in Zunil (near Xela) and San Antonio Palopó (by Lake Atitlán). I always love meeting artisans, seeing the process, and taking treasures home with me, too. But on this trip, I brought home more than my purchases…. I realized several things for cooperatives and perhaps artisans in general here in Guatemala:
- Innovation is key. The glass-blowing cooperative was a great example of this, with so many new designs and products. They are also happy to work with other brands and designers, producing exclusive collections. On the other side, the textile cooperative at the lake only offered items that I have seen over and over, and with the same color schemes. The only product that caught my eye was a scarf that the group had produced for a designer in Guatemala City. Clearly, coming up with new designs was a struggle for this second group, and it was also clear that the group was struggling to get by in general.
- Guatemala lacks innovators. This is so unfortunate, but the reality is that it is difficult for Guatemalan artisans to break the cycle of copying designs. At school, they are taught to memorize, to copy, to recite things as they are (I know this because I’ve taught in both public and private schools in Guatemala). Critical thinking is not an emphasis, and that is crucial for innovation in anything, as in design. And say you are one of the few, probably from Guatemala City, who have a gift in artistic expression? As it turned out, one of the family members for the leader of this trip was stuck in this kind of pickle… I found this scenario very insightful. There we were, discussing the good and bad of these cooperatives, these struggling artisans. We agreed that design was key for their success. And yet it was clear that this young Guatemalan girl in their family would not be encouraged to continue on a path of art. They agreed that there are not enough opportunities for artists in Guatemala unless they are educated and/or work abroad. All this, when they had invited me as a designer to go on this trip? So we are stuck in a cycle here, where it is clear that Guatemala needs people who can think outside of the box (in this case in design), and yet people seem to think that there are no career opportunities within the country to really pursue it. Are there really no opportunities? There is clearly need. Demand, maybe not, as artisans and other producers may not realize the need. We just need to figure out how to fill that space, the disconnect. I think we are almost there.
- People have different tastes. You might think duh, this is obvious, but I continue to be surprised by this. Throughout the trip the Guatemalan members preferred items with color schemes and patterns that I would not. This is not to say one item is better than the other, just that our tastes are very different. The cooperatives, and even the federation of cooperatives, struggle to design products that are practical and attractive to foreign markets. The little details really make a difference, and these little things turn out to be pretty big challenges in Guatemala.
Given these three points, I feel extremely fortunate to be working with the artisans that I work with now, for weaving, embroidery, and leatherwork. They are so talented. But could any one of the artisans have made the kind of high-quality and beautiful products we offer as Kakaw? Unfortunately, I don’t think so. I would like to say that there are many people who could fill my shoes, but right now I don’t think that is the case. There are many foreigners trying to make beautiful things here in Guatemala. Their approaches working with artisans is a completely different topic (a passionate one for me), but as far as just trying new things in design, I would love to say that there is a steady supply of up-and-coming Guatemalan designers with appreciation and knowledge of the handmade and artisan-made worlds, but I don’t think that is true. Foreign designers fill that niche, for better or for worse.
I look forward to the changes within Guatemala. For us to have been invited to the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Show was amazing to me. Artisan-made products used to be looked down upon, especially those with traditionally Mayan designs. Things are changing. Slowly, but hopefully surely.