The art of preserving craft

(Beijing This Month)
Updated: 2006-11-08 15:45

The carpet weaver sits low down near the floor, pulling and tying wool in figure-of-eight knots across the strings of the carpet loom. The glassware maker lights a blowtorch and fashions an ancient dragon from a slender opaque tube of glass. Dishes of colour pigment topple and tilt, and cram for space, around a table where pieces of bare cloisonn¨¦ are painstakingly worked and coloured. Exquisite gold and silver filigree lies stretched and twisted on a wooden workbench.

All is extraordinary, beautiful and rare to see.

A visit to the Baigongfang craft centre is a wonderful yet humbling experience. Providing space for 102 masters of their diverse crafts, a visitor can observe the intimate setting of the artist working on their subject, an opportunity that allows a moment to consider the real value of handmade art.

Here, everyday, between 9:30 am and 4:30 pm, craftsmen and women throw open the doors of their studios with the purpose of shedding more light on a cultural sector that is suffering an acknowledged decline. The invitation is not, as can generally be assumed elsewhere, simply about retailing. There is a very genuine concern that the art of craft in China is disappearing and must be protected. Baigongfang's mission is to oversee that protection.

Chongwen District is traditionally associated with craft making, for imperial commissions during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) as well as for local folk art. The presence now of the new craft collective is fitting and meaningful to those working in the space as it carries on and aims to preserve a tradition and art form.

Concern over job losses in the sector as well as an almost audible decline of production in recent years, compared to China's craft belle epoch of the 1970s, prompted Beijing Municipal Government to act. Under the leadership of Beijing Industry Promotion Bureau, Beijing Arts and Crafts Association and Beijing Arts and Crafts Research Centre, it established Baigongfang. The facility opened in November of last year.

As well as housing craft studios, an exhibition and lecture space provide further opportunity for the centre to promote and rekindle interest in craftwork.

Why exactly the decline has occurred is a matter of debate, but evidence does suggest that part of it can be attributed to a break in the link of family artistic vocations. Today, many young people no longer see it as feasible to consider an occupation that has associations with artistic poverty. Indeed, in the past, being a craft artist often meant being poorer than others. By regenerating enthusiasm for the sector, the centre hopes to revitalize the industry. By focusing on the discipline and process of the craft, positive changes will undoubtedly take place.

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