Thursday, September 04, 2008

The Struggle to Remain Positive

I am proud to say that I am participating, for the second year in a row, in Mozambique's National Crafts Fair from September 4 - 9 at the Fortaleza de Maputo.

Participation in a relatively large fair is always a challenge, with many lessons to be learned. I think this is especially the case for me in regard to this particular fair, which is clearly branded and promoted as a "Made in Mozambique" fair. Granted, my jewelry is made in Mozambique and incorporates many local materials such as trade beads from Ilha de Moçambique, hardwoods from Nampula Province, horn and some stones. However, it is hard to look around at the fair participants and see that I am the only one who is not Mozambican (or at least born and raised here).

Last year I really struggled with being the only artesã estrangeira. I got a little bit of backlash from the other artisans, and the occasional snide comment, but looking back most of the pressure was self-imposed, and any "weirdness" I felt was a product of my own uncertainties and, to be honest, insecurities regarding culture, nationality and identity.

This year, my worries concentrate more around my product rather than who I am as an artist and a vendor. It never ceases to amaze me how powerful that inner critic can be - in particular when fueled by random outside commentary. My main concern is that my pieces are priced too high (very common among all artists, so I know I'm at least in good company here). Most of the participants in the fair go for the high volume x low price formula, and tend to fare quite well. However, while their raw materials and inputs may be cheaper than mine (wood vs. goldfilled wire; clay vs. turquoise), I also think their prices are very low because they are not adequately calculating their production costs and overheads.

Yes, I am the product of a business-minded family and an MBA. Yes, fundamentally, I look at the world through the lens of a businesswoman. It's almost funny applying this to an area like art, but it must be done. I calculate all my costs down to the penny, including labor, packaging, overhead and any anticipated fees or commission. I know my profit margins and have a reasonably effective formula for caluclating prices. I've been (semi-)seriously selling my jewelry now for just over 2 years, and it seems my little business is a sustainable one.

How-e-ver. Past successes, business-friendly formulas, and a rational approach to pricing do not, unfortunately, drive out the inner critic. That voice is ever-present in my mind. I compare my pieces to the other crafts at the fair and all I can see is how my booth is so much more expensive. I start to doubt the worth of my jewelry, and worry that ego is driving my pricing much more than any logical calculations of cost and markup. It gets worse when potential customers pass by and make comments like, "Is *that* the price?" Or, "It's nice, but too expensive."

I try to be a good saleswoman and tell people the stories behind my fusion jewelry. I talk about how the trade beads I use are over 300-years-old, how they originally came from Bohemia and Venice and were carried to Africa to be used as currency by traders, how now they wash ashore on Ilha de Moçambique after ships wrecked and spilled their cargos, and now boys sift through the sand on the island to find the tiny colored beads and string them together on fishing line. I tell people about the turquoise from New Mexico, the agate from Brazil, the silver that I hammer by hand, and the endless inches of wire that I form into knots to hold handmade glass beads.

If I am at the booth to tell the story of my jewelry, usually the prices aren't so much of an issue. People begin to understand the materials, the time, the love that go into making a particular piece.

The hard part is on days like today, where I am stuck at work and had to have my lovely friend A. do the fair on my behalf. She is great at selling, and used to be a fashion designer, however she doesn't know the full story of all the pieces and, perhaps most difficult, she doesn't speak Portuguese.

Rico and I just dropped by the fair to visit her and check in on my booth. It has been a slow one so far, though it is only halfway through Day 1. Still, it was difficult to see no sales, and to hear that a few ladies commented that my pieces were too expensive. All of this made my heart sink a bit, and the inner critic start singing out loudly, "I told you so!"

I know that worst-case scenario, the fair is a failure and I don't sell much (or even anything!). Life won't come screeching to a halt. I will still continue to create and make sales elsewhere. We all eventually find our audience. However, it's hard to sit with such insecurity, especially since I could give a friend in my exact shoes the mother of all pep talks and truly believe it. It's so hard sometimes to turn around and give that same support and positive thoughts to ourselves, but that's what I'm trying to do. After all, there are still 5 days to go!

UPDATE: I guess I needed to let these feelings out and name my insecurities. I just got a call from A. and she's just sold a nice big necklace set with turquoise and pearls! Yay!


Brandie said...

I honestly can't comprehend how tough that must be as I have yet to sell anything I've made, and i don't make much! But I hope on tough days you can be proud of the fact that at least you are out there trying! :)

Southern Goddess said...

Keep faith in yourself. SG

Guilherme said...

Congratulations on...well, everything in this post.

La Framéricaine said...

I do wish you well, Ali, and you navigate these particular rapids. It's really great that you articulated your feelings and got them outside of your mind and feelings. I can't even begin to imagine what the challenges of attempting to carry on "business as usual" must be like in your current situation.

I do know, however, that being the artist, promoter, salesperson, and business manager for an artistic creation is difficult for anyone attempting to do it regardless of the cultural context in which she finds herself.

Keep your eyes on the prize and I wish you good sales and enthusiastic buyers.