An Overview of Handicraft products from Pacific Island Countries

Weaving, tapa making and design, music, dance, adornment, tattoo and body art, voyaging and navigation, and carving are the most widely practised heritage art forms across all Pacific Island countries and territories. They are cultural products that are mobilised throughout the region and internationally. For example, for dance there are costumes made from pandanus, tapa cloth, seeds, shells, straw, and animal and other plant materials.

For music, there are instruments made from bamboo, wood, animal hide, shells and seeds. For adornment and fashion, there are woven baskets, jewellery, and hats, such as those in the photos.

Generally, there is broad participation in the handicraft sector by all generational groups in island-based communities as well as their diasporas around the world. These groups heavily identify with Pacific Island handicrafts as they are present in traditional ceremonies, community and family events, corporate and tourism activities, and everyday use in homes of Pacific Islanders.

There is increasing movement and activity amongst Pacific indigenous youth to research, revive and re-learn many art forms and skills that have not been practised for decades. Where colonisation was extensive, some of these practices were suppressed, but now a conscious effort is being made across the cultural sector to strengthen and revive heritage art skills, knowledge and products. With increased participation and production comes increased mobilisation of these products from country to country.

The sale of heritage and handicraft products has great potential, and the contribution it makes to the economy is significant.  Unfortunately, this contribution has not been statistically quantified, but the number of people engaged in this sector (e.g. 25% of Tonga’s work force) and the evidence of Pacific handicrafts in retail outlets of all sizes, handicraft markets, and ports where cruise ships dock is evidence of the important part they play in the economy, undervalued as it is.

Across the Pacific Island region, the handicraft sector is the most diverse, rich and complex sector. It is also a sector that is extremely vulnerable; as technology becomes more accessible to Pacific communities, traditional motifs, symbology and knowledge are being increasingly sought by commercial producers and manufacturers.

Indigenous Pacific artists struggle to revive, retain and preserve their heritage, but are in a fight to protect these resources and knowledge in a market place that produces unfair competition through large manufacturers and mass importation. Small, local creative businesses exist in an environment that provides them with little support or incentive, and where there are cost implications and hindrances in the trade and mobilisation of products within the region. However, there is movement by regional and international bodies such as SPC, the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat and UNESCO to support national governments to put in place better protections and mechanisms to safeguard the broader culture sector.

While there is an abundance of projects that the cultural and creative industries contribute to, indigenous and Pacific-resident artists struggle to secure commissions and contracts to design, produce and supply handcrafted works for hotels, governments and corporate agencies. In contrast, non-Pacific artists have access to better equipment and materials and also the technological and financial capacity to mobilise their products. Non-Pacific artists also have access to a broader selection of customs and clearance agents, so they are able to seek proper treatment, packaging and clearance of their products at a very low price, thus ensuring that their products remain cheap. Customers therefore prefer to buy products from non-Pacific artists rather than from local Pacific communities.

The importation of cultural products and services, particularly from Asian countries, is a big issue for Pacific artists.  This exploitation of intellectual property rights of Pacific cultural producers has seen designs by them replicated and sold in local retail outlets, without permission or remuneration. Those that are successful in selling their work to retailers, do so at minimal levels but the resale margins are significantly escalated by retailers without fair and decent prices paid to the producers.

Internationally based manufacturers, particularly those in Asia, have capitalised on mass reproductions, which are predominant in our retail outlets throughout the region. Their products are well finished, well packaged, treated and fumigated and therefore pass through Pacific borders without hindrance and restriction, and at a much lower price compared to those prepared by our own Pacific producers.

Despite these difficulties, the handicrafts sector has significant potential to provide diverse and sustainable livelihoods for our Pacific communities through the production and sale of handicrafts, in the first instance for their own local markets. The potential for co-production ventures for handicraft producers across Pacific nations is a possible avenue for producers, but this is not possible at present as the sector has low protection, high exploitation and producers struggle to effectively supply even their own local markets while competing against mass imports.

The key products/items that are being traded and mobilised throughout the Pacific region are relatively similar in each Pacific country.



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