The stereotype of artisans being old people, staunchly defending traditional crafts from the onslaught of modern production technologies is far from the truth at Homo Faber, the Michelangelo Foundation’s guide to the best of European crafts.
The ETF has partnered with Michelangelo Foundation for Creativity and Craftsmanship, a Swiss-based NGO studying and promoting excellence in crafts. It is best known for its Homo Faber Guide and the related annual master crafts showcase event in Venice which was attended by master crafts people from ETF partner countries at the 2022 exhibit in Venice (Read more).
One of the first sights after entering the 2022 exhibition on San Giorgio Island in Venice is a glass-caged 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO. And one of the first live performing craftsmen who greets you is Swiss skateboard maker Laurent Golay. But it doesn’t stop there. The omnipresent hosts and hostesses of the event are its ‘young ambassadors’, themselves deftly defying the dusty image of crafts and artisanry.
We found and had a chat with two of them about the importance of traditions for young people and making crafts cool again.
Melina Khater is a young Lebanese student who left the country right after the harbour explosions of 2020 blew a hole into the capital, Beirut. She moved to Brussels where she studies architecture and urbanism. Melina is originally from the Bekaa Valley, where crafts still thrive.
“My grandmother was a seamstress who had learned the trade from her mother. She taught my own mother to do things by hand and my mother taught me. I still love to do everything with my hands,” said Melinda.
“I moved because I could not recognise myself in Lebanon any longer. I went to a school that was all about art and architecture, but it had lost the cultural connection. It was all so technical – I could not use my skills and creativity.”
“Studying architecture opened many roads for me but my priority has always been to keep the connection with my country. At some point I will always go back to using my hands.”
Crafts is not usually one of the things young people are most interested in. Melina thinks there’s much room for improvement here.
“A lot of people don’t understand the importance of arts and craftmanship, but it is all around us. Almost everything you see is related to crafts: clothes, shoes – even the worst of the fast fashion industry takes its inspiration from crafts. We don’t recognise a lot of this in our generation and this is so sad.”
Melina thinks it is important to reconnect young people to crafts, and not just so that they can learn a trade.
“We’re living a very fast life and we are losing the connection with our heritage. Crafts can help us bring the past back into our future.”
Melina believes the best way to pique young people’s interest in crafts again is to provide more visible platforms for artisans to promote their trades.
“In Beirut, we now have the Souk El Tayeb market, where people from the villages come to sell their goods. It started as a food market, but then they launched a project where, every Saturday, they’d bring old Lebanese women to promote their craftmanship. Now a Souk el Tayeb will open in Paris!”
“But I still don't think it is enough. There are so many people out there that you do not see or notice!”
Defne Ar is originally from Turkey but she also studied abroad – in Spain, Japan and now Italy. With a travelling bag full of degrees and five languages at her disposal, she makes some comparisons between the countries she has seen.
“Of course my fellow art students in Turkey were interested in crafts, but they stood out among the young generation,” said Defne. “In Japan, there was a much broader interest in crafts from the younger generation.”
While Defne cannot say whether the education system in Japan had something to do with that, she has a feeling that young people in Japan generally remain closer to their own cultural heritage.
“But tourism plays a role too. Crafts are promoted as an essential part of culture and religion in Japan, almost like a form of branding.”
Defne, like Melina, places the importance of craft skills survival firmly in the domain of cultural identity.
“It is very important to sustain the crafts of a country – the handmade objects. Right now, every day, we lose techniques that are unique in a specific region somewhere in the world. In all countries specific types of craft are dying because nobody is learning them.”
She believes two things could be done by schools to alleviate the situation.
“There should be programmes for people who want to learn from the masters.”
As an example, Defne gives a TV programme that was broadcast a few years ago about a specific kind of furniture wood carving that only one person still had the technical skills to perform. They mobilised students so that the elderly man could transfer his skills.
“But there should also be more education on heritage skills, particularly for young people. We should teach them more than the very general things we teach them today.”
“It worked that way for me, and I am grateful for that. When I was 10 years old, we went on a compulsory trip to Istanbul to learn its history from the Byzantine to the Ottoman periods. That started my interest in arts. I wanted to study more about artistry and be an artist myself.”
“For young people, being exposed to the beauty of crafts at an early age will increase their engagement and their desire to protect their heritage.”