LYDIA + BILAL | What Does It Mean to Be an Artisan?

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Founders of ArtBox Lydia and Bilal


Meet Bilal, interdisciplinary artist, and Lydia, curator, working amongst many other things on activating collaborations between creatives and craftsmen.


« Artisan or Craftsman is a skilled craft worker who makes partly or entirely hand-made material objects »

Would you please introduce yourselves to the Artizaans community? Could you tell us about what led you to your current career path? What are some highlights of your career working with artisans so far?

Bilal Yılmaz: I'm an interdisciplinary artist-designer based in Istanbul ( I mainly use light, sound and interaction to create sculptural objects, installations and experiences that shift the spectator’s perception and bring joy of collectivity. I also work on social and collective projects, to unite and activate people to engage with their environment and question the way of things. In 2012, I started the “Craftsmanship In Istanbul” research. My interest in production and its role in creating social bonds activated my research to go deeper and discover underground craft studios in the city and to reveal their potential for creative production. Documenting craft culture by mapping the craft studios and sharing them on digital and physical maps, in order to activate collaborations between creatives and craftsmen has become an integral part of my artistic practice. In time, my own production process has been shaped through collaborations with craftsmen. My art and design productions have become one of the inspiring solid examples of using the city's craft potential for the production of creative ideas, which I call as creative-craft collaboration.

Lydia Chatziiakovou: I am a curator. Since 2004, I co-direct ArtBOX, a creative arts management office in Thessaloniki, Greece, that conceives, designs and implements contemporary art projects revolving around the exploration of art as agent of social change. I curate and coordinate projects that bring together communities, artists and institutions from Greece and abroad. Currently, I curate Common Lab, a programme by Goethe-Institut Thessaloniki and ArtBOX, that aims to create a "Manual for Social Innovation through Art"; and I am a member of the curatorial committee of Freiraum - a Europe-wide platform for arts, culture and civil society institutions and initiatives. A lot of what we do at ArtBOX focuses on creating projects and tools to support communities in crisis and offer alternatives. Between Thessaloniki and Istanbul, I have witnessed the impact of the disappearance of crafts, and the need to preserve its potential. As a curator, I regularly work with craftsmen for the production of art works and exhibitions. In Thessaloniki, even though I am fortunate enough to work with a group of experienced craftsmen specialised in exhibition production, I have also witnessed the disappearance of smaller crafts studios that can respond to the needs of individual creatives, because of the academia-oriented education system, and the depreciation of crafts' social, cultural and economical value. In Istanbul, which is less affected by Western development models, crafts culture still survives, regardless of the socio-political pressures, and there is still chance to activate its potential.

Art products prepared and showcased by Bilal
How do you define the word “artisan”? What are the necessary qualities an artisan has to carry and what qualities would conflict with your definition?


Artisan or Craftsman is a skilled craft worker who makes partly or entirely hand-made material objects. Craftsmen are mostly specialised on specific production techniques, related to a specific material. With the advent of industrialisation, craftsmen's production possibilities and skills have gradually been hidden behind the romanticised image of  “tradition”, which limits their value and fails to recognise their potential as alternative hubs for the production of creative and innovative ideas. Within our concept for creative-craft collaborations, we define Crafts according to 4 criteria, which enables us to focus on disappearing craft studios and to highlight their production potential: knowledge taught from master to apprentice; production based on natural materials and traditional techniques; "small in place - slow in time” production model; production that generates income. This classification intentionally excludes folk-art, which is closer to a decorative art form without function; as well as designer-makers, the new generation artisans, who are often self-taught and mostly use digital tools to create their own brand and production. This distinction creates the framework within which we can discover the production potential of craft studios in the city.


Four criteria that defines what an artisan is according to Lydia and Bilal


In the light of your research and projects, what do you think are the obstacles artisans face and what are the threats to craftsmanship? Do you think that with time, some of the obstacles would get even harder to deal with? Can you elaborate on them?


Contemporary financial, political and social factors, such as industrial production, neoliberal socio-economic policies, urban development plans and gentrification, are pushing Crafts to the  margins. As their economical and cultural potential is not recognised by governments and authorities, there are no policies developed to sustain their existence. At the same time, even institutions and initiatives that recognise Crafts' value tend to connect it only to cultural values and aesthetics of the past, tradition and heritage, which fails to acknowledge its current dynamic, and focuses on preservation rather than regeneration. As a result, Crafts get stuck in a system that forces them to disappear. Our proposed creative-craft collaboration model aims to first reveal and then activate Crafts' cultural and economical potential. We start by documenting-mapping craft studios, which visualises their existence in the city, demonstrates their relations within the urban fabric, and raises awareness on the crafts issue. While sharing the results of this research, we also realise and share pilot creative productions in collaboration with Craftsmen, which activates other creatives to use their potential. Especially Bilal's participation with craft-oriented projects in the 2nd Istanbul Design Biennial and the 15th Istanbul Biennial, enabled the project to reach mass audience.


Reflecting on the third question, what do you think artisans really need? What are they looking for and what do you believe would be the best way to help them? As Artizaans, what are the tools we can utilise to be of help?

Multilayered problems ask for multilayered solutions. Making the problem and potential visible is not enough to solve the Crafts issue. Much more is required: mapping craft studios, creating a strong network between them, connecting them with a strong creatives network, activating their potential through creative collaborations, bringing visibility and economical value to the system, and forging active bonds between craftsmen and creatives (often representing different generations). To be able to realise these steps in a coherent, long-term and systematic way, we have been working on a platform idea. Artizaans can support creative-craft collaborations by showcasing the products of creative-craft collaborations and promoting the projects that create a strong impact on crafts and creatives.

 Handmade artisanal production shown

Can you give more details on the concept of design management and the ways brands/artists can work with artisans using this approach? Can you give any tips?


The design management service is addressed to Creatives (artists, designers, architects, or anyone with a creative idea), who don’t have the possibility to carry out their production in Istanbul or don't have the time and experience to adapt their production through the craft production possibilities, but still want to use this craft potential and contribute to a local, sustainable, ecological and fair craft-based production model. The design management service offers Creatives the possibility to realise their ideas together with the talented craft masters of Istanbul and get well made crafted products. This is accompanied by a production report and map, and the list of the craftsmen involved. This way, the design management service enables Creatives to use the production potential of Craftsmen, but also to have a story of the production.