Meet the entrepreneur connecting Indigenous artists to the global art market

Urbanization has a profound impact on our livelihoods, lifestyles and prospects, often for the best. But the benefits of big city life – for many, upward mobility and more stable incomes – can also come with the loss of a rich rural or indigenous craft culture.

Seeing this variety inspired Rebecca Hui to start Roots Studio in 2016. The social enterprise aims to bridge the gap between Indigenous artists and global patrons by “digitizing next-generation art into an online library” for royalty licensing.

Roots Studio partners with villages and uses high-quality scanners to upload artist creations to its online repository. Artwork can be ordered as gallery prints, stationery or templates for brands to license and print on their own products.

To date, the company has digitized over 3,000 indigenous designs and works with around 20 communities around the world. While most of them are in India, the organization has expanded to include displaced Syrian artists based in Jordan and has conducted pilot programs in rural areas of China and Panama.

Hui’s journey began when she was a student at the University of California, Berkeley, where she took a course on “global poverty and practice” and learned about India’s rapid urbanization and its mega -metropolises like Calcutta and Mumbai.

Most Indians still live in rural areas (65%, according to World Bank 2017 data), but this is changing rapidly as people move in search of economic opportunities. Between 2011 and 2016, it is estimated 9 million people one year migrated between different Indian states. And that trend is set to continue – last year, a government-funded publication of India informed investors that it was preparing “for the greatest human migration on the planet.”

Hui said she became “fascinated” by this process and moved to Gujarat state for a summer when she was 19 to work for a landscape architect and better understand this mass movement. Back in the United States, she was “so committed” to issues of “rural-to-urban transitions” that she decided to apply for a Fulbright scholarship to conduct her own research in India.

Traveling the country for her research project (a study of human-animal conflict and interactions in the context of the transition from rural to urban areas), Hui observed firsthand the sustainable practices of rural and agrarian villages. Without access to mass manufacturing, people made everything they owned using materials that were durable, fit for purpose.

Rebecca Hui, during a Roots Studio workshop. Image by Taylor Weidman

What captivated her “was this inherent connection to the material that wasn’t wasteful or just consumerist, but really reflected cross-generational heritage and identity,” she said. For example, women in a village she visited made their own clothes, designed to tell their life story.

And yet, artists who wanted to make a living were forced to move to access metropolitan art markets, or they sold their wares in fair craft markets that could only pay manufacturers 2-3% of the profits.

Hui wanted to know if it was possible to “support the local economy of the village and make it prosperous enough that it could be an alternative to migration”, she said.

Through each license, Roots Studio reports that it is able to generate far more profit than would otherwise be available, providing a sustainable revenue stream while preserving artists’ works. On average, they earn producers at least $100 per transaction. By comparison, artists in an Indian community received about INR 1,200 ($14) for each transaction in their local village and INR 2,500 ($36) in major Indian cities. Hui was awarded for this model this year Forbes List of 30 Social Entrepreneurs Under 30.

Roots Studio tends to work with communities that are typically indigenous or rural and have a cultural heritage that derives from their physical environment, history, and shared sense of identity. These groups are also “starting to see the loss of people due to lack of income,” Hui said. This means that they are usually at an inflection point where, without intervention, their artistic practices may die out.

Himani More, a textile designer and one of the few full-time entrepreneurs working for Roots Studio in India, said when the team first approaches a community, they focus on building relationships. Once they’ve explained the business model, they run a series of feedback sessions focused on understanding local artwork and answering questions and concerns about the Roots Studio model. It can be difficult to engage communities at first, More said. To combat this, they regularly visit each community and focus on the needs and concerns of artists.

The team then gets to work sorting, selecting and digitizing the artworks that would work best for Roots Studio’s online repository and a global marketplace. More, from the city of Pune in Maharashtra, is passionate about the preservation aspect of this work.

“We are losing a lot of the fundamental culture and traditions of what makes India what it is,” she said.

A group of rural Indian artists have partnered with Roots Studio. Image by Taylor Weidman

Half of Roots Studio’s gross profits are donated to the communities it works with. “Our Theory of Change is that we can create a medium that brings income and livelihood that allows these artists to realize that what they have is appreciated”, and that it can support “not only the artist but also the community as a whole”. Huy said.

Three-quarters of Roots Studio returns go to the individual artist who made a sale. The rest is put into a communal fund for the wider village. This model reimburses community contributions beyond the “individualistic concept of art in the West,” Hui said. For example, some of the people the organization works with make their own paper and materials for other artists to paint on. Other art forms require the accompaniment of a musician or a “pradhan”, a singer who narrates the story depicted in the work.

Communities vote on the use of their recipes. Hui said a community chose to use it as a “participation fund” and divided it among artists who submitted work to Roots Studio but failed to make sales. Another village used it to repair their community’s water supply. Whenever possible, Hui’s team also conducts workshops for artists focusing on surface pattern design knowledge, technology and financial literacy.

Hui herself is trying to “aggressively” develop the market side of the business. Over the past year, Roots Studio has partnered with several international brands, including H&M, Tommy Bahama, PrAna and Outdoor Research. Hui said consumers can expect to see products with Roots Studio artwork in stores next year.

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