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Art of Artisan  

    This is not a new debate; however, with the growing interest in cross-discipline engagement and the constant blurring of boundarie

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This is not a new debate; however, with the growing interest in cross-discipline engagement and the constant blurring of boundaries in the world of creative activity, this question seems appropriate to be addressed in order to move beyond it. Part of this article intends to explore these terminologies and what is the need (or no need) of them in our contemporary world of creative exploration.


Who is an artist, artisan, and craftsman and what are the differences between these terms; this discussion is corresponding to the agenda of what titles as art and what is labelled as craft. There are artists around the world who use a certain craft skill in their artwork, which makes the boundaries of art and craft even more hazy. Perhaps it is the intention behind the work that creates the distinction. If the maker aims to evoke a certain sense or emotion, or express something, does that make it art? And perhaps if the maker intends to add practical use or utility in the work, it seems to fit under craft? However, this does not seem to apply to artists who make work with utilitarian purpose, or makers who produce decorative crafts. According to Oxford Dictionaries, a craftsman is “a worker skilled in a particular craft, and craft is defined as “an activity involving skill in making things by hand”. Producers of crafts have gender-specific titles — craftsman and craftswoman — although craftsperson is the neutral word, many such practitioners choose to be called artisans, “a worker in a skilled trade, especially one that involves making things by hand”. Let’s keep in mind that each of the term has its own point of origin in time and place, which was dictated by certain historical events that shaped our memory to assign meaning to them.


Say if intention behind the work of creative output determines the distinction between an artist and a craftsman, then how do we differentiate a craftsperson from an artisan. If both require skill in making things by hand, then possibly it is to do with the quantity or quality of production? With very subtle difference, perhaps craftsperson is invested in making works by replicating them for mass consumption whereas an artisan makes smaller quantities of work with slight unique variations in their production.

The meaning and interpretation of these terms shift with the nature of the task. I will return to this point towards the end of this article.


Artist and Artisan: A Collaboration

There have been many successful examples of artists and designers collaborating with artisans and craftsmen to produce creative work that would be a combination of the craftsperson’s skill and the artist/designers thinking and planned idea. One such example is that of Koel. Noorjehan Bilgrami, a textile designer, with her interest in traditional crafts led to the establishment of Koel in 1977, a workshop that pioneered the revival of hand block printed fabrics in Pakistan. Introducing this age-old craft to home furnishing and women’s apparel, she popularized it to such an extent that within ten years scores of block printing karkhanas (workshops) were setup by entrepreneurs in Karachi alone, providing jobs to hundreds of craftsmen. Koel has diversified from textiles into the design, production and marketing of furniture. Following the basic philosophy of Koel’s belief in ‘simplicity and tradition’, the hallmark of their furniture is the use of solid wood and an honest approach in design by exposing, rather than camouflaging joinery[1].


A more recent example of another such collaboration is Twilling Tweeds[2], which is not only highlighting an engagement between designer and craftsperson, but also bridging two very diverse cultures. Adil Iqbal, a Scottish-Pakistani designer, has given this collaboration a truly global platform. His research funded by Arts Trust Scotland, Adil initiated by exploring traditional embroidery and textiles in Chitral, Pakistan, where he saw potential for a powerful social enterprise that would directly involve local Chitrali women. On returning home to Edinburgh, Adil spent a few months developing the proposal, that’s when he came across weavers who have been weaving luxurious tweed for generations on the Isle of Lewis. Exclusively male, the weavers of Lewis, like the female embroiderers of Chitral, live in a remote part of the world. Adil’s project now shaped into a collaboration; the men of Lewis would weave the cloth and the women of Chitral would embroider on it, representing both cultures.



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Life in the Outer Hebrides, embroidered by Zahida Ali, illustration by Mairi Hedderwick (Twilling Tweed, a project by Adil Iqbal). “Through this experience my children have learned so much about Scotland and are proud of my skills. They encouraged me to challenge myself and to do more. I think the Scottish people are hard working and also have had a tough life in the past. I am inspired by Hebridean culture, and would like Chitral to progress and have the same environment one day”


The objective of Twilling Tweeds is fusing the philosophies of two communities, in order to bring about social change in a secluded part of the world. There have been many similar projects that in amalgamating or fusing cultures of different regions, forget to hold the sanctity of the craft and end up in making a totally new product, which is no longer speaking of craft or the said region. In contrast the real beauty of Twilling Tweeds lies in it’s retaining the aesthetics of each craft without losing the cultural association of either place.



Chitrali Musical embroidered by Tasneem Yar (Twilling Tweeds a project by Adil Iqbal). “When I first heard about the project I was really excited to take part, as I was able to share the beauty of our musical culture internationally.  Especially when I saw the samples of Harris Tweed…. I began imagining how my story will be narrated on the fabric.



I have never been to Scotland but through this prestigious hand-woven cloth, I feel that I have met and interacted with the weaving community”.



On Aesthetics:


There is a set of principles associated with the nature and appreciation of beauty: aesthetics, which cannot be ignored when discussing art, craft or design. Aesthetics are understood subjectively, and that subjectivity varies from cultures, traditions, to individuals. In recent times it has become more and more difficult to contest ideas about aesthetics and what is beautiful or appealing, as many theorists’ stress that boundaries between functionality/utility and high art are no longer relevant. That is due to the constant shift in world order. But there is another concern when we talk about design aesthetics, is that both have different criteria of being understood as a creative activity.


In “Aesthetics and the Work of Art”, American art critic and philosopher, Arthur Danto challenges the issue of the object as artwork. He categorises appreciation and aesthetic appreciation with his reference to “ordinary” everyday objects, what might be called anonymous designs. He reasons that the thumbtack, white envelopes or plastic forks are functional objects and not considered for aesthetic appreciation, unless they become artworks. “The comparison reinforce how aesthetic appreciation is dependent on knowledge, formed by cultural distinction and historical moment, rather than by any inherent properties of a given object. Danto argues that while everything that human beings design and make has some potential aesthetic value, certain fields, art in particular, have their own special aesthetics and languages of appreciation, which are made and shared by their cognoscenti. Design also has its experts and critics, but how much harder is their task of aesthetic discrimination than that of an art critic, when their subject is so public, so ordinary, so changing, and so essential to the lives of human beings?”[3]



Design Practice & Pedagogy in Pakistan:

Unlike the arts that more or less serve a non-utilitarian aesthetic measures and sometimes fills universal criteria; design must retain a utilitarian standard, which is a reflection of social, economical, cultural, and historical reference. It is crucial to not consider Western aesthetics as a standard when thinking aesthetics for non-Western art, because of difference in world views of non-Western cultures. Designed objects from other cultures that are seen as artworks from the Western perspective may not hold the same meaning in their culture of origin.


Looking at art and design practice in Pakistan, one cannot go without mentioning Mayo School of Art in Lahore, established in 1875 by John Lockwood Kipling, which focused at the regional crafts of the country and re-evaluated their importance at international platform.  “The pedagogy that Pakistan inherited at independence was one of the triumphs of the colonial state. Art and design education policy under the British had shaped a curriculum that was based on the South Kensington school’s teaching methodologies and principles”[4].


In 1958, the school was renamed, National College of Arts, which although was established as the craft school, would now consider the teaching principles of formal and modern design education of Bauhaus. Walter Gropius’ idea for Bauhaus aimed at meeting the requirements of the age. After the First World War, the shift from manual to machine, from cutting down of space and steps to facilitate better productivity, initiated a new way of thinking. Gropius talked about handicrafts and new forms for mass production, which is still relevant to design practice and padagogy in Pakistan, “Handicrafts and industry may be regarded as opposite poles that are gradually approaching each other. The former have already begun to change their traditional nature. In the future the field of handcrafts will be found to lie mainly in the preparatory stages of evolving experimental new type-forms for mass-production”[5].


Our institutions need to redefine their agendas and philosophies to meet the need of the time. The ideas of the previous century are no longer valid or adequate to meet the requirements of the challenging world that we are a part of today. We must not handicap our youth, who want to learn art and design, by only giving them technical skill for the industry. It is crucial that they also learn to think and create a market for themselves. This market does not have to be the existing industry. Our youth should be moulding the industry and not aiming to adjust in it.


On the brighter side, during the last few years a series of events, projects, and discussion on the subject of art, design and craft have been conducted by practitioners of different generations across the country, which has led to opening dialogue for discussion. This practice must continue in order to develop a vision that converges a shared and broader platform for all, and that looks far beyond mere terminologies of artist, designer and craftsperson. The focus should be on experimentation and innovative use of technology and material with equal dedication for the preservation and renewal of traditions and craftsmanship.


Whether artist, artisan, craftsperson or designer, the challenge really is to be able to communicate. It is time to use each others strength, skill, idea, to make a better product for the community. We have to change the conversation to be able to understand what we think and feel as people, society, country.





[3] Hazel Clark and David Brody, Theorizing Design and Visuality, Design Studies: A Reader (Bloomsbury Academic, 2009)  

[4] Naazish Ata-Ullah, The Semiotics of the Nation’s Icons, The art of Truck and Miniature Painting, Mazaar Bazaar Design and Visual Culture in Pakistan (Oxford Press, 2009)

[5] Walter Gropius, The New Architecture and the Bauhaus (The MIT Press, 1965)