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Crafting Laos and Cambodia (ASEF, 2019)



The Creative Resource Guide considers how crafts and design can be effective agents of social change in countries such as the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR) and Cambodia. These two adjacent Southeast Asian countries each possess a distinctive artistic heritage rooted in a rich history marked by local particularism and religious beliefs, ethnic diversity, regional cultural exchanges, and colonial influences.


In Lao PDR and Cambodia, handicrafts are mostly the product of independent makers, cooperatives, and makers groups, mainly composed of women who live in rural areas. The recent increase in designers' and students' interest in handmade products has also led to collaboration between design and craft. Design is an emerging field that is only taught in a handful of schools in the capital cities of Phnom Penh and Vientiane. Craft and design sometimes overlap to produce objects of practical and aesthetic value, shifting from mass manufacturing standardization. In this book, the projects presented will respond to this broader definition of contemporary crafts where creativity meets cultural heritage.


This guide showcases the different models of organizations involved in the field, from transnational institutions to non-profits and social businesses, highlighting the dynamics

of this growing sector. Working in different scales and capacities, these companies often implement professional development and vocational training programs to help makers develop their technical and marketing skills. These organizations follow fair-trade guidelines to work with underprivileged or marginalized communities and often provide health care benefits. Finding new markets remains crucial in ensuring sustainable revenues, which would afford makers and their families a long-term perspective.

Though makers appear as the recipients of professional development and training programs, their active role in the field is central to these endeavors’ success. In countries

such as Cambodia and Lao PDR, where the majority of the population still lives in the countryside; developing these activities has the potential to generate invaluable sources

of income to alleviate poverty and fight the phenomena of rural exodus.

This book presents an overview of various existing artisanal skills through the example of a selection of Cambodian and Laotian organizations. UNESCO describes handicrafts as ‘made without restriction in quantity and using raw materials from sustainable resources.’ The book highlights projects that creatively engage with local resources and some initiatives focusing on heritage conservation and fair-trade practices with a social impact.



The objectives of the Creative Resource Guide are to provide;

  • A directory of contemporary creative initiatives in Cambodia and Lao PDR divided into three separate themes: heritage preservation, innovation, and community

  • In-depth interviews of key players sharing their experience in the field

  • An overview of the challenges and recommendations to contact makers' groups and implement fruitful collaborations.


The Creative Resource Guide is based on a series of interviews, periods of fieldwork, and a survey relying on NGOs and governmental reports and several press articles, as well as research on key organizations in the sector. Organizations were chosen for their authority, seniority, ethical practice, and the quality of their products. Due to Cambodia and Laos PDR’s respective contemporary history, these initiatives are often the result of foreign investment. In this book, emphasis has been given as much as possible on local projects founded by Cambodian and Laotian people. Capital cities and tourist hubs such as Vientiane and Luang Prabang in Lao PDR, Phnom Penh, and Siem Reap in Cambodia usually welcome most projects. In addition, a particular effort was made to showcase a range of programs located in remote areas or involving resources and makers based outside the main urban centers.


This Creative Resource Guide is non-exhaustive and focuses on the genesis of each initiative, the making processes, and the social and environmental impact. It was designed for designers, researchers, educators, artists, heritage policy makers, non-profit managers, social entrepreneurs, and anyone interested in Southeast Asia, crafts, and cultural customs. For clarity and concision, after the introduction, this book will use the term “Laos” to designate Lao PDR.



 

Magali An BERTHON is a freelance cultural writer, researcher, and documentation with particular interests in Southeast Asian dress and textiles, local craft cultures, post-colonial perspectives, and sustainable processes. She has gained international experience working as a designer in the craft sector in Cambodia and as an adjunct instructor in graduate programs in the United States.

She is also a regular contributor to culture360.ASEF.org, Selvedge Magazine, and the online Bloomsbury Design Library. Magali An is also a PhD candidate in the History of Design Department at the Royal College of Art, London, focusing on the dynamics of silk heritage in post-conflict Cambodia on an AHRC scholarship. She produces the web documentary “Tissus & Artisans du Monde” (World Textiles & Artisans), an online multimedia journey combining film, photography, and essays showcasing highly skilled textile artisans, especially from mainland Southeast Asia.

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