Being a #GIRLBOSS is about taking what you love and owning it 100%. It's not always easy; it's not always fun--but the pay-off is seeing your blood, sweat, and tears emerge as something powerful and beautiful in the world. At the #GIRLBOSS Foundation, we look through hundreds upon hundreds of applications, searching for that one that stands apart. Rebecca Hui was that one. She's not just whip smart and crazy talented, she also puts all (and we mean all) her muscle behind making the world a better place through her foundation TOTO Express. We took a minute to catch up with the Fulbright scholar and hear her thoughts on why art matters, what it took to get her where she is today (spoiler: couch surfing was involved), and how the work she does is changing lives around the world.
Give us some history on the folk art you preserve through your work.
I’ve been mostly working with two rural arts: Phad and Gond. Phad Chitra is a rural folk art from India, where beautiful 10-ft. scrolls were part of an elaborate ritual involving balladeers who would travel from village to village, singing stories of local heroes while the village gathered together to listen to the tales. But with television taking social precedence over live theater, these artists are finding their art increasingly irrelevant to modern-day social activities. The second, Gond Art, is a rural folk art from the hinterlands of Madhya Pradesh. Intrinsic to the geometrically heavy art are motifs of the natural beauty that surround them. For instance, the "tree of life" is a frequent motif in Gond because trees have provided food, shelter, and resources for the Gond people. There is a strong story-telling component to the art: When showing their paintings, the Gonds will often narrate the meaning. We are also working with Warli (Maharshtra) and Madhubani (Bihar) traditions this summer.
How did you first learn about these art forms and the artists who create them?
Four years ago, I was working in India on a school-on-wheels project, designed to bring schools to areas lacking in infrastructure. My friend Gary (now co-founder of TOTO Express), and I took apart a Mahindra 50-seater bus and transformed it into a moving classroom designed to look like a giant owl. Along with a few other teachers, we taught out of it in the villages of West Bengal for three months, when suddenly attendance started dropping. I asked the children’s parents why, and they said it was because they needed the children to help push for extra income. In an area where the average annual income is around $500, education in the form of IT or chemistry is often distant to what villagers actually need on a day-to-day basis. At that point, we started to re-think our strategy and focus on how we could formalize the villagers’ existing skills and knowledge to generate more income.
I came to learn that crafts were the biggest vocation in the region, second to farming. But with climate change and water variability, farming doesn't provide steady income for many villagers. Crafts, on the other hand, still had great potential; it was just a matter of connecting the talent to the right markets. And so began my journey of learning about the different craft forms in India, what was happening to them given urbanization, and what we could do to preserve them. During this time, I met a lot of artists in museums, craft fairs, and archives, who told me they were looking for ways to experiment with their art that would provide a more steady flow of income and prevent the art’s extinction. I began developing relationships with these artists (specifically in Phad, Gond, and now Madhubani), and we developed a mutual interest in each other: I was fascinated with their culture, and they were fascinated with the conduit that I had to the outside world.
When did you know that this was your passion project?
Growing up, I drew fervently. I was an artist. But as I got older, I never thought I could actually become one (not to overplay stereotypes but I am Asian, and it's not generally culturally acceptable to become an artist over a scientist). So I spent my energy doing things in high school I wasn’t really good at, like breaking lab micropipettes and spilling chloroform over lab experiments. I always felt out of place…until a chance opportunity sent me to India. In the most unexpected of places, I found artists creating beauty. I developed a four-year love affair with a country that was also exploring its identity in a transition between tradition and modernity. Entire villages of 200 households were artists.
Development is always perceived as growth, but so much is lost when we answer only to spreadsheets when determining value.
But many rural artists I met said they thought their craft would die out in the next generation. Artists face tremendous challenges today: Poor market access, rising costs of living, and modernization threaten imminent extinction for many of these traditions. These artists face a much more severe challenge than just a career crisis (I realized it was a privilege for me to even have one): Not being able to pursue crafts meant not being able to support their families and the disappearance of multigenerational traditions. The arts for these communities lied at a fragile intersection between tradition and modernity; rural and urban--gargantuan subjects I have spent the past five years of my life researching (and continue to). Development is always perceived as growth, but so much is lost when we answer only to spreadsheets when determining value. Whether it is rural artists in India or artists who can't pay rent in gentrifying cities--displacement of artists is not just a tragedy, but an inefficient phenomena, considering the immense creative power artist-communities hold.
Tell us about TOTO Express, who runs it, and the work that it does.
My vision is to build a world in which artists have the ability to financially support their communities through their skill--something they've been able to do for generations up until now. TOTO Express fights against the notion that tradition and art is synonymous with backwards. We do two things: First, help artists get discovered via an online platform, and second, run design workshops with rural artists to license their storied designs for printing onto a variety of products (books, notepads, etc.) for our own line--this is the work I do. TOTO Express enables rural artists to be discovered by a growing market that has shown an increasing appreciation for unique, beautiful, and storied designs. Every time someone purchases one of our goods, they are directly contributing to the health of these communities and to the longevity of the art they produce. I founded the project along with Gary Mao , but several people have been integral, including Vrnda Dalal, Shreyas Navare, Kunal Lunawat, Samarth Kejriwal, Darren Handoko, Rashmi Singh, Kalyan Joshi, and Catherine Schmidt.
How is this project changing lives in India?
There are an estimated 200 million people in India who rely on handicrafts to sustain their way of life. But throughout the last 10 years, over 60 million have left the occupation. I've been trying to understand the reasoning behind this trend. I've worked, researched, and been on the ground for four years in over 50 villages in rural India, across Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Rajasthan, and Maharashtra. What I found was that the average income for a family of six was under $600, and the average life expectancy was 32. When I investigated why these life-quality metrics were so poor, over 90% of respondents cited lack of income. One of the most impactful ways to upward appraise an artist is to get him/her discovered. My choice to start with design licensing is new to the craft venture world; this approach will allow us to scale deal sizes and learn how to facilitate villager-to-business linkages without investing heavily in manufacturing capacity. It will also cut out substantial supply chain costs, such as transportation fuel, which eats up the artist’s margins severely. Most importantly, placing uploading design centers directly in the villages allows the artists to stay in their homes and earn an income, instead of migrating to cities. This will enable them to retain their way of life and traditions.
We're so used to thinking only machines can create perfection, but you find people making things by hand with incredible precision.
What's been your favorite part of spearheading this project?
Working with the artists, living amongst them, and seeing how an art form is passed from generation to generation. Studying the craft forms are absolutely incredible and unlike anything you’ll find in urban settings. We're so used to thinking only machines can create perfection, but you find people making things by hand with incredible precision. Many artists I work with with use natural dyes from pomegranate leaves, indigo, and other natural stones. They tell me that depending on how ripe the harvest is, the colors may be more or less vibrant. It’s really exciting to see all these things coming together across borders and societies. Despite cultures and miles apart, you realize that people are more alike than you think, human to human.
What's been the hardest part?
Getting people to believe in and support art. I lived in India on very meager savings and still sagged with school loans, propelled by the single conviction I learned from villagers: Art and identity are intimately connected. In the process of building TOTO, I went through some 25-grant rejections, made each meal count as two, and lost 14 pounds. Thanks to the generosity of my friends, I was able to couch surf and not pay rent for a year, and food is pretty cheap in India, so that helped, too. But my attempts to raise money can be summed up in a single anecdote; I was once told by a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, “If this art is dying out, then why save it? Competition and disruption are natural parts of the market system.” Art is unique and can't fit easily into the cell of an excel spreadsheet. It can’t be easily scaled or quantified, and that's an incredible challenge to have in an increasingly mechanized world. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value. The challenge is finding believers of art, since art is often perceived as a hobby, rather than a livelihood.
What does the future hold for TOTO Express?
The mission is to build a world in which artists are formally integrated into a formal economy. As rural centers become more urbanized, we want to support artists in becoming self-sufficient rather than having to abandon their way of life. Beyond India, I also hope to take TOTO to China, South America, and Oceania, areas where art and cultural vibrancy is at high risk of being lost to urbanization. I am setting up an accessories line that is inspired by rural art, with a bent toward inspiring young girls to embrace the spirit of exploration and curiosity.
You’re a huge inspiration to aspiring #GIRLBOSSes–how would you like to see the work you do influencing others?
Two years ago, I returned to Hong Kong to document my grandmother’s last memories, competing with her dementia. I flurried around her apartment, pointing to photos of myself as a young girl, hoping she’d recognize the face of the stranger she once took to school daily. What I learned struck me. I discovered that my grandmother’s aunt had committed suicide because she had violated China’s One-Child policy. Her uncle remarried and had two daughters in a row, but they both died “mysterious” deaths within one week of birth. Strangely, only the third child survived, a boy, my father’s uncle.
Female infanticide is widespread throughout China and India. It is birthed out of patriarchy, from the idea that lineage is propagated down the male line and that women are mere vehicles, and worse: property for progenies. Despite her father’s refusal to let her go to school, my grandmother continued to educate herself. She became a skilled street hawker, selling eggs every day. She subleased her 1500 square foot apartment, which housed her family and nine others, converting it into an informal sublease business. She became the only one out of her siblings to support her family financially during the difficult years after the Communist Revolution.
As a Chinese-American female who has lived in the U.S. and China, conducted research in Russia and Tanzania, and has spent the past few years in India, I have experienced how gender inequality oppresses women globally. I am alive today because a peasant girl discovered the value of entrepreneurship herself and became self-sufficient. I want to help other girls discover that.