Sunday, December 12, 2004

anthropological & political notes on a marketplace

I spent most of Saturday working at the annual KPFA Crafts Fair, trying to make some extra holiday cash and do a bit o' Christmas shopping, whilst dipping my big toe in the lukewarm waters of the event organizing world. As an independent consultant (I pick up gigs now and then outside my part-time day job as a fundraiser), I am interested in learning more about event coordination work so I thought the Crafts Fair would be a good place to start: lots of artisans selling their work, a chance to support independent media, and a place to feel comfortable with my progressive politics to boot.

I ran around doing relief for exhibitors who were working solo in their booths, (wo)manned a security checkpoint or two (much to the dismay of the security head, whom I could tell didn't think highly of a petite woman like myself taking on such a role--I didn't tell him I've trained in martial arts for the better part of the past four years), and passed out some programs to the (mostly white) people coming to shop at the fair. All of this varied activity gave me a good glimpse into the cultural dynamics of the fair, which were not surprising to me--I've been around the block when it comes to selling handicrafts and working with artists--but were still a tad frustrating and disappointing.

It was disappointing to see that most of the exhibitors (local, independent artisans selling their handcrafted wares) were White--I counted less than 10 exhibitors who were people of color. I know the fair was a juried exhibition, meaning that artists had to apply and be judged to be included. Was the lack of artisans of color due to them not applying? Or was it due to them not being accepted? I find it hard to beleive, in a place with as many working artists of color as the Bay Area, that the judges could only find a dozen or less artisans of color whose work was up to par with their standards.

Further, to put this all in a context, I do NOT (with extremely rare exception) patronize White artisans, such as those who sell jewelry or pipes or other trinkets on Telegraph. I have three key reasons behind this rule, which were all (unfortunately) reinforced for me in heightened relief at the KPFA Crafts Fair:

1. Generally, these artisans speak to me quite condescendingly and rudely. I'm not sure why, perhaps it's that I look young or that I'm Brown or that they don't assume someone like me would know anything about their high-quality art. Of course, they don't know that I worked as a salesperson at a well-known bead store for two years in addition to working as the production assistant of an equally well-known jewelry and fiber artist in Oakland. Having worked retail myself, I made a rule to myself a long time ago not to make assumptions about what a customer knew or didn't know about the product I was hawking. But just like the security head mentioned above didn't know about my martial arts training and therefore assumed that I was just a petite little Asian woman who was trying to reach beyond my abilities, these White artisans seem to often assume that I know nothing about handcrafts or jewelry or beautiful objets d'art.

Crafts Fair example: I did relief for a woman who made hand-decorated gourds, which she was selling for $48 and up. I didn't think they were that interesting, just another White woman taking some pseudo Native American and African images and techniques and making money off of them. In short, they weren't that cute to me. But I was curious about where the gourds came from, and what they were before she styled them into her 'art', so I asked a few polite questions.

Her response? "They're gourds." I, not knowing that these gourds grow hard as wood from the start, asked a follow-up question to clarify. "They're gourds," she responded again, more curtly this time, as if she didn't have time to answer these questions, despite the fact that I was her only potential customer at the moment.

After some puzzled looks from me, she went on to explain that gourds just grow hard, that they are related to squash, but that they are quite different. "That's why your question is confusing," she said with a fake smile. In my head I thought, No, your answers were confusing. But instead of getting into what would have been a frustrating conversation with her I smiled and walked away.

2. Many of the White artisans whose work I've been exposed to tend to completely appropriate images, techniques and materials from cultures from the Third World, almost exclusively relying on 'inspiration' from 'exotic' foreign cultures to make money for themselves as artists. I'm not saying that artists have no right to appropriate or borrow from other cultures, but it makes a bit skeptical (not to mention sad) when I see so many White artists exclusively taking photos of Buddhist monks in Cambodia and African sufi masters, and never really exploring their own rich cultural heritage. It seems to me a bit of denial of their own heritage, while at the same time romanticizing others' cultures. Added to my direct personal experiences with many of these artists as explained in #1 above, it's hard for me to stomach and / or reconcile their co-opting of 'exotic' images with their rudeness to me, a Brown girl who doesn't fit their romanticized image of what a Brown girl should look, act, talk like.

Crafts fair example: I relieved another White woman artist, this time a photographer. She had taken quite beautiful photos, all of which were of nameless people of color from the Third World. One was of a Buddhist monk meditating, another was a close-up of a young Indian girl resplendent in ceremonial garb (which was only entitled 'Princess') and a third was a stark, vibrant image of an African man wearing a turban and a deep aqua robe. None of these people had names in her photos. (I have a special aversion to images that don't name people of color as individuals, while the same practice would never be tolerated if the images were of White Americans)

These people were, to her, objects to be witnessed and documented for personal expression and profit, representatives of an idealized culture, place and / or history. None of the photos were of people of European descent, although the photographers' collection was entitled 'Migration Photos'. What, Russian and Latvian and Czechoslovakian people don't migrate anywhere?

3. In general I try to practice an affirmative action /community development strategy in the spending of my dollars, especially when--in a place like the Bay Area--I can actually give my hard-earned cash directly to people of color vendors/stores/artists. For example, I try as much as possible to buy my books from places like Black-owned Marcus Books or Asian-activist-owned East Wind Books, or to purchase handmade jewelry (which I love) from artisans of color, like Diana Yoshida and others who work on Telegraph in Berkeley. There is absolutely no reason that I 'need' to spend my money on rude and racist White artisans' work, when there are so many artisans of color who need my business just as much if not more. I know from direct experience the lack of support from family and friends that many artists of color endure, and I feel a special responsibility to help them make their living.

Crafts Fair example: I only bought four items--not just because there were so few artists of color at the fair, but also because there was very little of the White artists' work that I liked at all--all of which were made by artisans of color. I finally got my hands on some amazing silkscreen-printed T-shirts by Daniel Sanchez, whose dramatic woodcut-like designs I've admired for several years now. I got to meet Daniel for the first time too--a hardworkin', sincere and genuinely nice brother. I know I'll be buying many T-shirts from him in the years to come. And I bought a beautiful cloth wallet for a co-worker and a stuffed turtle for my godson from Ia Vang, of the Hmong Women Needleworkers Collective.

In the end, searching up and down the aisles at the Crafts Fair for artisans of color in a sea of Whiteness was worth the hassle of rude White vendors and the annoyance of endless 'exotic' Brown and Black faces displayed on amulets, posters and earrings (yes, earrings!). I hope you take the time to patronize your local artisans of color this holiday season, and that you come away with some treasures like the ones I found today.



Anonymous said...

Don't sugarcoat it, Rona. Tell us what you really think. Beautiful writing, by the way. Regardless of the fact that I am a white man, I wholeheartedly agree with you. Your site is becoming one of my favorite reads. You have a sharp wit. You make me chuckle and bring a much needed grin to my face. Honestly, it's like sitting and talkng with an old friend. Keep writing. You're good at it. Much luck in all your endeavors.


bino said...

r, read yr post over the weekend. :-) but tyler also made me :-)

Rona Fernandez said...

aw, yr makin' me blush w/ all the compliments. ;-) Thanks for the thoughts.--R.