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Interview

Petra Gupta Valentová – fashioning the patterns of success and sustainability

Petra Gupta Valentová is a Czech artist currently living in New York. Her doctoral thesis at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague (UMPRUM) is primarily being undertaken in India, the home of her husband. Valentová has succumbed to the attractions of Indian woodblock printing, and is also interested in the ethics of fashion and the phenomenon of so-called “slow fashion”. “It annoys me when someone purchases handprinted blue-print (indigo) fabrics, designs a collection, wins a prize for it, and that is the end of it,” says Valentová. “I believe in so-called co-design principles.”

Petra Gupta Valentová – fashioning the patterns of success and sustainability

How is Petra Gupta Valentová coping with her doctoral studies at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague (UMPRUM) in light of this institution’s focus on aesthetics and end-products, rather than processes? What does traditional Czech blue-print production have in common with its Indian counterpart? And what are the downsides of pushing for sustainability in the arenas of fashion and handicrafts? Valentová’s own experiences with handblock printing has led her to conclude that environmentally-friendly materials are often second-rate. She sees the solution of achieving true sustainability in pursuing an empathic and respectful approach towards those who have mastered the traditional handicrafts, irrespective of whether they are operating in the Czech town of Strážnice, or the Indian city of Jaipur.


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We had previously arranged to meet a number of times before, but only succeeded on our third attempt. This was partly because you often jet-set around the world – America, Europe, India … I see you as something of an archetypal cosmopolitan woman. What have such shifts in location yielded for you, and where do you consider to be your true home?
I am at home in all three places – New York, the Czech Republic, and India. Home is wherever I can work, and wherever I can be with my family. New York is the only place that connects me, my husband – who is from India – and our two sons, who were born in the city. The Czech Republic is my emotional home, but my husband feels somewhat out of place here. I am trying to make my children feel at home here as well, which is why I keep bringing them to this country. I can also say that, after thirteen years of travelling to India, I feel at home in Jaipur too.

Did you travel to India before you met your husband?
No. We met in New York when I was a student there. I then began to travel to India once our children were born. I wanted them to be in touch with this culture, and to cultivate family ties there as much as in the Czech Republic.

The subject of your dissertation work at the Textile Production Studio at Prague’s UMPRUM academy is the ethics of design, slow fashion, and contemporary trends in traditional Indian woodblock printing. How did you end up working in the fields of fashion and design? You previously studied fine arts at the Academy of Fine Arts, Prague (AVU).
Prior to that I had been studying statue restoration at AVU. Then I switched over to Jan Hendrych [Czech artist, sculptor, restorer and teacher –Ed.] and figure sculpting, and then ended up studying intermediate art production with [intermedia artist] Milan Knížák. After that I received a Fulbright scholarship and ended up studying art installations and fine art at Hunter College in New York. And after meeting my husband I began to look for ways that I could apply myself in India. I could not imagine that after living such an intensive life in New York, that I would simply go and visit India and do nothing there.

At first I worked with stone factories, but then I soon realised that transporting tonnes of marble across the ocean would be prohibitively expensive. And so I worked on a project with a miniature paintings artist, and also created a few pages of comics about my wedding in India. Because I was always interested in drawing, I also devoted my energies to so-called “automatic drawings”, which would emerge gradually and take months.

I eventually got the idea that I could develop these drawings as woodblock prints. It was a quicker process, and would enable me to utilise larger surfaces and installations. Seven years ago, I discovered the ArtInn residence in Jaipur, and that is where I first tried the traditional Indian craft of woodblock printing, which is used to print on fabrics. I was enthralled by this, and began to experiment more and more with fabrics. People reacted very strongly to this and so I told myself that I would like to delve deeper into this craft and to learn more about its associated techniques. And a doctorate seemed like an appropriate means to this end. Which is why in 2015 I applied to UMPRUM.

Woodblock printing and block blue printing. Kšiltovka Hanele Poislová, fabric IM.PRINTED – PGV (photo: Lucie Vysloužilová, 2018, PGV)

When did you first start thinking about concepts of ethics in design?
During a visit to some courses in sustainable design at the Fashion Institute in New York, because I am interested in the principle of slow living. I am empathic towards people in my orbit, and I was always interested in cultivating or producing my own products. I see this concept quite strongly via food, and the slow food movement then led me to the idea of slow fashion. The more I worked with Indian woodblock printing workshops, the more I became interested in the ethics of production and working with traditional crafts. The central part of my dissertation is focused on working with women in traditional Chhipa printing communities in the Indian village of Bagru. These are women spanning numerous generations, and who are among some of the poorest people in this rural community. They were born into a life of woodblock printing, they work hard, and, unlike us – and our ability to choose our own future – they have no other opportunities.

Does this mean that you offer them work?
No, that would be misleading. I don’t offer them work – they already have work. I try to return the entire design process to them – meaning all the way from designing to printing, as was the historical norm. Indian woodblock printing emerged from and served communities. Designs reflected the lives of local people often associated with farming. Asides from having a printing workshop, they reared cows, cultivated crops; over time, specific workshops emerged in which entire families might even work. Some traditional workshops still remain there. Often they have a few printing tables on the roof or on the ground floor, used during the day for printing. A major change occurred during the 1970s when the British-Indian J.P. John Singh met the British woman Faith (later Singh) in Jaipur, and then their subsequent travels fostered a passion for traditional woodblock printing.

They began buying up the first handmade fabrics, and founded the Anokhi label, which soon became a promoter of Indian woodblock printing in the Western world. They built the Anokhi museum and also published books on the subject. Which is all very well, but I do have reservations about the fact that the present-day large demand for woodblock printed fabrics has led to this craft being viewed as just another manual job. This has meant that much of the overall intellectual know-how often gets overlooked. The complex skills of printers have been shifted to the mere production of goods; they are employed by someone else and thus receive very low pay. I don’t believe that it is completely ethical to approach such people to tell them to print me this and that.

What is your methodology?
I believe in so-called co-designing. Because if we want to produce in an ethical manner, then we need to incorporate the people with whom we work into the manufacturing process. Especially in the case of traditional handicrafts in the Third World. Which is why I hold workshops with printers in Bagru (aka Bagru Bhabhis – or BBs) and we work together to generate designs that stem from them. I don’t tell them what to do or how to work, but rather motivate them to mine their own creativity. My goal is for new designs to once again emerge from this community, as was common in the past, and for the people involved to be valued on the basis of licensing payments. I actively print with them, and react to their input, and they react to mine. And we make sketches together.

I also engage other artists and designers. In March, designers Anvita Jain (who is originally from India) and Kryštof Kříž of Prague’s Jain&Kříž studio undertook an in-person workshop with Bagru locals, showcasing fabric stamps inspired by drawings from Vasilij Kandinskij. Bagru Bhabhis inhabitants thus had in front of them blocks which were entirely different to those with which they were accustomed. These were then used to inspire their own designs. It is more of an artistic project for me. I am not as interested in the aesthetics of the resulting fabrics, because this can – and I hope will – change based on their experiences and courage to experiment. I am more concerned with the process, and about showing that such approaches can yield a commercially viable result. I regularly travel to Bagru, pay for the workshops, sketching, and for the fact that we spend time together above and beyond what would be considered regular work.

Kandinski Workshop at BBs which took place in Rajasthan in conjunction with the Bagru Studio (photo: Kryštof Kříž, 2018, Jain & Kříž)

So as part of efforts to promote sustainability you don’t view the mere payment of fair wages to Third World labourers to be enough?
It is not enough. They need to be the owners of their production techniques. In December I attended a UN conference, organised by NEST, a non-profit devoted to working with Third World labourers around the globe. Co-design has become a hot subject, and I think it will be discussed even more in the future. It is not sufficiently ethical to only reach out to craftsmen and women from the Third World because we want to utilise their techniques and know-how, and utilise that in the West for our own ends. I am troubled by such cultural appropriation and using of people.

A kind of exploitation...
Yes. One needs to ask the question of whether we really want to help, and what is the best way to do that. It is not enough to merely employ and pay such people. That won’t bring about any positive changes to the communities; what they need is a sense of independence. After agriculture, the tradecraft sector is the largest employer of labour in the Third World. That represents huge economic potential. Which is why I want printers to have greater control over their own printing processes so that they become the true owners of their work. But it is something of a marathon. We already have criteria in place for fair trade, but they don’t go far enough. The rules for sustainable collaboration with Third World craftsmen and women are still in a state of flux. And if I, as part of my work, can assist in this dialogue, then I will be all too happy. Tradecrafts are ecosystems, and need to be viewed as such – we need to understand them and to undertake complex work in that regard. I am convinced that co-design represents a viable path. Not necessarily the only one, but certainly a better way forward.

In what ways are Bagru Indian woodblock printing techniques unique?
Bagru is a renowned location, where natural dyes are utilised – for example iron black, reds from the roots of the dyer’s madder (rubia tinctorum), a grey-brown mineral colour known as kashish, and others. And also indigo. There are countless methods and techniques. One can print from wooden or metal blocks, or from wooden blocks that are lined with felt. And then one block after another is made. Either the designs are combined in various ways, or a pattern is replicated – it depends on the colours and the design. So the colours are printed, the fabric is boiled, and that changes the colours somewhat, and then, if required, more printing is undertaken. Such printing is carried out on linen, cotton, silk... The specific methods differ in their complexity.

Women from the traditional Bagru printing community and their fabric stamps (photo: Petra Gupta Valentová, 2018)

The fabrics are also from local sources?
Yes, work is primarily undertaken with Indian-made fabrics, although the possibility exists of supplementing that with one’s own. For example, I have worked with Ahimsa “peace” silk, and am in contact with Kusuma Rajaiah, who created this brand and patented the process involved. Naturally the material is more expensive, but  that is not such an important factor for a Western user. In essence, the materials used for woodblock printing are a matter of taste. But the sustainability of a brand should not merely stand on the nature of the fabric alone. It is not enough to declare that one works with natural dyes, organic cotton, and boast specific knowledge of one’s suppliers. In an ideal world, we should be able to attain all of this. But, in reality, we are not about to sit around waiting for all these factors to come together. Materials are components that can be replaced; we can start out with regular Indian cotton, and then when we are able to, we can replace that with the organic variety.

While at the Fashion Institute in New York we spent many moments dealing with the degree to which we should fulfil all the aspects involved in sustainability. And materials are a problematic aspect. Similarly to natural dyes, they utilise a great deal of water, of which, of course, there is a shortage. Sometimes those chemical, water-based, non-toxic colours are better than the natural ones. For example French designer Brigitte Singh utilises a fantastic system for recycling the waste water she uses. And so ultimately such an approach turns out to be far more sustainable than using natural dyes, which are actually leading to dirty water all over Bagru, and all the dogs and cows are turning blue!

According to NEST, the ideal solution is to have some kind of cheap open source system for cleaning water. They are trying to construct such a system and introduce it among communities so as to limit pollution. Which is why I have an objection to large Western workshops, as well as Indian brands, who have constructed plants and water cleaning facilities in an industrial park not far from Bagru from EU grant funds, but have done absolutely nothing for the printers of the neighbouring village.

And that is the flipside of a sustainable approach.
Exactly. We need to be more honest, and delve deeper.

You also reflect traditional Czech block blue printing in your work.
Yes, I use blue-print (indigo) in a comparative way to the Indian Dabu method [a form of mud-resist hand-block printing which can utilise Kashish –Ed.]. Dabu emerged in a similar way to our blue printing, in which a so-called reserve dye is used to print the design. But Dabu isn’t specific to Bagru, and is also used across other parts of India. And each region uses a somewhat different recipe. In Bagru it is undertaken with a locally accessible black soil, old wheat flour, calcium and lime. Such a reserve is far thinner than the Czech variety, and the result is not entirely precise in comparison to Czech blue printing, which is also more mechanised. In India, the reserve is used to imprint the design, which is then covered in sawdust so as to not blur. As soon as it dries, the fabric is soaked in an indigo vat. The soaking process is undertaken at most four times, meaning that the blue colour is not as rich as with Czech blueprinting. And between each soaking, the fabric needs to oxidise. Dabu is quite muddy, and when it dries in the sun it cracks and creates a completely different blue print effect to the one we know. It tends to be more like batik. A Czech and Bagru block blue print in which both use the same fabric stamps will end up looking quite different. I am interested in how central European block blue print technology could have an influence in India, and vice-versa.

Indian and Czech block blue printing, Bagru versus Strážnice. Indian and Moravian fabrics produced using the same fabric stamps look very different (photo: Petra Gupta Valentová, 2018)

With whom do you collaborate in the Czech Republic?
I mainly work with the blue print workshop in Strážnice, and with block carvers Plůcha and Bartoš in Dvůr Králové nad Labem. Sadly, these men feel a little left out of the creative process, because truly new designs and fabric stamps aren’t really being created here. Rather they mainly repair the old existing ones, or they make new copies of the old ones when an old fabric stamp finally falls apart.

Block blue printing is also experiencing a revival inside your studio at UMPRUM. Do you collaborate with anyone at this educational facility?
Sadly, I am not closely in touch with the people at the studio, because I am studying long-distance, and tend to be in India. But I certainly hope that this is the case, and would be very pleased if blue printing became a regular craft rather than being viewed as exotic folklore. It upsets me when someone purchases some blue print fabric, designs a collection, goes on to win an award, and then that is the end of it. That isn’t sufficient, either for the techniques, or for the block carvers, nor to continue cultivating this tradecraft. And so this basically serves to keep the craft in the folklore category, in which progress cannot be made.

Do you work with Czech block blue print workers the same way as with the women in Bagru?
No, not here. Here, I try to straighten out the line, so that all elements of the process are represented – from block carvers, to dyes, printers, right through to the finished product.  First, all of this has to be connected with new production of blocks and designs. Which is why, with a glass of plum brandy in hand, and sitting under a portrait of Mr. Bartoš’s grandfather – who used to operate a workshop producing such blocks – I pledged that each year we will create at least one new such pattern for a fabric stamp. And over a year and a half, we have already managed to create around seven.

What inspires you during the production of stamps?
I create patterns on the basis of the things that surround us. I use solar printing, cyanotypes, I collect weeds and the most visible items, and then use these to inspire designs.

How is your work progressing, and what are your plans for the fabrics you create?
Asides from creating blocks and undertaking printing, I have also started to create a (visual) record of the printing process. I have taught printers in Strážnice and Bagru how to make such records. They place layers of clean fabric under the final layer, which then creates an imprint of what they are printing from above. These prints then serve to create a kind of singular copy. These are always unique pieces. In my view, these kinds of print copies are the most beautiful of all. The blue print can then look more like a cracked fresco, with overlapping and the incidental creation of abstract-like imagery, which possesses great potential for utilisation, for example in interior decorating. Which I why I asked Czech designer Jiří Pelcl to design some foot stools for me. Not long ago we were at the Czech company Polstrin, and they have now initiated production based on this approach.

So, in essence, each individual piece is unique?
Yes, something emerges each time that has its own story. An imprint of time and space that cannot be repeated.

And that is an imprint of a process found in the resulting product.
At the same time, it is also economical, because block printing is expensive and so this offers one block to be utilised for a greater number of products. Such imprints are experimental, and serve to move forward the process of block printing. I print these onto various types of fabric such as silk, linen, or canvas. And on each fabric the imprint looks a little different – sometimes it is more precise, other times it is more abstract.

Block blue printing – custom prints and imprints. In imprints, block blue printing resembles a cracked fresco (photo: Lucie Vysloužilová, 2018, archiv PGV)

When did you get the idea of beginning to make such imprints? Undoubtedly this was also motivated by your role as an artist – one who enjoys making use of their sense of visual imagination...
It was at the moment when I began printing and experimenting myself. For me, doing my own printing is important, rather than dividing the process up into intellectual and manual components. Asides from interiors, the imprints can be used in art, and I would also like to utilise them in architecture. Or they can be digitalised. Essentially, anything that brings BBs an extra fairly-earned income, and pride in the fact that they are printers and the authors of their own designs, is worthwhile.

We also work with double-imprints in Strážnice. Gábinka Bartošková, of the Jochů family, who prints my patterns, proposed by herself to try this process. Meanwhile, in Bagru we work in a more non-traditional sense, printing into a wet base or spraying the print with water. We try things with the printers that they might not try, because they would ordinarily consider it a mistake. I also want to bring in other people. For example those in India who traditionally work as seamsters, so that they can sew what they like over printed fabrics. I also engage my own children. My sons already print on fabrics, and their friends have tried it as well.

Those foot stools designed by Jiří Pelcl – are they prototypes intended for trade fairs such as the Czech Designblok? That will surely mean they are expensive...
I have no idea. At present, probably six will be made. I had counted on taking them back home to my farm, which we are building not far from New York City. I never considered selling them. These are the prototype pieces. We will see how it goes. I would like to undertake production in the future – we will see how the hand-printing process turns out. They were enthralled at Polstrin, but we are still experimenting.

Nonetheless, as a sculptor spending most of my time outside of the Czech Republic, events such as Designblok are not of too much interest to me. I imagine having a group of people around me, who are personally interested in this approach. And that will lead to custom fabrics, whereby at least some design will primarily stem from the work of those girls. I will fight for them, and learn from them, and would be happy if designers, architects and others accepted this co-design approach. Licensing payments, and the manner in which fabrics emerge, are important to me.

At the end of June, we held a fashion performance entitled Tiskařův sen (Printer’s Dream) at the Kotelna facility in a nut and bolt production facility in Libčice nad Vltavou, which was mainly organised by my Czech friend Hanele Poislová. The first models then emerged. As part of the open source principle I gave her around three-hundred metres of fabric to freely use, of which at least a fifth came from Bagru. And so custom fabrics from myself, and theirs, were side-by-side – both Indian block print and ones from Strážnice.

Tiskařův sen (Printer’s Dream) performance in the Kotelna, located in the Czech town of Libčice nad Vltavou (Hanele Poislová, PGV, Veronika Drahotová, Andrea Hoffman Nečasová). Left: Indian block blue print, pattern by Anup Chhipa; right: Moravian block blue print, IM.PRINTED – PGV (photo: Marek Novotný, 2018)

Pattern, which, along with many others, was on display at the Tiskařův sen (Printer’s Dream) event (photo: Marek Novotný, 2018)

And that is how the new IM.PRINTED fashion label came about, right?
That is more of an initiative than a fashion label. Asides from that the BBs – Bagru Bhabhis – is slowly forming, which represents the designs and fabrics produced by the people in Bagru.

Do you take an interest in the sale price of the resulting products?
I’m not the one who will be manufacturing and selling such products. But they should be offered at a fair price. Presently, we pay workers a ten percent licensing share payment for every one of their sold fabrics, because we incur the costs of producing the stamps and test materials. In time we would like to increase this. Right now, I don’t even have a specific name for this project. Probably over time some kind of non-profit will have to be created, which will incorporate all these activities, or we will join forces with someone else. But right now I am focusing on the right methodologies, as there really aren’t many templates out there for how to do this.

Are you in contact with the NEST non-profit organisation?
Only via my former Fashion Institute teacher. I am waiting until we will have about twelve designs in India – which will be this autumn – and then I would certainly like to contact NEST. I would like to be able to find someone with whom I can address these issues. We are on the correct path, but right now I don’t want to present a project which is still being cooked. 
 
By: Kateřina Přidalová; translated by: Dominik Jůn; main photograph: Lucie Vysloužilová, 2017

11. 9. 2018

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