Wow! A recent class visit to the Maiwa Handprints atelier accomplished two things for me: a behind the scenes look at the operation and product at one of my favorite stores on Granville Island (even though we visited only the atelier/workshop/research lab area and did not venture into the retail store) and a whole new learning and appreciation for the skill, determination and effort required to marry humanitarian interest and motivation with the complex challenges of working in the traditional context of rural India.
Charlotte Kwon is the owner of Maiwa Handprints Ltd, which she founded almost 3o years ago, selling artisanal cloth, clothing and jewellery, handmade in India. The product is beautiful and unique; a wide array of fabrics both functional and ornamental; wearable works of art, the kind which conjure up for most of us the mystique and romantic lore of colonial India; jewels, the Raj, kings, queens, antiquity! Most of the inventory is made available to the international, particularly North American public, through Charlotte’s ongoing passion for the support and promotion of artisans in India, specifically of the artists involved in the intricate art of hand dying and printing and her status as an international expert in fiber arts and natural dye techniques. In addition, she is a researcher and documentarian, constantly seeking to preserve the techniques and recipes of the practitioners of this unique art form. Her nuanced knowledge and love of her life’s work shone through the demonstrations she provided of the various cloths, shawls and fabrics of intricate stitchery and embroidery. I felt the intense rush of the desire to acquire; the almost physical impulse to possess and own everything we touched. Such colours; such artistry; some of the handprints sublimely intricate and ornate; others subtle and of beautifully muted elegance: I wanted them all! William Morris’ sage old advice to acquire and possess only that which is “either functional or beautiful (or both)” suddenly made perfect sense and it didn’t hurt to consider that such a Maiwa purchase would be functional as well as lovely, not a speculative commodity purchase as is common in today’s overheated art world.
Ms. Kwon’s work with the indigenous peoples and artisans of India’s rural areas is both inspirational and humbling; she seems to have succeeded where so many other well intentioned individuals and organizations have failed. Maiwa’s business plan and mission have been effective in their goal to advocate for the preservation and promotion of traditional artisanal handiwork as well as address humanitarian needs in the communities they work in by raising money through their Maiwa foundation for the small but necessary ‘helping hand’ kind of grants. In the process, they have managed to navigate the treacherous shoals of humanitarian work while forging a business, evidently profitable enough for them to continue for these many years, as well as the artisans they work with. Ms. Kwon, along with Tim McLaughlin, business partner, writer and photojournalist, have forged a demonstrably successful model of combining the emotion and passion to save and preserve an art form and the theoretical framework for doing so and presumably, how it could be done again. Maiwa, in Cantonese and Mandarin means “a word used to name the language through which art speaks”. How very appropriate.