When I asked Soumana Saley, leatherworker and master craftsman, if I could record our phone interview, he replied with a cheerful laugh. “Why not?” It was the perfect way to start our conversation about sharing craft skills with eager learners. Why should such knowledge be kept secret?
Last October and again in May, a team led by Dr. Diana Baird N’Diaye at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage gathered over three days with artists, scholars, and craftspeople from all over the United States, including Saley, to talk about the state of African American craft today. (You can read a summary in our African American Craft Summit report.) Among our topics of discussion were the crisis of COVID-19 and the heightened media attention on violence against BIPOC and subsequent resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2020. We also looked beyond these immediate hurdles facing Black craftspeople—all of whom continue to make, create, and thrive—at another pressing issue: what next? Or, more accurately, who next?
Saley, who lives in Millersburg, Pennsylvania, and participated in the 2018 Smithsonian Folklife Festival program Crafts of African Fashion, has taken this matter into his own hands, starting a school for young makers in his home country of Niger, in the capital city of Niamey. His own experience as an apprentice in Niamey with the Centre des Métiers d’Art (CMAN) moved him to pay it forward. He believes apprenticeship opportunities are essential to the future of craft.
Saley’s experience at CMAN was not so different from the early roots of apprenticeships. A preoccupation with preservation has always been part of the human experience, and artisans and craftspeople were not exempt. Inscribed in the Code of Hammurabi, dating to the eighteenth-century BCE, Babylonian law required artisans to teach their craft to the next generation in order to maintain an adequate number of craftsmen. Saley stepped into his apprenticeship quite easily. With a friend’s recommendation, he found himself at a company in Niamey that worked leather. He did not pay for his training. He just showed up in the morning and focused on his work. Eventually, he left Niger to study with a master in Côte d’Ivoire before getting the chance years later to go to Europe and finally the United States.
It was gratitude for his own teacher that led Saley to start his own school, ONG DIMA—Dispositif d’Initiatives pour les Metiers de l’Artisanat, or Initiative for the Craft Trades.
“I cannot pay back what I learned, but I can share what I learned for the younger generation,” he said. “If somebody gave me my life for free, why don’t I do the same thing for other people?”
The students at ONG DIMA span a wide range of ages and backgrounds. Young men and women from school-aged to young adults are welcome, including a group of refugees from Mali in the summer of 2020. If they have not attended school before, students receive a six-month training where they learn to read, take measurements, and study any other skills necessary for their craft apprenticeship. Once completed, the students are split into a tailoring or leatherworking track and complete a three-year program honing their craft practice and business sense—all at no expense.
Before they make the important decision between tailoring and leatherworking, Saley tells his students to first think about their passion.
“If you don’t love it, if you don’t have a passion, you’re never going to learn,” he says. “Whatever you choose, make sure you like it because if you don’t like your job, I don’t think you’re going to be good at it.”
Saley believes that young people are tempted to put money first, ahead of their craft practice. It’s why we are seeing fewer young people beginning careers in craft, he believes.
If young people, especially those in underserved or underrepresented communities, do not see makers succeeding, making a career, or touching the lives of others, why would they follow a career in craft themselves? In Saley’s mind, though, “craft is a job like every job,” and he hopes others can see that too.
Few and far between are the days when we can sit with our family members—grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles—and see them engaged in a professional or casual hobby. There are distractions, of course, but for many young people in the United States and around the world, there are also part-time jobs, extracurricular activities, time with friends, families to help. Craft in the twenty-first century, especially in the United States, struggles with visibility as a lucrative career. Being a professional craftsperson is difficult, requiring extreme talent and dedication. And still, many talented and dedicated craftspeople are forced to abandon their trade for a steadier paycheck or are desperate for institutional support.
So, how can apprenticeship programs alleviate those financial strains and help craft traditions stay alive? Saley said that’s the question he wants to ask everybody. He explained that even if a crafter cannot work anymore, they can still train young people. As long as you can see, as long as your hand is okay, “you can still show people how to make the product.” This mentorship is key and is the reason why he started ONG DIMA in Niger: a lot of older craftspeople there have knowledge that might disappear.
For Saley, it took seven years to get to where he wanted to be in his craft, but he found that putting learning first made it much easier to stay focused. “If you know how to make things, you will never work for free. But if you put money first, you will never learn in the first place.” This mindset comes through in his products, as well: beautiful handmade leather bags that are imbued with his passion for making. Indeed, he believes that a lack of education about the importance of handcraft is how handmade items like his will start to disappear.
At the Center, we talk at length about how and why cultural traditions survive. As I mentioned in the first installment of this series, it is easy to fall back on our own notions of success. Conversations around craft focus on financial gains, ever-expanding customer bases, and more quantifiable measures of growth, but some successes cannot be calculated on spreadsheets. Craft only survives if there are people who care about it. One sale means important income for the maker now, but where does the object continue to live? At best, it is passed down through the buyer’s family or friends, always holding a place on a shelf or on a wall. At worst, it is cherished by one and forgotten by the next.
In short, buyers do not nurture craft. Makers do. Fostering a community of makers who are young and invested and, most of all, proud is of utmost importance to revitalize and sustain craft traditions.
Makers like Saley are working hard to put handcraft skills back in the hands of young people in their communities, but it is in education that they need the most help.
“We have to motivate people. We have to talk to people about it. That is how we bring young people to the apprenticeships and to the craft.”
Organizations and individuals alike can help in this effort: promoting and educating about the beauty and knowledge in handmade craft.
In his personal effort, Saley’s generous spirit shines through in the eagerness and ingenuity of his students: he noted that a few who graduated in June are forming a cooperative so they can carry on a community of support. They are now working to secure a space in Niamey where they can store sewing machines and other tools to ensure everyone has access.
Emma Efkeman is a cultural sustainability project assistant at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She is a graduate of the College of William & Mary with a bachelor’s degree in art and art history and religious studies, focusing on South Asian devotional art. She learned to crochet from her grandmother and is excited to contribute to the Center’s work with craft traditions.
- National Apprenticeship Act of 2021, which passed in the House with bipartisan support
- National Endowment for the Arts partnership and apprenticeship opportunities with State Arts Agencies
- 2017 NEA report: Qualitative Analysis Findings: Folk & Traditional Arts Partnerships
- 2018 NEA report: Living Traditions: A Portfolio Analysis of the National Endowment for the Arts’ Folk & Traditional Arts Program