50 Years of Ishka ( 1971 - 2021)
1971 was a big year for Australia as Ishka, McDonalds and Singapore Airlines all opened. Four of us set up Ishka as both home and separate craft workshops opposite Glen Iris station. We only made income from our own creations. In my case I made original leatherwork, candles, and hand painted batik shirts. We all also sold at the St Kilda Sunday market and wholesaled to other galleries and outlets
Australia seemed conservative and narrow minded. Censorship banned some great art, literature, theatre and films. We wanted a different lifestyle and had a political agenda including ending conscription and avoiding fighting in the Vietnam war. A year later the social landscape upended when Whitlam was elected ending 23 years of Liberal leadership. It was a time of dramatic changes.
I was the only one working front of store so experienced the delight of welcoming curious customers. My leather work bench served as the shop counter. When the others went their separate ways in 73. I continued and changed the concept to include world craft, at first from other travellers and then from 1975 my own direct international trade. I have really enjoyed the lifestyle I fell into.
Travel for me was always an adventure and proved illuminating and life changing. The world seemed amazing for both its unique cultures and landscapes and the wonderful diversity of its art and craft. Since the 70s globalisation has reduced the cultural differences I was exposed to. I confronted severe global poverty, environmental and human rights issues and developed policies to assist useful trade while reducing negative impact. Each country I visited was special and unique and over the decades I have made many lasting friendships with creative locals. Trade improved the lives of many communities
For 40 years the concept continued to evolve in a multicultural way. We grew to 14 shops and had developed and designed many original lines utilising traditional skills in a modern way. The diverse spiritual beliefs of traditional cultures informed the arts and crafts of much we sold. I employed creative and authentic people who understood and embodied our concept. It is wonderful that many have gone on wonderful creative careers including music, film, art and theatre and opened businesses reflecting their dreams.
We supported organisations that did international good, such as Amnesty and Doctors without Borders. We held wonderful exhibitions and had an environment where expressing yourself was encouraged and diverse views welcome. Many great people added dimensions to the concept.
The Ishka clothes label was innovative and used exciting world textiles. We pioneered furniture made using traditional architectural and recycled wood from carts, and boats. The shops became a success not just for me but for our suppliers, staff and the customers. The shops fascinated many and were seen as original and quirky. It assisted craftspeople from all over the world and supported organisations that improved the lives of developing people. It inspired numerous other businesses.
The hands on experience has made me appreciate the extraordinary abilities of tribal people and the central importance of poverty reduction to improving our planet.
Things changed in the past decade. Whilst there were still some great people involved in the business, in leading roles the genuine and creative talent was largely replaced by those who didn’t understand the business and lacked insight into indigenous crafts inspired by nature. Ishka became a corporate discount chain.
The new senior management team had little understanding or interest in the traditional Ishka values, instead adopting simplistic commercial American new age versions of concepts such as karma, chakra and Zen, trivialising the Ishka concept. I stepped aside from Ishka in March 2018
The spirit of what I created with Ishka no longer exists. So from my perspective, instead of celebrating 50 years there is much to lament. On the positive side with Tribal Impulse I hope to revive appreciation for the extraordinary knowledge and skills possessed by the world's indigenous people.