Ecotourism and making handmade items can go a long way in helping to sustainably develop communities. Etsian Kaz Brecher aka kazoo reveals an inside perspective on the process of creating a functional community art project in Fiji. She traveled there as a member of TribeWanted.com, an ecotourism website committed to making your vacation a lot more meaningful.
What do flat-pack children’s stools, a sustainable tourist village in northern Fiji, and one of the hippest gift stores in Los Angeles have in common? My project! Let me back up a bit to make sense of the TribeWanted Baby Zaishu project that has taken me more than a year to orchestrate.
First, what is Tribewanted.com? It’s an online social network that is building a sustainable tourist community in an economically-depressed region of Fiji. The brainchild of two 20-something Brits, the project works like this: a small membership fee gets you a week (or two or three) of food and lodging on Vorovoro, a gorgeous strip of lush tropical growth and pristine beach off of the third largest reef in the world, Cakalevu Reef. Ben Keene and Mark Bowness had leased the island for three years, but the catch was that almost nothing was there, and the membership itself would both vote on development efforts and be an instrumental part of building the community.
I traveled to the island 6 months into the project, in February, 2006, after a cyclone and a coup had left the project on shaky ground. Tui Mali, the chief of 5 villages in the region, had turned down the producers of “Survivor: Fiji” in favor of working with TribeWanted, so all of us involved wanted to show him that he’d made the right decision. When I arrived, all they had was a kitchen, a beautiful community center (called a bure), and some composting toilets. So, while falling for the Fijian way of life, I helped with flooring and weaving bamboo.
As it happens, some years before, I came across a beautiful stool, called a Zaishu, designed by Australian artist Matthew Butler. Transcending social and cultural barriers, Zaishu collaborates internationally with artists to feature artwork from various community groups, endangered tribal art, as well as hand-painted limited editions of slot-together chairs made from plantation pine using water-based inks. Known as flat-pack furniture, because it can ship and store in a condensed form, and with Good Environmental Choice certification, the chairs are the epitome of what I love in great environmental design: incredible aesthetics married with efficient functionality. I had emailed Matthew hoping to find a way to collaborate, but nothing made sense until I traveled to Fiji.
It struck me that we could do a limited edition of the Baby Zaishu chairs, designed for children, painted with Fijian patterns, to benefit the local school — raising awareness locally about flat packing and sustainable ideals while also calling attention to the potential of low-impact tourism. So, after that first trip to Vorovoro, I flew to Sydney and met with Helen Punton of Zaishu, who was as excited about the idea as I was.
I returned to LA and approached Billie and Tootie, the owners of Reform School, a recently-opened gift shop that carries responsibly made or recycled/reformed art products. Their motto is “reuse, recycle, reform, rebel,” which goes hand-in-hand with the TribeWanted way. And they had been interested in my involvement with the project, so when I proposed that they carry the Baby Zaishus exclusively, they agreed.
One year later, after running for election as the April “chief” of the TribeWanted.com project, I was off to Fiji again, this time with silk screens and water-based paints in tow. Each month, one of the members of the eco-tourist tribe is elected as chief the key liaison between the visiting tribe and the indigenous tribe: the chief is given a small portion of the operating budget to use towards a legacy project. I used this money to help defray the hefty cost of materials. The raw laser-cut wood pieces were shipped from Australia to Fiji. And I brought everything else with me (much to the horror of the airline attendant who checked me in for my flight).
I chose patterns carefully for their significance in Fijian culture. The tops represented the oldest tradition of tapa/masi, stenciling onto bark paper, while the sides drew from modern bula flower patterns and the woven mat patterns that are specific to the northern regions. I readied the silk screens in order to better involve people of all skill levels, and members of both the international and the local Mali tribe set about hand-painting details and working together. It was back-breaking work, with the paint drying quickly in the heat, so we could only get through a few pulls before we’d have to wash the screens and begin again. But the curiosity about the project accomplished exactly what I’d hoped — it created a platform for discussion about traditional arts and what it means to design everyday objects in sustainable ways, and put some attention on this oft-forgotten region in Fiji. The Fiji Times profiled the project twice while I was on the island, and I hope that in spreading the word about the project, the discussion will continue.
Ultimately, gifts were presented to the Mali District School, to the Chief of Mali and to elders of the tribe who were instrumental in the project. I then hand-carried the rest of the chairs back to L.A. as luggage, so as to cut down on more shipping carbon impact. The chairs are now available for sale at www.reformschoolrules.com with all proceeds going back to the Mali District School for arts and sustainability education initiatives.
The school currently struggles to meet even basic educational needs, like notebooks and pencils, visual aids and books. The TribeWanted members have been bringing a book each since the inception of the project to build what is now a robust library. The Baby Zaishu project grew out of a desire to provide aid of a different sort. During the first year of TribeWanted, for example, a Green Club was started at the school, in which the kids learned how to make their own paper from recycled bits and pieces, re-use plastic bottles and bags in unexpected ways, and start a garden at the school. But the budget needed to keep the club going was not available, so it lapsed after a few months. The Zaishu proceeds will be able to jump-start the Green Club and allow children to express their creativity while exploring traditional and new art forms.
It leaves me hopeful that, when presented with enthusiasm and something to rally around, people across the globe are willing to come together to support artists and dreamers, eco-tourists and foreign villagers, in an effort to make our world a better and more beautiful place.
Further Resource Links:
Fiji Times Article on the Project
Kaz Brecher, aka kazoo, recently published her first book, The Art of Wooing: An Email Tale of Modern Courtship (www.theartofwooing.com), a romp through the travails of finding love as told through emails back and forth, with mixed media art and poetry. She revels in paper products with her friends at Rosebud Design Studio (www.rosebud-design.com) and hula hoops out in the sunshine whenever she can. She lives in Los Angeles, despite having left her heart in San Francisco. And, when she’s not working in interactive media, plotting her next film pursuit, or dabbling in wooing experiments, she can be found seeking out amazing new artists and products online and in the world. Further blogs from her Fiji adventures can be found on the TribeWanted.com website here.