Berlinda Duncan-Persaud wants Amerindian art and craft to drive indigenous economies

Berlinda Duncan- Persaud has spent much of the past two years trying to interweave the art and craft of the Amerindian communities into mainstream Guyanese life by making the work of indigenous craftsmen and women available to a coastal market and even to extend the demand outside of Guyana. Up until now, however, she is still to be persuaded that her efforts are reaping the real rewards which she seeks, transforming what has long been the much admired handiwork of Amerindian craftspeople into commodities from which they can reap sustainable material rewards.

Herself an Amerindian, originally from the Aishalton community (and the daughter of former Minister of Amerindian Affairs Phillip Duncan) and a craftsperson herself, she has, over time, developed a talent for selecting Amerindian works of art and craft that will withstand the scrutiny of a demanding market that extends not only to coastal Guyana but to regional and international markets. Her method has been to engage the creators in extended exchanges aimed at developing business links that have sometimes led to marketing arrangements that reap modest financial rewards for the producers.

Berlinda is blunt about her view that what, frequently, is the ‘wow’ factor that is sometimes associated with high-quality Amerindian art and craft has to be transformed into higher levels of commercial success. She believes that the producers who smile gracefully when plaudits are showered on their work want, more than anything else, to be able to ‘talk money’ with the admirers of their work. It is, she says, a matter of necessity.

“Strong communities have to be built on strong economies and the art and craft of Amerindian communities can help to lay the foundation for strong economies,” Berlinda says.

Berlinda Duncan-Persaud

She would do more, she says, but for the fact that there are constraints that are not easily overcome. There is, for example, the limitations on the volumes of goods that can easily be moved over long distances, given the long-standing and yet-to-be remedied transportation constraints. Small consignments mean that profit margins are slim, a circumstance that sometimes dims the enthusiasm of the producers.

Then there are the constraints associated with ensuring that potential customers’ requirements are met in matters pertaining to delivery deadlines. In circumstances where any number of things can undermine meeting delivery deadlines there is every likelihood that consumer confidence will decline. On the other hand there are complexities associated with price-setting and with ensuring that the producers of Amerindian art and craft reap a level of reward that imbues in them a sense of the worthwhileness of their talents.

Berlinda is under no illusions that her efforts to create the commercial linkages that can redound to the economic advantage of Amerindian craftsmen and women and by extension to communities has to be supported by the creation of a value chain, a model used to describe the process by which individuals or groups engaged in production procure and add value to raw materials in order to create a finished product that is then sold to customers.

“The problem is that everything has to fall into place and we are dealing with an environment in which many things can go wrong,” she says, so that creating the value chain that can maximize the returns for Amerindian craftspeople is still very much a work in progress.

The absence of a mainstream commercial culture that embraces Amerindian art and craft to the extent of having created a level of demand that can be translated into meaningful profit is one of the principal gaps to be filled. There is, Berlinda says, still no entrenched understanding of the value of the work of the Amerindians. Accordingly, she says, it continues to be to the disadvantage of the producers that prices are fixed within an environment of haggling rather than against yardsticks that measure the real value of the product. She believes that in such circumstances it is the Amerindian producer that customarily gets ‘the short end of the stick.’

Another not infrequent challenge has to do with what is the need for the economically challenged producers to be paid for their products over a short period of time, often immediately. This, against the backdrop of the wait for payment that prevails in the contemporary business culture and the sense of urgency that is invariably associated with small producers ‘turning over’ their earnings. Inevitably, Berlinda sometimes becomes ‘caught up’ in hard luck cases that result in her having to provide up-front payment for consignments of goods then wait for transactions to be completed in order for her own reimbursements to be addressed.

What she describes as “structural weaknesses” in marketing arrangements for Amerindian art and craft repose in the limited opportunities afforded by ready-market opportunities. Events like GuyExpo and Amerindian Heritage Month, she said, provide much too small a window to meet the marketing needs of the Amerindian art and craft sector. Allied to this, she says, has been the absence of any real investment in marketing Amerindian art and craft. By marketing she means, first, undertaking promotional initiatives that help to deepen appreciation of the cultural relevance of Amerindian art and craft as occurs elsewhere in the hemisphere and developing permanent coastal locations that can serve as all-year-round locations where high-quality art and craft from Amerindian communities can be bought and sold.

Not surprisingly, Berlinda believes that the way forward for enhancing the marketability of Amerindian art and craft reposes mainly in the development of a larger number of visitor arrivals through the tourism industry. Here, she takes her cue from the more developed markets for indigenous art and craft elsewhere in the  hemisphere. In those instances the promotion of the work of the indigenous communities is heavily supported by the efforts of government and the generation of market demand that arises out of high levels of tourist arrivals. If she does not rule out the importance of the local market she believes that the international importance attached to the civilizations and the ways of life of indigenous peoples can serve as a driver to create the wider marketability of Guyana’s Amerindian art and craft.

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