For centuries the skills of traditional arts and crafts have been passed down from generation to generation, their roots deeply embedded in national culture. But in the wake of one of the worst economic crises in recent history, have handmade products become a dispensable luxury, or are they providing an alternative means of income and survival?
Modern amenities imported en-masse from developing countries like China have led to the substitution of many traditional hand-made items, forcing those that endured the overhaul to find alternative niches as decorative luxuries or tourist souvenirs. And fears that younger generations are losing interest in carrying on traditional handicrafts, like basket weaving, ceramics and rag-rug making, does little to reassure older generations that their heritage will be carried on.
Jorge Saraiva, secretary of one of Portugal’s largest arts and crafts associations the Regional Association of Artisans in Aveiro ‘A Barrica’, told The Portugal News, “Generally, the numbers of artisans that are traditional ones are diminishing”.
“This is due to the loss of usefulness that handmade products offer current day-to-day life, as well as the difficulty or impossibility of artisans to adapt their activity to the necessities or functionalities of ‘modern times’”, he explained, warning that such arts and crafts could be at risk of “becoming an activity without economic viability, whose continuity is of little attraction to future generations”.
This was an opinion shared by long-term Algarve resident François Pello, a French artesan based in Lagos whose career has spanned more than three decades.
François was amongst the first participants of the national FATACIL exhibition.
Held every year in Lagoa (Algarve) FATACIL is currently Portugal’s largest arts and crafts trade exhibition.
In previous years artisans have travelled from all over the country to take place in the massive event, though, François told The Portugal News, “Now there are many people, particularly from the north, that don’t want to come because it doesn’t [financially] compensate them”.
Blaming ‘disloyal competition’ from countries like Northern Africa and Asia, where goods are still handmade, but exported and subsequently sold at much lower prices than national products, he also pointed a finger at the economic crisis as being responsible for the endangerment of traditional arts and crafts.
“I am nearing retirement age, and I am glad this is happening now and not when I was in my late teens, just starting out”, he said, continuing “Of course it [the current economic climate] will affect the future of handicrafts; people are still looking to buy crockery and leather goods but at cheaper prices. And you can’t force people to spend money”.
François, who specialises in handmade, old-fashioned leather goods, has not escaped unscathed. Speaking of his personal situation, he confided “My wife and I have always worked together, but last year she had to find a second job to make ends meet. We get by but it’s not like it used to be. Now we sell mostly to people who are already familiar with our work”.
Jorge Saraiva offered a similar explanation: “There has been a radical change in human and social behaviour. A ‘bottom drawer’ (essential items for a home collected before marriage), and the home itself, which should be a place of creation, family growth, reuniting friends and making memories, have both given way to voids where what we wear and use is increasingly dispensable and has a shorter lifespan”.
“Public and private entities, local and national, which should be on a par and become partners in this type of activity, particularly those relating to jobs, tourism and associations, have not been able to maintain, preserve or improve these arts and skills”, he criticised.
However, it seems that a new trend has emerged from the traditional handicraft scenario, a modern take on arts and crafts referred to as ‘applied’ and/or ‘urban’ arts.
These are defined by A Barrica as items that with “some dexterity and simple or recycled materials can be easily produced”.
In 2008 there were 366 students enrolled on University Arts and Crafts courses in Portugal; 21 more than in the year 2000, though significantly fewer than the year before, when the subject’s popularity peaked due to nearly 400 students enrolling on the traditional course.
A year later, the number of students completing a degree in arts and crafts reached the highest in a decade, with 147 pupils receiving a diploma.
But a vast majority of ‘urban’ artisans are not equipped with formal qualifications and make their living based on talent and resourcefulness.
“There are situations where urban handicraft, applied arts or even food crafts, have created an alternative form of survival and income during the crisis, but these are normally temporary activities that are not officially registered to avoid paying the due legal contributions”.
Jorge Saraiva concluded that, while “the number of artisans over the past few years has remained stable, there are fewer in traditional arts and crafts, though more and more are emerging in the modern and urban realm”, therefore balancing out the figures.
Interestingly, as a new trend in national arts and crafts takes shape, modern technology is being hailed largely responsible for the success of the new-comers, with many first-timers using the internet, or, more specifically, the blogosphere, as their publicity tool.
An article originally published in the Marketeer Magazine, investigating the advantages of using blogs on the World Wide Web to promote ‘urban’ crafts, explained how from blogs artisans found a way of “growing into small businesses, managing, on a daily basis, production, communication and distribution components of their micro-empires”.
According to ‘Brands of Contemporary Handicraft’, by author Catarina Alfaia, it is via the blogosphere that handmade goods such as knitted dolls, felt bags, Azorean cloth toys, personalised cakes, papier maché monsters, recycled wallets, patchwork T-shirts and mirrors made from waste materials, are distributed throughout Portugal and the world over. Thanks to the ‘dot.com’, crafts that started out as a hobby or gifts for friends and families are being exported from living rooms in Portugal to specialized outlets in countries including Italy, Holland, the USA, Canada, Spain and the UK.