Jamaica, renowned for its stunning landscapes and vibrant culture, has a rich tradition of handmade craftsmanship that dates back centuries. This sector has deep historical roots, with many artisans tracing their ancestry to West Africa, where skilled craftsmanship was a vital part of daily life. In this blog post/ docustory, we will explore the history of Jamaica's handmade sector, its unique qualities, and the challenges it faces in the modern world. Additionally, we'll delve into a personal connection of Ashley Rousseau (Founder of Beenybud) to this craft and the efforts to revive and promote it.
Historical Roots and the Legacy of Slavery
Jamaica's handmade sector is intertwined with its painful history of slavery. During the transatlantic slave trade, African people were brought to Jamaica, bringing with them their rich cultural traditions and artisanal skills. These skills, deeply rooted in West African heritage, included weaving, pottery, basketry, and more. As the enslaved population adapted to their new environment, these skills were passed down through generations.
Inspiration from Personal Experience
“My mother's involvement in basketry and her collaboration with skilled local artisans served as a powerful source of inspiration when I was growing up in the small rural village of Gordon Town located outside of Kingston, the capital of Jamaica. Witnessing her dedication and creativity in co-creating with these artisans left a lasting impact and I decided to carry her legacy forward. “ Ashley Rousseau, Founder, Beenybud
Challenges Faced by the Handmade Sector
Over the years, the handmade sector in Jamaica has faced significant challenges, particularly with the influx of cheap, mass-produced goods. Many people have come to associate handmade products with the past, considering them the domain of the elderly or economically disadvantaged. This perception has led to a decline in younger artisans wanting to learn the skills needed for handmade items. In addition, for a small business like Beenybud shipping from Jamaica is both expensive and difficult and so this has impeded the company’s growth via international ecommerce sales to date (currently the products are only sold locally and in hotel gift shops).
Reviving Jamaica's Handmade Sector
Despite these challenges, Ashley’s commitment to reviving Jamaica's handmade sector is commendable. Her focus on working with natural fibers found abundantly in Jamaica, such as banana, coconut, wicker, thatch, pandana, jippi jappa straw, and khus khus (vetiver), highlights a dedication to preserving tradition while adapting to contemporary needs.
“Living in Kingston, I am a bridge between the artisans and the outside world. I design the products and we work together to make these designs into products. We create handbags, gift items and home accessories such as storage baskets, tableware, and rugs for both the local and hotel industry. By doing this we help in improving the economic opportunities for artisans but also introduce Jamaica's unique craftsmanship to a global audience. I have built strong relationships with my artisan groups, and this has enabled me to better understand their challenges and strengths, ultimately contributing to the sustainability and growth of their communities.” – Ashley
Changing the perception of handmade products is a crucial step in revitalizing Jamaica's handmade sector. These items are not relics of the past; they are embodiments of history, culture, and skilled craftsmanship. Promoting the beauty and value of handmade creations in the local market can hopefully help shift attitudes in young Jamaicans to want to once more learn the weaving skills of their ancestors and therefore preserve the craft but also increase the supply of these in-demand products while providing income for these groups.
- For example, one group located in a rural area called Glengoffe in the hills above Kingston saw their income from product sales increase 185% from 2021 to 2022.
- In addition, Beenybud spearheads grant-funded projects to provide basic and advanced skills for artisans and capacity support for the farmers who supply the raw materials which also help provide immediate income generation and future opportunities.
- Beenybud is currently preparing to begin another project that will do research into the history of straw weaving in Jamaica to build an archive and present a permanent public exhibition.
“I hope this will provide an important resource for persons wanting to do research on straw weaving which is an important part of our cultural heritage and therefore needs to be preserved. I also hope that it will make the incredibly talented artisans who I work with proud of their work and their profession and help the public to appreciate this part of our culture as Jamaicans.” – Ashley
You can see the entire sustainable collection of Beenybud on www.beenybud.com and follow their journey on @Beenybud.
Docustory shared by – Ashley Rousseau, Founder, Beenybud
Docustory written by – Sindhu Holla, Founder, Fifth Origins
Impact country – Jamaica
Sector - Handicraft