Roots Studio: Reclaiming Power for Artists

All creators know how important inspiration is, and from time to time, they become explorers of the world.
Unfortunately, sometimes Exploration becomes Exploitation. This happens when industries ‘forget’ about the original work. Out of this receipt of badly understood inspiration, some come out with profits, glam, and fame, others with…nothing.
And here enters the game Roots Studio, a creative startup, that helps artists to take back authorship, consent, and economic power.

Roots Studio is connecting brands with a huge pool of talented artists from different indigenous communities globally. Backed by Chanel Foundation and Cartier Women’s Initiative, Roots Studio anticipated that they will have over a million product sales by next year.
There is a whole team of community organizers working with artists, trainings are done locally, but also a process to make sure there is consent from artists to use their work.
Profits are shared, part of it going to the artists, and the other part to the community.

Roots Studio impressed the Jury from the IF Innovation Award, being the happy winner of $50.000 euro, selected out of 165 applicants. The Award supported by Immaterial Future association took place in Vienna, September 4, 2021 at Museum Quartier being a parallel event to viennacontemporary art fair.


TechVangArt talked with Rebecca Hui, Founder & CEO of Roots Studio. We were very curious to find out the Un-Pitchable story of Rebecca’s Roots that grew in Roots Studio, to find out the questions and problems that led to the setup of Roots Studio, the process of working, and future plans for development.

Rebecca Hui, Founder & CEO of Roots Studio

TechVangArt (TVA): Tell us about the beginning of Roots Studio, how did you get to this idea?
Rebecca Hui: I have always found myself noticing how people identify culturally, and how they express themselves. And I think that’s the result of growing up in many places.
I’m born in the US, I moved to Hong Kong when I was four years old, I moved a lot across local schools in Hong Kong across Mandarin and Cantonese speaking schools. When I was 9 we moved to a small town in Arizona (US) in the desert, where we were the only Asian family in town.
When I was young, all these experiences made me feel insecure because kids around were saying: “oh, you look funny” or “you speak in a different way” or they would make fun of what I’m bringing to watch that made me think that I don’t want to stand out because I don’t want to be made fun of. But as I got older I channeled that awareness of cultural identity into curiosity.

When you’re moving around so much, you understand that cultures are there in societies, but nothing is absolute and they are relative – a lot of the things that we think are true, are just part of the environment we are in.
So that awareness made me really intrigued to understand what makes a specific cultural subgroup the way it is.

I have an academic background in architecture and urban planning, and I ended up in India after college. Most of India is still living in agrarian areas, but that’s urbanizing and rapidly changing. And what really grabbed me was just how creative people were across different sectors.
Especially the rural creative sector was something that I was really taken aback by, in terms of their connection to materials in very different ways than how we understand materialism.
For example, in rural cultures, the houses, the doorframe, might be measured by the tallest person in their family; clothing is passed down from mother to daughter, and the colors of the fabrics are reflective of the harvest season.
There’s a sense of creation and a sense of identity that’s connected to who they are as people.
At the same time, a lot of indigenous communities are ostracized by the mainland. As countries in Asia are urbanizing the future, they often think that rural areas are backwards.
I found that to be so tragic because there’s so much value in indigenous knowledge, and yet because of the discrimination in the mainland about what the future looks like, they often lose the confidence of who they are. Yet these are the values urban society is now pursuing.

TVA: You were attracted by this huge creative potential that exists in the local community, and wanted to find ways to give them recognition and economic power?
Rebecca Hui: So that started me on the Roots Studio journey – their roots, what these artists hold is the treasure of the earth. There’s actually a lot of what I saw was real beauty, creativity. And, even if they’re in rural areas, we don’t have to reinforce a pity narrative.
And what we built around is not romanticizing these people and cultures, but realizing that what a lot of artists need is a way to financially sustain their practice.
But if income is one of the main things that people keep saying, why they leave their homes, why poverty is rampant, and why people are leaving their practices; then let’s connect the artists to opportunities who will value the heritage and skills.

So Roots Studio was born out of this thesis of:

  1. How do we increase the confidence of the communities in which we rehome that’s stored as intergenerational knowledge?
  2. How do we not just romanticize it and how do we bring that into a way that’s smart that can earn them practical income?
  3. How do we bring them in as creatives into the broader creative landscape?

I come from a creative background too, and as a creative, any artist would need a wellspring of inspiration. That’s why a lot of times, we travel, we get a lot more ideas and I think that inherently is simply about creativity and design as the essence of filling that Wellspring that’s really important.
But, unfortunately, because of the power dynamics, it has turned that process into something that is more exploitative.
Because of the way, people are taking that inspiration and making money off of it and also often taking things that are sacred or ancestral and then making money off of it, that’s creating a dynamic where inspiration becomes very sour.
A lot of communities themselves want to share their work with the world. For artists, having their artworks, their culture represented globally is a really big deal.

TVA: It is interesting that you have embedded the concept of fairness. Many companies say they “help” communities. But you don’t have to help – because “help” always comes from a power position – I am strong-you are weak, I can help you. So, as long as companies make money and profits on some work, they don’t have to “help”, they just have to pay, and pay fairly.
Rebecca Hui: Exactly. Brands would pay for their photographers that are hiring, they could do contracts for a lot of artists and communities that have been historically exploited because they didn’t have an agency to do that. So, if as a brand you have the budget, you should just pay, do it right. We see ourselves more as a bridge. We present amazing work from our artists. If you want to use it, there is a process of consent and remuneration in place.
Can we reclaim authorship where the creators and originators of those designs can be compensated?
So, is it not just like when we see indigenous art in the media that claims that a model was stolen…

From a very early standpoint, they can decide whether or not they want their works to be used in a certain way, and that they can be credited for it.
So, we were thinking how do we change this practice that, for example, a designer from Milan who employs artisans in India, and how do we say that this is basically a collaboration? And if you’re going to source design from a certain culture, that culture gets credited as well? And then products can become a museum for actual knowledge and anthropology, and the economics of it would go back to our communities.

TVA: How is your business model?
Rebecca Hui: We do partnerships with brands that are well aligned with us in terms of ethics and process. We have a process to ensure that every collaboration is consensual, and that artists always have the right to say no. Usually when we find values-aligned partners, if they’re willing to follow our process, that’s great; but if not, we’ll just decline a partnership.
We’ve had instances where we have tripled artists’ household income and they don’t have to rely on other sources. That’s the goal to move towards more independence that relies on their heritage rather than alternative forms of migrant labor.

Roots Studio community organizer Xiao Liu], PC Roots Studio, Xin di

TVA: Of course, we can expand this example in a lot of industries. In music also a lot of composers use sound, parts from anonymous songs from different cultures and communities. Anthropology, folklore. Some of them rewrite the musical theme, others keep the original songs. It’s interesting to analyze how many of them credit and payback to the original composer, for example. Even in visual art, there is this type of mechanism, such as the liaison between Picasso’s works and African influence. We can continue to name a lot of art industries that are inspired by different rural-community and we open the big box of what really means in art, the idea of inspiration, authenticity, originality, and origin, who credits whom, and who forgets whom…
Rebecca Hui: The question is: how do you create the right steps for the integration process, which is where we see ourselves building a structure around?
For example: if there’s consent, so artists have control over how their work is represented, they have a sense of how much they might get compensated for it, and the right to say no. This completely changes the power dynamics and when you have that type of consent.

Roots Studio community organizer Roshni Vyam

For example, brands need to know that what they are taking might be very sacred and some works can’t be represented in certain occupations, it’s very disrespectful.
It’s about awareness, understanding and being patient with the process, and creating that type of balance.
In this way, the design instead of being a one-way where a person is imposing ideas becomes a two-way diplomatic exchange.

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..Roots Studio has this fascinating story, creating real value and recognition for unseen artists. These artists and creators were always there but the “Scale and Scope” of the dominant class always swept under the historical sofa thousands of people. Isn’t it an irony of history that the evolution of all humanity was possible due to the wide mass of anonymous people?
And Art and Culture are no exception to that system and power dynamics.
Besides being a startup, Roots Studio has put the problem to re-discussion the terms of ownership (intellectual property and what really is the difference between origin, original, inspiration and creation) on the map.
And it is definitely true that certain points in the Roots Studio business model should become principles of minimum ethics in works that include Art, Artists, and Communities so that the urge ‘sharing is caring’ does not remain just a simple word.

And not only for Creative Industries 🙂


If you want to know more about the other finalists of IF Innovation Award organised by Immaterial Future association, read our previous article.