Stitch Me a Story
Following the highly successful ‘Gup Shup’ exhibition of 2009, Cath Braid, the designer of Polly and Me high-end fashion handbags, continues to use the art of narrative and embroidery to effect social change. The present exhibition, ‘The Ramazan Diaries,’ displayed at the Satrang Gallery at the Serena Hotel in Islamabad in mid-May, follows the same principles. It revolves around story-telling, and is based around diaries kept by 14 women – recording events, thoughts and conversations during the month of Ramazan. The resulting collection includes tableaux-like tapestries with themes such as ‘Wazoo,’ ‘Dastarkhan Iftar,’ ‘Chapatti,’ ‘Bangles,’ ‘Soap Opera,’ and ‘Journey to Peshawar,’ to name a few. Over the last three years the artisans – Chitrali women who execute the fine embroideries that are the highlight of the Polly and Me brand – have been introduced to the idea of design and composition through art workshops conducted by the designer. What is significant about this set of works is the fact that the artisans have achieved a level of independence, so that the designer herself is a background figure rather than the active participant that she was in the case of the ‘Gup Shup’ works. She has been able to rely on the skills of Nasreen, a young Chitrali woman who studied in Karachi, to interface with them. In the case of some of the tapestries, such as ‘Neighbourhood Kitchens,’ following a brief discussion of their ideas with Cath, she has taken on major steps in the chain such as collecting sketches, images and written information, and checking composition, a skill that the artisans still find challenging.
The formal work for the tapestries begins once the work of discussion is over. A group of artisans make sketches on the chosen theme, which are then composed by one of them to make a layout. This is approved by Cath and her sister Ange, or by Nasreen. Then the painstaking work of embroidery begins, in the ‘kalami’ stitch indigenous to Chitral. This stitch was originally used by female artisans to make the densely embroidered paan push, the traditional mantelpiece cover that is a feature of the area’s homes. The tapestries are finally stretched on wooden display frames.
The resulting product is as much an artwork as a documentation of a different way of life, bringing its private, hitherto completely veiled traditions to an international audience. ‘Wazoo,’ one of the most beautiful pieces in the exhibition, shows the communal ablution area with its array of lotas marked with dates. At its base is a running frieze of women in different stages of prostration, against a background of flowers and curlicues.
There is enormous effort on the part of the two sisters to document the process and the narratives behind each tapestry. ‘Chapatti,’ a colourful montage of the stages of making roti, is accompanied by a narrative that describes the daily ritual of kneading dough: ‘Every evening (Nazia) listens to the prayers and lecture on 97 FM. As she measures the flour out of the steel box, she recites her own prayer. Bibi, her mother, taught her to do this when kneading the dough, giving barkat to the food.’ This is a lovely marriage of the traditional and the modern, as is ‘Text Messages,’ a compilation of texts sent and received during the last three days before Eid. There is a snapshot of Chitral in which we learn about preparations for the festival, of the death of three scouts, eulogised by a Chitrali female poet and circulated among friends, and about the floods.
Cath and her sister Ange conduct these not-for-profit enterprise ventures almost independently of umbrella organisations, with minimal funding, through partnerships with local organisations such as MOGH. The latter is a private enterprise, kick-started by the Agha Khan Rural Support Programme, in which the artisans become shareholders of the company. It provides transport to the artisans, ferries them to and from art workshops and pays for materials such as cloth and thread. In return, they have the option to pay MOGH a fixed percentage when the tapestry sells, or be paid a fixed amount for their labour by the company, who then becomes the owner of the item. Both schemes were offered in consideration of their economic background, with the idea of initiating ownership in a poor community. How the artisans have responded is a good indicator of the change that small social enterprises can accomplish. To date all of them have recognised the long-term benefits of the first option through the experience of the last exhibition. They have decided to wait until their work sells, and afterwards pay the aid organisation themselves.
This idea of ownership has given rise to another project, ‘Kai,’ which means sister in Khowar. ‘Kai’ targets a different group of artisans. One woman was sent to Islamabad to train with a tailor for four days, so that she could teach her co-workers how to make a fully-finished product in Chitral. It aims to create female entrepreneurs, in that the person who ‘owns’ the bag stitches it, but delegates work to two others, an embroiderer and an appliqué artisan, whom she pays. The five designs on display are made of the traditional, brightly printed dastarkhan, quilted and appliquéd with hand embroidered designs on themes of related products. In one design, a plate of samosas is flanked by a bottle of chilli garlic sauce; another shows a bottle of Rooh Afza and a tray of ice cubes.
The story of Polly and Me’s non-profit enterprise is an example of how significant change can be effected in small communities through local partnerships. Cath is emphatic about the role of MOGH, which liaises by helping with materials, collection, and most importantly, transport. The latter is a major logistic without which it would be difficult for them to work. Besides giving the artisans the skills of contemporary design, basic colour theory and quality control, it has enabled them to use the money earned from their work to invest in property or business, or help their families, which have already begun to recognise the benefits. It has also given local health workers better platforms, such as training centres, where they can disseminate information to a larger audience.
This article was originally published in the June issue of Newsline.
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