Photos courtesy of Carey Scheer
Le Tuang is a beautiful and charismatic man, his constant smile extends to his eyes. For many Kayan people living on the Thailand Burma border, he is also the sole keeper of many Kayan traditions. Specifically, he handcrafts the most astonishing traditional jewelry I have ever seen.
I first became acquainted with Le Tuang only a few months ago when the village chief, Noung, brought me to his house to showcase the Kayan jewelry. Today, however would be my first time working with Le Tuang in the absence of an interpreter.
I approached this challenge with less trepidation than you might think because, even more enticing than the unique pieces Le Tuang creates is his love and passion for his work. It comes across in his vibrant energy and captivates the already warm air in his outdoor workshop. While Le Tuang slowly and patiently solders, melds and engraves, his eyes speak volumes. I see his memories and his stories emerging across his face. I see him as a child in Burma and his grandfather bestowing upon him these skills. I see him passing them on to his young son, who then runs off with his share of the income and only buys cookies.
Perched on a too-small rock, I look on as Le Tuang allows me to be a fly on the wall of his workshop. And what an honor it was to be that fly! Le Tuang works with tools he has personally made, from his hammers, tongs and files to his stone-weighted bellows. The fire blazing in the background and intermittent smoke and ash set the stage. There is no doubt I am in the presence of an enlightened man embodying ingenuity, concentration and patience that might rival the Dalai Lama himself.
Occasionally his slightly shaky hands reach out and casually lift burnt metals; I wince in empathy for his skin. But his hands have no reaction to the temperature, a testament to the length of his servitude and dedication to his trade. His hands are the protagonists in this alchemic performance playing out in front of me.
It is his memories being conveyed through his poised hands which engrave the everlasting imprints of a hammer and scrapes of a machete onto his crafts. These marks enthusiastically adorn each handcrafted piece. Make no mistake, the lasting imprint of Le Tuang’s memories on his pieces do not make for a flawless finish. But rather, his art is a masterpiece of imperfections.
The imperfect masterpiece inspires me. In my eyes, these pieces challenge us; they stand in direct contrast to and dare to redefine the construct of perfection as the cause for beauty. They simultaneously encourage us to shift paradigms from one of “flawless beauty” to one of “flawed fulfillment.”
“Flawed fulfillment” honors the human element; the story behind a piece of jewelry, the culture, the meaning and the energy put into creating it. As I run my hand over Le Tuang’s handcrafted pieces I can feel his hands and see his hammers. The replacement of this experience through that of machine-made items (or items made to look similar to machine-made perfection) does little for the conveyance of human experience or culture. On the contrary, one-of-a-kind pieces of art aim to highlight those very scrapes, burns and inflections as the epitome of beauty.
The long-reigning preference for flawless beauty has for too long corrupted our store shelves and closets resulting in carbon-copy fast fashion made by invisible and voiceless hands. But even more perversely, it penetrates us to our very core, our self-image and rules our lives leaving behind tortured scraps of previous humans. Similar to the invisibility of the human behind the fashion, flawless beauty aims to erase the evidence of a life lived.
Most contemptible of all, this never-ending mission for impossible perfection so severely impacts our capacity for self-love. It mockingly points us in the direction of an unattainable goal leaving us impossibly lonely because we could never consider this failure of a self to be worthy of our love.
When you look in the mirror what do you see? Quirks, cracks, creases, lines, furrows, scars and wrinkles? I challenge you to honor them, their stories and the beauty they exude as well deserved evidence of your valued existence. Now look; who do you see?
WoC is celebrating “flawed fulfillment” and reclaiming what we call beauty by providing you with one-of-a-kind hand crafted pieces. We challenge you to do the same. Honor, accept and showcase all that is you, those you love and the life lived underneath it all!
You can if you think you can!