What exactly is a handicraft?

“Skill without imagination is craftsmanship and gives us many useful objects such as wickerwork picnic baskets. Imagination without skill gives us modern art.”

Tom Stoppard

Handicraft pretty much disappeared from British life around the time of the Industrial Revolution although it does seem to be making a comeback with a recent surge of interest in handcrafted goods and techniques with many magazines and websites devoted to the subjects of woodcarving, knitting, pottery making, toy making and so on.

As far as I can tell, this is at least partly due to a backlash against cheap, mass produced goods from China and elsewhere in Asia but it’s also the desire to be directly and personally connected with a unique item. To say, “I made this.”

In Bali, however, there’s very little about a hand crafted good that is novel or fashionable – people make products by hand or with simple tools because that is what they have and that is what they know.

Many of the crafters we work with learned their trade from their parents who in turn learned from their parents and so on. Usually, they are not university or art school educated and they’re not business people in the generally accepted Western sense of the term.

When people have asked me to describe the craft industry in Bali, I usually turn to “cottage industry” as the catchall term to make sense of what goes on here. A lot of the products I’ve dealt with in Bali are made in the crafter’s home with full participation of the family — grandparents, cousins, in-laws… everyone.

Written like that, the industry might sound somehow charming or idyllic and perhaps it is. I’ll try to paint you a picture.

It’s just a door…

I think one of the keys to understanding Balinese crafts is that while they may resemble the everyday objects of the West and fit loosely into general, utilitarian groups like furniture, windows and doors, the design and uses of these objects spring from entirely different cultural origins and needs.

Before I came here, I had never focused on doors beyond the functional: they exist to keep out the cold and bad people.

Picture of traditional Balinese DoorA typical Balinese house starts at the front door or gate — usually two doors set into wall or an arch that swing inward.

This door does not open in directly to the front garden or directly face the house — if it did, that would allow bad spirits direct access to the property. Usually, it opens to a walled area or a garden area so you can’t see the house straight away.

Now, that’s a charming concept.

Of course, not only does this make it difficult for spirits to get into the house, it’s also a pain when moving furniture or carrying any large objects in or out and it’s also a pain when many people live in the house because, usually, you can only lock or unlock the door from one side at any time.

Let’s say, I leave the house in the morning and my wife and daughter are staying home… I go out, close the door and it’s locked. When my wife needs to go out, she unlocks from the inside. When I come home, I have my key. Simple.

Picture of Balinese Door Knocker / Handle -- Made of BronzeWith the usual Balinese door, there’s no keyhole… there are two ringed handles on the outside that can be padlocked when you leave and a bolt on the inside that can be padlocked at night.

If I go out in the morning and lock the door from the outside, my wife will be locked in all day. If I’m going to be late home at night and my wife wants to lock up the house before she goes to sleep early, I’ll be locked out.

So, how does that work? Easy. The door is not locked. Someone is always home… that’s a Balinese door on a Balinese house.

So, you walk in through the Balinese door and find yourself in a courtyard setting with several buildings dotted around.

One of these buildings will be a living room, one will be a kitchen. Another building will be the master bedroom. There will probably be a bathroom / toilet building. (there’s no point in calling it an outhouse because they’re all outhouses). In the centre, you’ll probably find a gazebo — essentially a concrete platform with a wooden or thatched roof. The floor usually covered by woven mats and cushions. This is where you’ll usually find the carver working on a wood statue or making baskets.

As you can imagine, this is a very different work environment from the Chinese factory as big as a city or British office cubicle the size of a rabbit hutch.

Here, the worker is surrounded at all time by the family and work might slow down or completely stop for any one of the following reasons…

  • One of the five, happy, naked children running around will fall down or need attention for some reason.
  • There will be an interesting song or story on the radio.
  • An offering needs to be made or a ceremony begins.
  • It gets too hot.
  • It starts to rain.

I’m not sure if that’s idyllic… it’s certainly different and it is the reality of Bali’s cottage industry. It takes place in the home… the cottage. There is skill (in abundance) and there are distractions (in abundance). The crafter doesn’t go to some specially structured place; the family is not separated from the work or the product. The product is not ‘special’ or unique or wonderful or remarkable… it’s the every day result of an everyday chore.

That’s one of the reasons why Balinese handicrafts are so cheap.

On my first day in Indonesia, the first handicraft I encountered was the sarong (or pareo, as it’s known by some). It was presented to me by a lady as I walked down the street in Kuta in a conversation that ran basically as follows:

“Sarong, Mister?”
“No, thank you.”
“Good quality, cheap price –“
“No thanks.”
“You look, Mister, nice quality. Very nice. Cheap price.”
“Maybe tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow… you want massage?”
“No thank you.”
“Marry-jooo-ana?”
“No.”

I had basically the same conversation with four more ladies as I walked down the street before ducking into a huge, ramshackle tourist café for a cup of appalling coffee. Then, because I was sitting too close to the street, other sellers started to approach with sarongs, carved bone blowguns, wooden bows and arrow sets, carved wooden boxes, “copy watches”, sunglasses and more.

Kind of strips the mystery away from the whole handicraft thing, doesn’t it?

At that time, of course, I knew nothing about handicrafts and nothing about Indonesia. It was my first day.