Where once reserved for royals, modernising the songket means weaving it into the everyday fabric of Malaysian life. As a child, ...
An impromptu trip to the Island of Gods bestowed a profound social-entrepreneurial vision; Radhi of Perajin explains the relation between grass roots artisans and communal sustainability.
Taking a leap from the hyper fast cyber-digital realm to an alternate reality where time is of the essence and living sans-computers sounds rather challenging; what else can a modern-day graphic designer do besides keeping up with the latest operating systems and platforms to please their clients’ creative requests?
One option is to unlearn everything you know and take on a new form of art, and in Radhi’s case - wood carving. After completing his degree in New Zealand, Radhi came back a hopeful young designer, and like many other hopeful young designers, he was quickly recruited by an advertising agency. Radhi even had his fair share of designing game apps, but everything came to a halt when all of his team mates pursued other interests in the digital world. Left high and dry, he packed his bag and flew to Bali for the first time with no expectations in mind.
A lone ranger in his unknowing quest for “something”, he made his way to an event where Bali locals were having a forum on the Indonesian massacre of 1965. It was a gathering of activists namely from the collective Taman 65, historians, artists and event organisers in support of the "Tolak Reklamasi Bali” movement. The locals took interest in Radhi’s presence at the event and he gained new friends, which led him to Pak Agung Alit, an important figure in purveying fair trade across Indonesia and the world over via MITRA Bali. Keen on learning woodcraft, Pak Agung Alit took Radhi under his wing and showed him the world of artisanal wood carvers - he was brought to Cemadek, Ubud while living off freelance jobs.
After completing his introductory year he was told that young talents like him shouldn't be carving wood per se, but rather play a bigger role in implementing new designs to an old trade.
He was offered to teach graphic design at an orphanage centre called Campuhan College by an Australian expatriate in exchange for accommodation and access to a bigger network of artisans. From that point on, Radhi took a more in-depth view of the perajin world (perajin is a Balinese term for artisans), not solely on the skills or craft making, but the whole industry with fair trade policies being the centre of everything. “Everyone has a specific skill within the community. For example if one wanted to purchase roof panels for (traditional) houses, there’s a guy that only cuts off weed and dries them out, then another person, usually a lady will take the dried material and weave them into roof panels, and another person will be selling them off in designated markets. There’s a harmonious ecosystem that ensures a steady financial flow for everyone to benefit from. So it’s not just the quality of work but making sure the price is appropriate when it reaches the markets of Europe, for instance”, Radhi enlightens us about his newfound passion.
“Pak Alit told me in Asia, only Malaysia and Singapore are missing their fair trade counterparts, probably since both countries are big on industrialisation, everything needs to be delivered instantly and production is centralised. South Korea has the strongest fair trade movement and its supported by their government. They monitor everything from wood quality to the production of noodles despite being a very modernised country. That’s why our heritage of skills and craftsmanship is endangered, there is no governing body looking after the welfare of artisans in Malaysia”, commented Radhi on the importance of fair trade.
Currently, Radhi is promoting wood works from Bali and Yogyakarta with his own concepts implemented such as cinnamon-infused aromatic bowls (makes your nasi a bit more tastier) and changeable eating utensils; solely via Instagram.
“Mostly I get buyers from overseas, Australians love the products and that’s enough to get the ball rolling. I would like to explore more artisanal products from Thailand, Bhutan, even Cuba if I have the chance. My trip to Bali really changed my perspective towards life. It’s ironic; the generation before us were all dead set on securing office jobs, whereas this generation now thrives on entrepreneurial spirit. It’s a slow process, you have to treat everything organically. Even if you find a piece of wood to carve, you need to dry and treat it first. I guess that really stuck to me, and I enjoy that mentality,” reflecting on his calm but never subdued personality.
He was involved with the building of Panji-Panji Resort in Langkawi, where he invited 12 of the best wooden house makers in Yogyakarta over to share their knowledge on constructing wooden structures without the usage of nails or screws. This small effort marks an important mile in their trading of knowledge not only between woodsmen but countries as well.
With a considerably dying knowledge of crafts in Malaysia, a fair trade organisation would benefit a lot of people and could act as a catalyst to revive full-time careers being an artisan. When asked about bringing up the fair trade issue to a national level, Radhi responded, “I can’t do it alone! I was very fortunate to meet the right people in Indonesia and they’re connected worldwide via all these fair trade NGO’s, but I’m looking for other fellow Malaysians to join me in justifying the matter.”
Fair trade in Malaysia needs a voice, join Radhi and stand up for forgotten crafts, perishing skills and knowledge and our creative identity as a nation.
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