The biggest challenge for anyone running a project in an unfamiliar country and culture is the pressure they place on themselves to get the job done.
Zaishu is a contemporary art and design studio known for our award winning slot together seat / table. We collaborate globally with artists to produce work that celebrates culture and creativity – a sustainable mix of social art project and functional design.
Since 2004, the Zaishu project, operated by myself and fellow designer Helen Punton, worked in 22 countries with over 1,000 different artists and staged 105 exhibitions. The India project was one of Zaishu’s first international workshops and was a natural progression for us to record the visual information of a culture in line with Zaishu’s four-word ethos of ‘Participation, Creativity, Sustainability (social/ environmental) and Evolution’.
It would have been impossible to run the Zaishu India project without local knowledge helping us on the ground in India. For this reason we teamed up with production manager Shalu Sood from iLink India who specialises in assisting western companies in India. Shalu helped to organise the artists, introduced us to Samparc Children’s Village and provided general support and advice for the project. Shalu’s parents were also very hospitable and helpful to us.
My task was to see if it was possible to generate employment for Indian artists and to keep the cultural traditions of their work alive in the face of India’s rapid modernisation.
It is important to be mindful that some things won’t go to plan and are out of your control. This helplessness and frustration can easily manifest into unnecessary stress and negative thoughts that maybe you are not up to the task and don’t have the right aptitude or skill level to obtain the outcomes that are required.
This is certainly what I felt every day. I questioned my ability to lead the experimental project, be a ‘people person’ in a social environment when I had work to do, negotiate with the artists and Samparc Village to make sure they were happy, collaborate with Mike on the documentary and find the energy required to absorb and process my new surroundings. I was also funding the project with AUD$18,000 of Zaishu’s money so I didn’t want to blow out costs, being mindful we should have at least $18,000 worth of saleable work at the end.
One unforeseen problem that required negotiation was to communicate with the artists and Samparc Village that we were not rich westerners speculating to make money by exploiting their talents. The Zaishu website listed Zaishus for sale for AUD$360, a fortune to an unemployed sign writer or tribal artist in India. In reality when you include airfares and accommodation, materials, international shipping, laser cutting, varnishing and paying Samparc we would be lucky to break even.
Two years after we started the project we managed to break even, not including our time and resources. This is not a good way to run a business. It could be argued that the positive publicity the project received made up for this but a business cannot survive and artists in India or anywhere else cannot be paid on merely just good publicity. Accountability and responsibility to give safe, respectful and fairly paid employment to the participating artists and craftspeople should be the main priority.
On a personal level, some people may choose to go trekking in Nepal, diving in Thailand or visit museums in Europe to add to their sense of happiness and well being in life. My choice this time was to do the Zaishu India project, which has fulfilled similar goals. The project in India has given me wonderful insight into Indian culture and equipped me with the tools and experience to continue working in ethical and culturally relevant design.
How do you balance business needs with the objectives of a social project such as Zaishu India? Do such social projects have a place in small businesses?