Indigenous Handicrafts Have Stories To Tell

Text by Carolyn Hong
Photo by Gerai OA

Its fans stalk its movements closely, and some even arrive even before it opens. After all, some of the best items are snapped up within minutes.

The items that Gerai OA sells are not easy to get because they come from faraway villages in the interior of Malaysia, and are beautiful and well made. On top of that, every cent goes back to the artisan.

Gerai OA stands for Gerai Orang Asal, roughly translated as stall of the indigenous people of Malaysia. It has no fixed location but operates as a pop-up stall in different places, selling a wide array of indigenous handicrafts.

It is run by a group of volunteers led by the energetic Reita Rahim, a lecturer in graphic and interior design with a passion for Malaysian indigenous handicraft. It aims to help indigenous artisans by bringing their crafts to the marketplace, and providing an economic incentive to keep these traditional arts alive.

But as importantly, she said, it is also a way to highlight the rapid depletion of natural resources and the challenges faced by the indigenous communities who have to fight encroachment into their space.

“The idea is not just to get money for the craftsmen but also to get their stories out into the public space. If we talk about disappearing forests, people will just listen and say, yah, yah,” Reita said.

“But if we say there’s no more rattan to make your bags, it becomes much easier to understand,” she said “We don’t sell crafts but stories.”

She, thus, takes time to write the stories behind the handicraft, and publishes them on social media as well as booklets.

Malaysia still has a rich indigenous culture as its many native ethnic groups still observe the old ways of life … well, as far as they can. Modern pressures and depleting forests are threatening the old lifestyle and traditions.

Reita, 42, recalled how an indigenous community had lost their skills of making the tools related to rice farming when they had to stop farming.

Gerai OA began in 2004 as a small venture by Reita who was then researching the lesser-known heritage craft like baskets and mats.

“These are likely to be the first to disappear compared to more upmarket items like textiles and beads,” she said.

She visited an indigenous village in Selangor, and met the women there who asked for help to sell their handicraft. From there, it began.

The challenges were staggering. The villages are far from the city, and the craftsmen unused to the relentless demands and deadlines in commercial trade.

“We didn’t have the know-how or where, logistics, pricing etc,” she said, adding that she managed to go forward with a lot of help from Colin Nicholas, Malaysia’s foremost expert in indigenous issues.

On top of that, Reita relies on public transport which does not reach remote areas.

That’s when she began to rope in volunteers, recruited via social media. Today, there are 15 active volunteers, ranging from expat housewives to students. These are the quiet workers who make the arduous drives on bumpy roads to collect the crafts, label them, and man the stalls on sale days.

The crafts come from all over Malaysia including Sabah and Sarawak.

They aren’t always market-ready when Reita first sees them. Sometimes, it’s by sheer chance that she spots an item.

She recounted how she once spotted a woven basket under a village house, used to keep chickens. Seeing its beauty under the grime, she immediately commissioned the bemused locals to make the baskets for sale.

But it takes hard work to get the quality up to mark, and designs appealing to the contemporary urban market.

Reita, thus, has to adapt her teaching skills to tutor the artisans on design. “Imagine teaching them about tertiary colours and so on!” she said.

It also takes a long time to make the items, not just because the work is finicky. Raw material, especially rattan, is also getting hard to find as forests are increasingly lost.

When an item is bought, part of the price is paid immediately while the balance is given after the item is sold. There is no issue with trust as Reita is such a regular at the villages. She visits every one to three months, often with food for the older people and medicines for the medicine chest.

The response has been tremendous. Gerai OA, which began with funding from Reita herself, earned RM110,000 for the craftsmen last year. It’s so popular that items have to be rationed at sales to ensure that supply doesn’t run out.

The prices are fair based on the durability of the item and difficulty in acquiring the raw material but aren’t too expensive.

“We don’t want items meant for everyday use to become unaffordable to the average Malaysian,” she said.

Despite the demand, it’s not always possible to get more stock because of logistics. Often, the craftsmen can’t produce much more as well as they have farms to tend to, and raw materials are hard to obtain.

By just the strength of volunteer power, Gerai OA has given a fresh lease of life to crafts and craftsmen, and helped shine a spotlight on the challenges posed by ‘progress and modernity to the indigenous communities.

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