Traditional handcraft among Szeklers in Transylvania

Enikő Blénesi, Master’s thesis, Anthropology, Aarhus University, 2019.


In my study, I explore the question of tradition through the empirical example of Szekler handcraft. My study is based on four months (two times two months) fieldwork carried out in 2018, and also other visits in 2019. During the fieldwork, I used the methods of interview, participant observation, photo-, and object-elicitation, while I had discussions and I was working with craftsmen and artists. The material collected during the fieldwork is complemented by personal experiences because the field is also the place what I call my homeland. For this reason, I often found myself in situations, when it was not straightforward how to separate fieldwork from my personal life. In my paper, I am discussing questions about fieldwork at home in detail.

My thesis consists of a catalogue which presents the different angles of the question with the help of photos, interview quotations and shorter descriptions, and a written paper discussing the relevant theoretical perspectives. Handcraft as such is analysed from multiple points of view. First, I explore the value of old objects and the discourses connected to this. I mention a few of the things, which are still in use today. Not only the old objects are valued, but replicas are created too. The craftsmen are making these according to archaeological finds or museum objects taking into account the expectations and the possibilities of our era. Furthermore, mostly not the objects themselves, but the decorations are meant to evoke the former times, also with symbolic connotations. A typical symbol is the life tree which has different forms of representation. Analysing further the decorations in the Peircean framework, icons and indexes are useful terms to grasp the importance of certain representations. Among these, here, I mention natural pigments, as these colours are related to tradition on the base of their origins. I discuss the raw materials of the objects in another chapter, emphasizing that many crafts are based on the utilization of certain by-products. After the materials, I describe the technical aspects of the process. From an anthropological point of view, this might be the most interesting part of handcrafting, as the cooperation between humans and the material world can be observed here. During the learning process, human senses are developed by the craft, according to aesthetic expectations, and other requirements of the technique. It is important to note that handcrafting does not necessarily mean the ignorance towards mechanical powers, it is rather about certain parts of the entire process which are made by hand. The last two chapters of handcraft are discussing humans involved in the process. Firstly, I describe the characters and social roles of the craftsmen, the ways they create, and they are created by the craft. Next to typical female and male characters, there is an important role given to the family which in some cases means the traditional framework of the work. Secondly, I write about some craftsmen and artists who are acknowledged by the community. Some of them are coming from families working with handcraft, they developed their skills and became successful as young artists. There is even more appreciation towards the older craftsmen who learnt their professions in a different socio-cultural setting, and they still practice that.

I begin to write about theoretical questions related to tradition, discussing continuity. According to my findings in the field, continuity is less emphasized, as starting to practice an already forgotten craft is highly appreciated. Next to this, I present the different trends of traditional costumes, as an example of reinterpreting tradition. Analysing the nature of tradition, I find it adequate to show how traditional elements meet the innovative ones. Even though my informants think about tradition as connected to something old, they also explain the new elements of the crafts enmeshed with these. It is not viable to think about handcrafted objects and handcrafting which is entirely identical with the old things and practices, as these do not conform to today’s expectations of the market. Many craftsmen do not even aim to recreate some kind of tradition, they rather use traditional elements with a new aim.

The catalogue was meant to present these features of Szekler handcraft in a way which is accessible for a larger public. It aims to develop a frame for the reception of Szekler handcraft outside of their original context. The catalogue was developed taking into consideration the outsider’s perspective, to give a framework for the interpretation.

Leave a Reply