Crafting the Caribbean
“We believe in the power of craft to creatively counter the homogenization of culture and to give Caribbean people cultural pride and identity in the wider world.”
These words help to identify the mission behind the collective organisation that embodies The Caribbean Arts & Crafts Festival, which will take place from March 9 to 15 at Trellis Bay, Tortola.
It reads like a bit of a mantra for Caribbean artisans, so there must be something in it. “The power of craft” sounds a touch profound and perhaps a little over mystifying for the simple pastime of staying at home and making something. But interestingly enough I have found, through some light etymological research, that “craft“ is actually synonymous with the word “power.” It has derived from the ancient Greek sound “kra” or “cra,” that makes up important words like demo-cra-cy, literally translated as “people-power” or bureau-cra-cy, office power. This thread of meaning has carried through in the modern German language that uses kraft to mean power or strength. In English, this meaning is carried in words like witchcraft or witch power. It gets interesting from here and has reams of implications, but for the purposes of this article it is suffice to say that craft is more than a humble pastime, but is in fact a meaningful way of life that has sustained millions of people over human evolution. There is more to craft than meets the eye.
Caribbean artisans use plaited straw ribbons to fashion baskets. All photos by Jim Scheiner.
When practiced over a lifetime, that simple relaxing pastime has unquestionably provided a powerful means to a happy and fulfilling life. It is in this that craft is a genuine source of power.
Many of the straw workers of East End, Tortola have lived that life and understand that power. The tradition of straw-working in the BVI once held sway over many families. Teyer and broom palms were harvested on Tortola, Guana, Mosquito and Scrub Islands, or brought in by sloops coming up from St Thomas and St Barths. These palms were cut and dried into splits and woven into plaits in many households as a true community cottage industry.Once pressed, trimmed and sometimes dyed, the plaited straw ribbons, were then sold on, for one cent a yard, before being skillfully sewn into hats, bags or even shoes. A hat would take up to 25 yards of platted straw to make and when sold in market would fetch up to $1.50. Truly a lot of money in the times when sugar was five cents a pound and a chambermaid could raise a family and save money working for $4 a week. In those days, the market for straw hats was steady and a cooperative style-purchasing centre in Road Town would buy the hats and export them to the busier tourist markets of St John and St Thomas.
Various arts and crafts are available for purchase at the festival.
Tortola families such as the Dawsons, Lettsomes, Thomases, Wheatleys and Penns all owe something of their current standing to the power of this craft. Its importance as a life-sustaining practice has for now been overridden by the demands of the modern, corporately orientated world. However, there could still be a slim chance to save the simple relaxing pastime of the elders from total extinction. At least some of children of the corporate generation, the grand and great grandchildren of the straw plaiters, might yet be inspired to reconnect with their nature, redefine their culture and seek a life of creativity—especially once it is more commonly understood that a Virgin Islands-made hat can now sell for $50 to $100 each.
The scarcity of craft has created value. The blessings are there to be felt, and the palms are still there for the picking. It is for this reason the Caribbean Artisan Network is honoring the straw weavers of East End at this year’s Caribbean Arts and Craft Festival, to place them in the forefront as an example of a successful British Virgin Islands community of artisans that built its existence on craft.
The Festival will draw attention to Virgin Island craft culture on March 12 with a special dedication day. This year the festival’s slogan, “Craft: Power from Nature,” is a call to the youth to seek a deeper understanding of our environment and to learn the joys of working with our hands to shape the world around us. We are promoting the continued viability of an existence based on sustainably harvesting our natural resources. By seeking out craft knowledge—both traditional and innovative—young people have potentially great opportunities to reconnect with nature, build a new identity and generate income at the same time.
Trellis Bay ignited during the festival.
The Caribbean Arts and Craft Festival has become an exemplary gathering point for an increasing number of the top artisans in the region. Drawn together from a network of skilled individuals, the Caribbean Artisans come to the BVI to share their talents with us, encourage our youth and boost the power of the BVI craft market. The festival allows us to assert our Virgin Island identity in the regional context and at the same time enhance our tourism product; it reminds us of the strength from within our cultural crafts.