We are excited to announce that Monkey Mind was recently featured in the independent San Pedro local newspaper, Random Lengths. The article titled "Monkey Mind" was authored by Melina Paris. We reproduce the article in full below. Thanks for reading!
Monkey Mind by Melina Paris
Partners in marriage and in business, Nalika Gajaweera and Anuradha “Rudy” Edirisinghe are the duo behind the eco-conscious, fair-trade textile business, Monkey Mind. Launched in 2019, Monkey Mind specializes in products made from the ancient art of hand looming by Sri Lankan artisans and makers.
Monkey Mind products include clothing, accessories and home goods—like their reinvented ergonomic bean bag and many kinds of carriers, including yoga mat bags, handbags, laptop and cross body bags, to name a few. Their bestsellers are the beanbag, the Ghoni dress that Nali says just falls on you and is actually really beautiful and the newest product she has much hope for— stuffed wild animals made of kapok, a natural, silky fiber from pods from the kapok tree.
To understand the story of Nali and Rudy is to realize their deep respect for Sri Lankan culture and how its ideals can shape consumerism for a sustainable future. Monkey Mind challenges established norms of the fast fashion industry by developing new methods of rural carbon neutral textile productions. Plus, it serves as a social enterprise that provides women with flexible, fairly paid employment within the community they live in.
The couple grew up in Sri Lanka but Nali was born in the United States, in Virginia Beach, a coastal city in southeastern Virginia. Their respective careers connect directly to both the ideals they grew up with and the philosophy behind Monkey Mind.
Nali, a cultural anthropologist, earned her Ph.D. at University of California Irvine in 2013 for her research on humanitarian work in Sri Lanka. She now works for the Center For Religion and Civic Culture at USC, mostly studying American Buddhist communities in the U.S.
Rudy has a background in grant writing and in international development work — mostly donor funded and nonprofit implemented projects. Sri Lanka is barely 10 years past a three-decade civil war whose casualties included the survivors of human rights abuse. Rudy’s nonprofit worked in designing information systems to make the work of nonprofits more productive in the area of human rights governance and labor. The couple met while Nali was doing field work.
After coming to the U.S. they considered the art and crafts they grew up with and wondered how the American market would respond to those items. Though coming from a very traditional Sri Lankan background, they found the items had transcultural appeal.
“They are traditional products with a modern twist,” Rudy said.
Nali first created a yoga mat bag, which was an experiment for the budding business. She had travelled to Africa a year earlier and bought a Kente cloth yoga mat bag made by women who were a collective of human trafficking survivors.
“I thought it would be amazing to make a yoga bag out of Sri Lankan handloom textiles,” Nali said. “They are made of very bright colors and sturdy material because its hand loomed on a traditional wooden loom. So it’s totally mechanical and not electronic. It’s very sustainable.”
Discovering the Makers
Friends introduced Nali and Rudy to Sri Lankan designers, who in turn referred them to artisans. The result is Monkey Mind, a short chain of creativity and production that draws from the traditional craft principles, cultivates cottage industries but ultimately bridges Eastern and Western aesthetics.
As an example, Rudy pointed to one of those companies, Kantala — highlighted on the Monkey Mind website— which works with traditional agave fiber weavers in Sri Lanka. Kantala does all the coordination, the quality control, the designs, everything. They support the artisan community in many ways. What’s striking is they also run enterprise resource management platforms where everyone in the supply chain is connected on the internet. And the artisans have become an independent artist co-op that Kantala works with.
“It’s cool that that kind of innovation can happen with multiple hands, Nali said. “We are one part of that chain of production, like in a capitalist way but we are one element of that to help it in a more ethical fashion.”
A Rich Sri Lankan History
Handloom materials are very ubiquitous in Sri Lankan households. Rudy suggested connecting with a producer of handloom textiles, Barbera Sansoni, a well-known anglo and Sri Lankan artist now in her early 90s. Sansoni developed the signature handloom esthetic of Sri Lanka, notably the way in which she coordinated bright colors.
“To match is mediocre. To clash, divine,” is her mantra,” Nali said. “She would never use black, it was banned from her color palette because that is not good for the mental health of the makers of the fabric.”
They contacted Sansoni’s design team to ask if they had an interest in Monkey Mind being a distributor for them in the United States. It became a trusted relationship among fellow Sri Lankans.
“Many people steal these ideas and replicate them,” Nali said. “This is actually high art and there is a lot of trust involved in our relationship with them.”
Sri Lanka’s 3,000-year history provides Monkey Mind with many and varied opportunities to connect its consumers with cultural authenticity. Rudy elaborated, in in pre-colonial times Sri Lanka was the leading center of metal production and produced some of the best metal work in the ancient world; some components for Damascus Steel were traded from Sri Lanka. As well, weaving culture, the skill Sri Lanka is most associated with, also has a deep, rich history since the middle ages.
Unfortunately, colonialists stole some of the best specimens of handwoven fabric in Sri Lanka. Not only do many of those items now reside in museums of the Netherlands or the United Kingdom, but Sri Lankans don’t even have some of the best pieces. To illustrate, Rudy noted recently a professor who contributed to a book written by a famous fabric technologist in Sri Lanka, commented on a step by step, reverse engineering guide on how to make a specific cloth, a garment a king in the 1400s would wear. Reading how the fabric was constructed, the professor said, gives you a window into the advanced intellectual culture of peasants in Sri Lanka in the 1400s.
“Even the Sri Lankan origin story has the handloom woven into it which is really beautiful,” Nali said.”
Creating Balance in Accessibility
The couple has noticed, both in the U.S. and in Sri Lanka, the consumer goods available in any big box store are very cheap. Conversely, many items in Monkey Mind’s collection are heirlooms that you can pass down for generations.
“Traditionally made products, especially those Monkey Mind works with, answer the questions that U.S. consumers are asking about consumer responsibility, environmental responsibility, social responsibility,” Rudy said. “Things need to last, need to be sustainable, be environmentally friendly, [it’s] that whole idea about buy better, buy less.
This is their motivation for Monkey Mind and it’s a delicate balance.
“There is a segment of the consumer market that is expecting Target or Marshalls level prices,” Rudy said. “We cannot meet those because we only work with companies and artist communities that work with fair trade principles. That’s one of our evaluation criteria.”
If they’re getting items for cheap, it’s suspicious Nali said, because it’s either cheap materials and badly made or people are not getting paid. Monkey Mind maintains a certain price level to ensure their makers receive a reasonable reward from it. It also has to be sustainable for them to do this with the costs of living in L.A. while they run and operate an international business.
They want Monkey Mind to maintain its level of business — not to build it as better but to sustain them. Nali sees it as sustainability for everyone, for their makers, for themselves and for their customers to be a consumer of their products.
“The way the world economy is structured, for me the real question is not why is this sustainable handmade stuff so expensive, Rudy said. “The real question is why are these other things so cheap?”
Both of their careers in Sri Lanka have been built on working with rural communities and vulnerable populations.
“Even though Monkey Mind is not immediately connected with those populations, it can actively contribute in ways to sustain those communities and make a direct benefit to them,” Nali said.
“Adding to what Nali is saying, unfortunately, many of the traditional industries we work with are severely stressed,” Rudy said. “Now, because of COVID-19 but even before, even Sri Lankans started buying stuff from China. The handmade artists are distinctly at a disadvantage in that situation because people often buy the cheap stuff. They need markets outside of the country now to sustain the communities.”
What Rudy and Nali enjoy most is the relationships they have with their designers and makers.
“So much has happened within the last year, in Sri Lanka, for the economy in general, which has made business and manufacturing so hard,” Nali said. “As a country that has gone through 30 years of war, they are resilient. Right now you can see that again in support that people have towards each other.”
“It’s much more holistic than a transactional relationship,” she said. “They’re almost kinlike relationships. We knew we wanted to work with these communities. We didn’t know if something would sell or not but we wanted to build this relationship and see how it goes.”