ARTS & CULTURE
Words by Katrina Swee| Photography by Geric Cruz
There’s something special about looking through items of the past— whether it was personally handed down, caught your eye while browsing in a store, or left behind by a previous owner. I would like to think we are drawn to them because these objects tell a story, a glimpse of your history, or the history of another.
Ancán’s owner, Bea De Jesus, found this intrigue at an early age, particularly with local goods. Like items of the past, local ones were not easily attainable and the mastery behind them wasn’t commonly known either. She unconsciously tapped into the Filipino artisanal space as a consequence of her traveling experiences and became more and more curious about the items she found through the years. What started as an interest due to aesthetics slowly turned into deep, cultural learnings regarding the craftsmanship passed down from generation to generation in different regions of the Philippines.
These intangible links we have with objects are what Bea makes me feel when I scroll through her website—a want to know more about our ancestors’ dying art, a curiosity of the places the items came from, and a sense of calmness in knowing our traditions are being told while sold all over the world.
I’ve read that you, your mother, and your sister have always had this interest in exploring markets and collecting items from abroad. What made you specifically choose to produce and sell Filipino, artisanal items?
Actually, it started when I was in high school. My mom always loved local goods and brought us along to go to markets so we developed that love. We’re all drawn to handmade clothes and accessories. So, of course, it felt natural to me to put up a store and sell all the things we loved.
At that time, about twenty years ago, it wasn’t the same as it is now. All these items are everywhere now. Back then, they were mostly sold at specialty stores like Kultura. It wasn’t that accessible and didn’t feel relevant to younger people, so at that time, I was thinking, “I love these things and my sister loves these things. Maybe we can put up a store together where we can make a collection and make it more appealing to the younger crowd.” That was then. There has clearly been a shift and everyone now loves handmade goods.
Definitely. I think that people are now more conscious about products, where they come from, the sustainable aspect, and the process. I feel like your products in particular are done with a lot of intention. What intrigues you about our history and Filipino craftsmanship?
My mom was always into local crafts and it was something I grew up appreciating. I really loved how the objects looked— an appreciation I shared with my sister as well. When we were kids, of course, we didn’t know anything about them beyond the fact that they were so intricate and beautiful. The deeper I got into local crafts, the more I learned about how much meaning there was behind it, not just because of where something was made but because of who made it. The Philippines is so rich in culture. Each region has its own history and its own landscape which dictates the materials used. It’s not just the material, it’s not just the maker’s skill, it’s not just the history of the place, it’s sometimes, let’s say, a certain maker who creates a basket that’s specific for their household use. So, it’s not like other baskets that other families have made. It’s specific to one craftsman which I find really appealing and meaningful because each piece is very special.
Apart from the apparent skill there is to Filipino crafts and how amazing it is to know that these were developed so early on, they also give insight into the identity and culture of whoever made them—our ancestors, whether a piece is personal to them, or a reflection of where and how they lived. Baskets from the Mountain Province, let’s say. That’s one region, but there are those made by Bontoc people or from Kalinga. It can be confusing but from what I’ve come across, there are nuances between the same “rice basket” that are reflective of the maker which is very interesting.
And when did your interest translate into a business?
We never really thought about it. It was always an idea but it was never like, “Okay, next year, let’s do it.” I think the idea for having a store formed in high school but it wasn’t until five years after graduating from college. I found weavers from Bicol who made bags and felt like I could do something with them. At that time, there weren’t many woven bags in the market. That’s when I thought of the idea of finally starting.
It wasn’t really planned but happened by chance. It happened organically. I find it a bit hard to talk about how I did everything because sometimes I don’t think about things and things happen or I find someone and it leads on to something else. I don’t even have a business plan!
You mentioned earlier about the sustainable aspect of selling handmade goods—it wasn’t until recently that sustainability became so big. When we started this, it wasn’t like, “I want to put up a sustainable brand.” It just so happens that it is sustainable and of course, I want it to be but it wasn’t my initial intention. It was more about supporting craftsmen and because I feel like there are so many beautiful things Filipinos make but have never been brought into the global market or the wider audience.
It must have taken a while to research, learn about these different Filipino techniques, and find the right artisans to be a part of your team in creating Ancán’s products. What was this experience like?
I think it sounds more challenging than it actually was when I started. It was the same thing we were already doing when we’d travel and go to the markets with my mom. We’d meet some weavers or people in the market who had connections with others who made traditional crafts. My boyfriend, Geric, also travels a lot and meets a lot of people—a few of whom I’ve ended up working with. It was from a long time of doing this. It wasn’t all at once.
It was more of us meeting someone which led to this and that. A lot of it is organic. I initially mainly worked with one weaving community in Bicol and I’ve learned that there are those who are a bit more collaborative and with whom I can communicate more easily. With some, there are a lot more parameters within which I can only work, and then there are those who are more flexible and open to experimenting. Some of them I am able to communicate with on messenger or remotely, but with others, I am unable to, and it’s harder to work with them. I feel like I’m still discovering and constantly searching. It’s an ongoing process of finding better ways of working with them.
Just out of curiosity, where have you traveled to?
Not a lot, but to Bicol, Davao, Cebu, Aklan, Bacolod, Laguna, to name a few. It’s just a handful but what I find so fascinating about the Philippines is despite there being so many islands, there’s a lot that you can find in just one place. For example, Bicol is known for abaca—there's a certain form of it that’s twined but there are also many other forms and applications. And abaca is just one of the things that are locally available. I have so much more to explore at this point and I feel like I’m only scratching the surface in terms of finding materials and craftsmen to work with.
The pandemic forced me to slow down even more and realize that as a brand, we can actually do things as slow as necessary and still make it work, without constantly feeling like we have to catch up with how quickly others are able to put out stuff. Ancán is still very tiny. It’s mostly just me running operations. That still takes a lot of my time. But moving forward, the slowness I was confronted with makes me excited about being able to fully immerse more with the communities I work with once we’re free to travel again. Not being able to go out during this time has also forced me to do a lot more things myself, whether it’s sewing or assembling pieces. This gives me the flexibility to explore and execute my ideas more accurately.
You’re using these traditional skills and materials to produce new items. What has or have been your source/sources of inspiration when creating these modernized pieces for Ancán?
My process differs from tradition or how other people design in the sense that I always start with the material that’s available. Then I see what the craftsmen are able to do. In that sense, I have certain boundaries I have to work with. That’s when I begin to feel the material, the physical properties, the flexibility, what’s been done, and how I can improve it while still staying true to the craft.
My inspiration really comes from what they’re already doing and tweaking it a bit to suit the need I’m thinking about creating for or to suit my taste.
And I know that prior to being Ancán, your brand was called Abaca. Was there a particular reason for that?
When I first named it Abaca in 2016, I wasn’t thinking that I’d eventually have to trademark it or to register it somehow. I found out two years after that I couldn’t trademark it because it’s a common noun. That’s why I had to change it.
Aside from the legal concerns, I feel that Ancán better captures what the brand is about, and somehow acts like a compass for me. I've always been drawn to old things and objects passed down. Pieces from grandparents, old embroidered hankies, a toy my mom had from childhood; even if they’re cheap and broken, they are so important to me.
In high school, my mom gave me a few pairs of unused buttoned, white cotton boxers my lolo owned. He bought boxes of them because he used them daily. I ended up using them a lot, and they eventually disappeared—just one of those things that slowly got lost in the wash. They weren’t really anything special, but despite never having met my lolo, those always prompted thoughts of him and who he was. I’m still heartbroken about losing them.
In a way, this is what Ancán is to me, and allows me to have and explore, personally. To be surrounded by pieces that somehow carry the spirit of those that came before, and to keep learning about them and from them.
Giving a voice to our local communities and preserving Filipino craftsmanship is integral nowadays as the number of artists is dwindling. What have been your most memorable encounters with these communities?
I don’t know if there’s a single encounter but what I find most fulfilling is hearing about how it helps them. It helps their families and their source of income. That’s definitely the most fulfilling thing for me. Even if it’s a little bit hard sometimes, I still continue to work with certain people, even if they can only make, let’s say, five pieces a week or if it’s hard to communicate with them. It’s helpful for them and they tell me sometimes that I’m the only customer at this time, especially during the pandemic. That’s what’s important for me.
And how has your brand touched your customers?
I haven’t thought about this before.
I’ve spoken to one customer who lives abroad and she said that it was only when she followed the account that she realized how much more there is to learn about the culture of the Philippines in terms of craftsmanship, skill, and the need to discover more about our country. I have some customers who message me and ask for pieces because they remind them of home. They want something in their house to remind them of where they were born. It’s that connection to their homeland.
How has it affected you in knowing they’re buying a special piece that comes from Filipino heritage, skill, and tells a story?
Right now, with all the talk about consuming less and being a bit more mindful, I’m still a brand and still selling stuff. It’s ironic but at the same time, the most important thing is supporting the communities that make these goods. I feel like I’ve seen many more brands with a focus on local Filipino-made goods. Even designers like Carl Jan Cruz, Gabbie Sarenas, and others are creating beautiful pieces and referencing local craftsmanship, which is great. It has been a long time of expressing the need for support to keep local crafts alive and we’re seeing the shift as the demand grows, but the need is still there and still urgent. Apart from being able to have more people see and learn about Filipino skill and culture in an atmosphere that’s largely western, I’m also able to make these slow-made products which allows others to connect in some way to their own heritage while helping people at the same time. This is very meaningful to me.
It does make me feel like I’m doing more than just creating “stuff for people to buy.” I hope my pieces are able to represent our culture as properly and authentically as possible. Realizing that something reflective of a culture is so unique to us, having it floating around somewhere a thousand miles away, triggering certain feelings, and possibly inquiring more about our ancestors, are wonderful.
And what are your future plans for Ancán?
With the pandemic, it feels like limbo. Last year, I started to transition into homeware because I thought since people weren’t going out, it made sense. Then, earlier this year, people started asking about accessories so I’m currently in between deciding whether I should choose one or the other and am feeling it out. I feel like I want to explore more textiles and get more hands-on with weaving. If I learn it myself, I’d be able to do more with the material and the craft.