Batik is one of the world’s idiomatic crafts. Alongside techniques such as pottery, filigree, ikat, glass-blowing and wood-carving, it is a unique language of expression which has come to define a global cultural inheritance. In a rapidly dematerialising world, as more of life is conducted in the cloud, it is increasingly important that the gifts below that time has bestowed are maintained. Without space for innovation and creative exchange, skills such as batik will cease to play an active role in what we make of our world.
Within the craft canon, batik is particularly expressive. The flow of wax through the canting lends itself to a fluid graphic form, reflecting a sinuous natural world. The history of batik is the story of its surrounding culture: originating in Java, it has been influenced by the traffic of cultures in south-east Asia, including block-printed fabrics from Gujarat, Chinese jewellery and Dutch tastes.
But there’s also a subtle mystery in batik. Like darkroom photography, it works from the negative, beginning with an inverted version of its final outcome. Unlike more direct techniques such as painting, it requires a greater understanding of the interrelation between many phases of waxing, dyeing and watching. Maybe it’s that consideration of other processes that helps it reflect an interrelation of cultures.
A recent entrant to the calendar of batik events is the Semarang International Batik Festival. Semarang is a city of about 5 million on the north coast of Central Java. Founded by an Islamic missionary in the 15th century, Semarang soon fell under Dutch control and became an important trading centre, attracting Chinese merchants. Semarang shares with the other coastal batik centre Pekalongan a vibrant pesisir style featuring bright colours and graphic forms. Semarangan style batik patterns include the tamarind plant and historic features. However, the other batik towns of Central Java, such as Yogyakarta and Solo have a higher profile. But being overlooked provides the city with a powerful motive to raise its profile, particularly as the capital of Central Java.
Kampoeng Semarang is a hybrid cultural-commercial complex that has been developed by a young local entrepreneur, Miss Wenny. Miss Wenny is a new generation business woman with an interest in civic development. Her Semarang International Batik Craft Centre has transformed what was previously a dangerous area of the city into an active commercial hub. Only a year old, Kampoeng Semarang includes batik shops, restaurant, conference facilities and workshop space.
I’d been invited last year to visit Semarang wearing my World Crafts Council Asia Pacific hat. I noticed that although there seemed to be an active if small batik sector at work, there was little space for it to develop. There was no opportunity to experiment with new designs or products. A festival seemed an important step towards fostering skill development, innovation and increased exposure. To my surprise, KS quickly agreed and set a date in early May, leaving only five months for preparation. I had to credit them their confidence, but I was a little doubtful of what they could achieve in such a short time.
It was clear that we had to quickly mobilise international support for this venture if it was to succeed. The festival had to make the right impression on the local dignitaries if it was to be ongoing. And there was great promise in its future.
For the World Crafts Council, the batik festival was an important avenue for re-activating Indonesia’s presence in the region. While there is strong south-east Asian representation from Thailand and Malaysia, Indonesian participation had declined in recent years. It has been hard to activate the national and regional crafts councils.
Realising this opportunity, the newly appointed Senior Vice-President of the WCC Asia Pacific Dr Ghada Hijjawi-Qaddumi decided to attend with a mission to recruit new representatives. Her warmth and enthusiasm helped support the event greatly, and she even contributed $1,000 towards a prize for batik art in next year’s festival. Dr Ghada was joined by the President of the WCC, Mr Wang Shan, based in Beijing. China is hosting the 50th anniversary of the WCC next year across three cities, and it is important to have Indonesia as a significant part of this celebration of world craft. There was a very neat historical resonance in the WCC presence at this event, reflecting the importance of the Arab and Chinese influences in the development of the region.
Australia is a relatively newer visitor to Indonesia, though now the relationship is particularly strong with growing ties of economy and tourism. There has been a particularly rich history of batik exchange between the two countries. This has included connections with Aboriginal communities such as Ernabella and Utopia, where the batik has been particularly suitable for the fluid nature of art making. And in textile art, the influence of Indonesian batik has been important, reflected in the touring exhibition in Contemporary Australian Batik in 1989.
Now there is scope to extend this partnership to include design. Already there are fashion designers like the Queenslanders Easton Pearson who work with Indonesian batik, but there are many other possibilities for product development. Sangam: Australia India Design Platform has been growing a network of designers and craftspersons interested to collaborate. There is many prospects in expanding this network to include Indonesia.
Here we were fortunate to receive assistance from the Australian Embassy to bring two textile masters. Tony Dyer has been successful in establishing a career in batik art, sustained by overseas collectors. Dyer had last been in Indonesia nearly 40 years ago, when he was just starting his career in batik. We were able to show his work and Tony provided a hands on engagement with participating artists, swapping techniques and discussing the finer points.
Dyer was joined by Liz Williamson, Associate Professor at College of Fine Art, University of New South Wales and a designated Living Treasure of Australian craft .Williamson teaches a unit Cultural Textiles, where students have been traveling to India in order to engage rich living traditions of embroidery and dyeing. The hope was that she would find the right kinds of people and places to bring a contingent of next generation designers to Central Java. She presented her range of Woven in Asia which gave a taste of what a craft-design partnership might entail.
There were some key international players, then, for the all-important Simbolisasi (Gunting pita) opening of the inaugural Semarang International Batik Festival. Around 9am, the dignitaries started to arrive. This included the Governor of Central Java Bibit Waluyo, whose wife heads up the Crafts Council of Central Java. He was joined by the Dr Prasetyo Aribowo, Head of Culture and Tourism, Central Java, Professsor Ahman Sya, Director General of Creative Economy and Esthy Reko Astuty, Director General of Tourism Marketing. It was clear this was an event of national significance.
It was fascinating to witness the graceful nature of a Javanese opening ceremony. As with every occasion, this included elegant young women performing traditional dances. There was a fashion parade of both men and women showing colourful if demure garments by designers Anne Avantie and Ira Priyono. I was particularly surprised to see group prizes for best batik technique—it doesn’t seem the way here to single an individual out for attention. The event was officially opened by the Governor banging the traditional drum, which he did with a trill on the side before heaving into the drum proper. More significantly, he then went to the workshop to sign his name in hot wax, so it could be dyed into a commemorative batik afterwards.
For the next three days there were stalls selling batik and craft products, which helped create a buzz. The live music was particularly good, including some languorous Keroncong, a Latin inspired Indonesian music. As word of the festival spread, high profile batik artists started to appear from the elsewhere region, showing how important such a forum might be beyond Semarang city.
On Saturday night, the reason for the timing of the festival became apparent with the Semarang Night Carnival. This was worth a trip to Semarang on its own. The costuming was inventive and exuberant. An other-worldly blend of traditional and modern music brought it to life. At the final concert, Semarang was sea of colour and movement, undulating to the rhythms of Indo-pop. Who knows what might happen if the batik festival were to form a partnership with the carnival, where it could feature the craft of making costumes.
On the final day, the organisers met with the international visitors to discuss how their event might develop. It was heartening that they able to accept the shortcomings and see this as a trial run. Much could be achieved quickly by establishing a database of batik artists and creating events like workshops where they could participate. It was clear that there wasn’t a media network that could assist organisations like Kampoeng Semarang to get word out.
Now that the first Semarang International Batik Festival is over, we can start dreaming of how it might develop. Would a prize be important, or is competition against the more collective nature of Javanese culture? Is there scope for individuals to develop pathways into batik as an art form? Would there be interest in collaborations with foreign designers?
One issue that did come up in the discussion was the depth of meaning attached to batik. Traditionally, it is a textile that gives meaning to life, with different patterns reflecting various rites of passage, such as pregnancy. I personally am interested in the labuhan ceremony, where people gather on the beach to throw their troubles in to the sea.
A challenging space has been opened up between the Semarang International Batik Festival and the Semarang Night Carnival—between batik as a product and the rituals that bring people together. There is much life in that space between.
Semarang has shown it is willing and capable of holding an international batik festival. It’s up to us all now to work together and help make the next one realise this promise.
If you have any comments or suggestions for the next Semarang International Batik Festival, please leave them in the comments below.
To stay in touch with future activities of the World Crafts Council Asia Pacific, subscribe to the newsletter at www.australasiancraftnetwork.net.
Thanks to the Australian Embassy, Jakarta, for supporting the Australian contingent, as well as Liz Williamson and Tony Dyer for giving themselves to the event. Pungki Purwito and Riza Radyanto organised the initial tour through Semarang, December 2012. Thanks for Wenny Sulistiowaty and Teguh Imam Prasetyo at Kampoeng Semarang for their commitment to batik. James Bennett and Jan Nealie provided much useful advice on the history of Australian-Indonesian batik exchange. Peter Craven helped greatly with the Indonesian connections. Malcolm Smith offered a warm welcome to Yogyakarta. And special thanks to World Crafts Council colleagues Dr Ghada Hijjawi-Qaddumi and Mr Wang Shan for giving their time to this precious event.
Generally, I get a privileged view of what’s happening in world craft, filtered through the programing of events such as this conference and World Crafts Council extravaganzas. But it’s getting on the road and visiting villages where craft is still practiced that I tend to learn about what’s missing from these rosy views.
I had the opportunity after the conference of going to Kishangarh to teach a workshop at the new University of Central Rajasthan. I arrived late at night, embracing the warm night air after being confined in the freezing AC in First Class (there were no tickets available in Sleeper). Stumbling across the tracks, I found my host waiting patiently, who took me to my accommodation in the Heritage Hotel. Like many developments in Kishangarh, this mock Haveli is only two years old.
I found out soon after arrival that there was no WiFi or Internet in the rooms, but the staff lent me their hotel’s own dongle so I could get a connection during the night when they didn’t need it. This is a typical Indian exchange – disappointment with services followed by a generous gesture. Perhaps there would be more reliable Internet in Australian hotels, but they would charge you for it and would happily abandon you if there was a fault.
The motto of Central University of Rajasthan is ‘Education for Sustainable Development’. For our workshop, we focused on the concept of sustainability, to understand what it means to preserve the past, and when it might be better to let go. The students were mostly Rajasthani and quite idealistic about the negative impact of economic development. They seemed to embrace the discussions, offering critical perspectives on commodification. It was clear that this was a new generation of open-minded young Indians which offered much promise for all the new organisations and businesses that are starting up around the country.After the workshop I was kindly invited by local Australian Fiona Wright and her husband to visit Thilonia, the fabled village of Barefoot College. I’d seen Bunker Roy speak about this in 2010 and found it impossibly idealistic. But seeing for myself the women from Jharkhand making circuits for solar panels, I lost any doubts about the project. It was an inspiring experience.
Afterwards, a person who runs a new start-up for online craft sales offered to show me some villages on the way back to Jaipur. In his little jeep, we trundled down endless bumpy roads to find a village that he has been working with to supply goods for sale.
On arrival, I found myself the object of a traditional welcome. A woman came out of the house to drape a garland of flowers around my neck and anoint my forehead with a tilak red thumbprint. I do confess to a romantic notion about traditional welcome ceremonies, so was quite overcome to be greeted like this.We then went inside for a chai and sit down. During this time, various men came and went. They seemed quite distant from any craft production, and I began to wonder if I was captive to some patriarchal elite in the village. After some time, and in fading light, we eventually went to visit some of the homes were women embroidered. In what seemed an endless succession, I was invited into room after room where women stretched their fabric to work on. They eagerly demonstrated their techniques for me. I was very grateful for the contact, but the embroidery itself seemed quite elemental, particularly compared to the masters present in Make it New Again. Many of the sequins were glued onto the stretch fabric. This in itself isn’t an issue for a village that clearly maintained a local craft production. But there were expectations attached to my presence that I could be able to take it further, perhaps opening new markets for them. It is conceivable that a designer could come to live with these women and develop a unique product that would stand out from others. They were in the business of setting up an impressive village office, that could prove a hub for this. But visiting their homes, I was quite struck by the wonderful visual sense evident in the arrangement of objects on shelves. An alternative route would be develop the design skills of the women themselves in an alternative medium, like graphics.
During the long freezing drive back to Jaipur, I worked through the experience. What to do with such great expectations? Is the one-off presence of an outsider like myself sufficient in itself as an unusual event to give honour to the local embroiderers? How can a product carry values that are part of village life? There was many questions floating around, but one definite conclusion settled in my mind. I discarded any notion that Rajasthan was saturated with craft NGOs. The region has a potent combination of need, and capacity, but the challenges should not be underestimated. I do dip my lid at those who make a fist of it.
Summary comments presented at Kaivalam Craft Summit, World Crafts Council General Assembly, Chennai 7-10 October 2012
We’ve just shared three days of talks from extraordinary people from all corners of the world about the state of craft today. What have we learned?
There have been some important proposals for us to consider. The most salient of these has been the development of an Academy of Craft & Design, presented by the Indian Minister of Handicrafts, Anand Sharma. That I could read about this in the Times of India yesterday is testament to the usefulness of the World Crafts Council presidency to the host nation. It is a great credit to the influence of Mrs Usha Krishna that she has been able to leverage the occasion for strategic political announcements of benefit to the craft sector. We hope the academy, when finally built, will prominently feature her portrait in recognition of her resounding contribution to craft.
Looking more behind the scenes, we had advice about the need to know ourselves better, in particular to collect data that could translate our blind passion for craft into cold hard statistics. Ashoke Chatterjee spoke about this in the Indian context, contrasting the excellent business case of the craft export centre against the largely opaque local sector. Simon Ellis offered us some recent models for quantifying craft used by organisations like UNESCO.
Proposals like these will depend partly on factors beyond our control, particularly government budgets. While we need to follow up on these beyond Kaivalam, it is important that we find ways of continuing the conversation started here.
As I attempted to distil the learning of Kaivalam last night, I was inspired by the wonderful Sari Production that we witnessed, where dancers performed the marvellous process of sari weaving and wearing. They beautifully conveyed the back and forward of the shuttle that is intrinsic to weaving. And so, thinking about our discussions, rather than define our agreements, it seemed more appropriate to identify the dualities that energised our discussions. While here in India, it seems important to take one of its principle learnings, Dharma, as a framework for thinking about the dualities that have been revealed in world craft over the past three days.
While one side tended to dominate in Kaivalam, the other was evoked. Our ongoing discussion aims to weave a dense fabric of understanding moving between the two alternatives.
What is the best market for craft?
On the second day, we heard some very impressive case studies for the support of traditional craft through the luxury market. These included opportunities discussed by Marcella Echavarria for appealing to consumers in New York through clever branding, Umang Hutheesing’s continuing revival of the courtly traditions that thrived under the Maharajas, Rolf von Buerren’s tribue to the vision of the Queen of Thailand in sponsoring her country’s craft, and the marvellous tale of Jean François Lesage’s work in servicing the restoration of European aristocratic treasures through Chennai craftsmanship
There is no doubt that royalty has played a positive role in the development of craft excellence and exquisite technical skill. As craft becomes increasingly rare, it also gains in exclusive value. And if we argue that wages for artisans need to increase, we should look to the wealthy who are the ones that can afford to pay the higher prices. It seems a good bet.
But then on the other hand, as Ms Souad Amin from Lebanon asked, is craft just for the elite? Actually, the dominant story of craft invoked on the first day was that of Gandhi, who saw spinning as a spiritual exercise for the strengthening of the Indian nation after British rule. So where was the spirit of the hand-spun khadi cloth today—craft for every person and every day? In Kaivalam, this found its expression largely in the corporate sector. We heard from Janet Nkubana about how she has been able to create a craft industry for her fellow Rwandan women supplying the Wal-Mart chain in the United States. We had Ratna Krishnakumar’s beautiful presentation of saris made by the Pochampalli weavers, now providing uniforms for the Taj Hotels. For those who are able and interested to make a regular supply of craft products, there are many new opportunities to connect with corporate outlets.
On the one hand, luxury boutiques. And on the other hand, supermarkets. Both alternatives exist very much within the existing market system. Maybe there’s also a space for craft that connects people more directly than through the market. We need to think more about the egalitarian role of craft, in particular how to reconcile the DIY movement with world craft.
How can countries partner together?
As has been evident thus far, the World Crafts Council is a multifaceted forum for bringing together many different cultures of the world.
Apart from sharing a solidarity through our own individual craft traditions, the question was raised of how we can collaborate together as partners. This is particularly evident in the paper about India-Africa partnerships at NID given by Frances Potter and Shimul Vyas. As Frances said, she had presumed that all possibilities came from the north, but she just woke up one morning and thought of India. I wonder what she dreamt of during the night.
The Zimbabwe-India partnership is a perfect example of the kind of south-south cooperation that is growing so strongly now, most evident in the rise of the BRICS trading block. Of course, it is particularly strong right here in the audience of the General Assembly, where we see a growing proportion of countries from the global South. We are at the crest of the tide of history, particularly the Asian Century.
But we should never forget the North. As Adelia Borges reminded us, north-south relations can sometimes be a monologue. Northern designers can often commission craftspersons with little dialogue over the final product. But dialogue goes both ways, and we should also consider the North as an essential part of the World Crafts Council conversation. After all, it’s where the modern craft story began, with the Arts & Crafts Movement whose ideas expressed by William Morris and John Ruskin helped inspire the craft revivals in India, Japan and beyond. Today we see such innovative design emerging from countries like the Netherlands, Norway and the UK. We certainly witnessed this in Christa Meindersma’s presentation of works supported by the Prince Claus fund in the Netherlands.
On the one hand we have the South with its energy and vibrant traditions, and on the other we have the North with its modernist professionalism and institutions. Getting our two worlds to talk to each other with equal respect is a major challenge for world craft.
What is the space of craft?
One of the very surprising and thrilling discussions followed the talk by the Mooji designer, Kenya Hara. You’ll recall, he spoke about the aesthetic of emptiness and its role in design. Hara framed the place of emptiness in Japanese culture as an invitation to the gods. He contrasted this to way decoration on objects operates as an expression of power.
But then the Kuwaiti scholar Dr Ghada pointed out that in the Islamic tradition the purpose of decoration is to keep the devil out. From one end of Asia to the other we witnessed a clash of opposites—gods and devils, emptiness and fullness. Where might they meet?
When pressed on this matter, Hara observed that the very plainness of Mooji design offers a place for the crafted object to be more clearly apprehended. A simple table provides the perfect stage for a finely worked piece of craft.
This was an intriguing model for the role of design in craft: design makes a space for craft to express itself. Given the business and noise of contemporary life, making this space, what Heidegger calls the ‘clearing’, is particularly important.
On the one hand the emptiness of design, but on the other hand, the fullness of craft. As a curator, I find this duality particularly important.
How do we protect craft?
Then yesterday, we had an especially intense series of papers about Geographical Indicators. Here we learnt about the role of the law in protecting our craft knowledge. Geographic Indicators ensure that a community which has been the custodian of a particular craft tradition will be the exclusive owners of that intellectual property. These Geographical Indicators are an important addition to the legal arsenal alongside copyright, patents and traditional knowledge.
But there is also the parallel effort to protect craft from imitation and knock offs, which doesn’t rely on lawyers or courts—marketing. Today craft organisations organisations can develop websites that include images of their artisans, perhaps even videos, so the ethical consumer can feel more confident about their authenticity. More practically, this information offers a story that they can then use when sharing their purchase with others or directly when presenting it as a gift.
So we have two quite different approaches to protecting the authenticity of craft. In one we invest in the legal system, enforced by fines. And in the other, we engage in marketing, creating value in our brand. What’s it to be—the stick or the carrot?
To an extent, these alternative paths overlap the rich and poor duality. The ethical consumer tends to be a wealthier person, looking for a good story rather than just something that ticks the box. On the other hand, the lower end price sensitive market will not worry so much about authenticity In this case, we need more pre-emptive legal powers. I think there is still more potential in consumer-led protection. The customer forums that are increasingly prominent in the Internet offer greater scope for crowd-sourced whistleblowing.
What is the future for craft?
Clearly we cannot sum up Kaivalam without acknowledging the key question. ‘The future is handmade’ strikes a defiant tone. We make a bold challenge to the technological idea of progress which champions development as the replacement of human drudgery by ever more efficient machines. According to the technocrats, we are better off entrusting our world in machines, devices, clouds, rather than our own hands. It does seem unfortunately the default position of governments, but also sadly an increasingly popular attitude amongst many in the next generation.
Rather than succumb to defeatism, we take a stand. The future is handmade presumes we can leapfrog this purely technological idea of progress by anticipating a time when we realise that technology cannot answer our basic needs.
One of the quite deep aspects of Kaivalam was the way it reconfigured our understanding of time, particularly craft time. I liked the way Syeda Hameed quoted Rumi, including the line: ‘constant slow movement teaches us to keep working like a small creek that stays clear’. It’s not so much the linear flow of water, but its constant motion that is important.
There were many comments not just about the speed of progress, but also the narrowing of our time frame. Rolf von Buerren noted that the rhythm of life in the US is around five minutes, or the time between advertising breaks. Indeed, we are now witnessing an election campaign in the United States where the choice of leader in the largest world economy can be determined by a few minutes on the television screen. But more profoundly, we’re all still reeling from the devastation to our global economy caused by the intensification of short term profit by financial traders.
Craft is not so much about the past or the future, as what connects them together. As Octavio Paz wrote in that landmark 1974 World Craft Council publication In Praise of Hands, ‘The modern artist has set out to conquer eternity, and the designer to conquer the future; the craftsman allows himself to be conquered by time.’ At its core here is an acceptance of time, linking past and future.
Arguably the most treasured consumer item at the moment is the Apple iPhone 5. It has truly miraculous powers and sports deviously clever apps. But how long will its value last? Will it ever be an heirloom? The value of these gadgets starts declining from the moment we purchase them. It’s the handmade object that we will entrust with our long term future.
On the one hand our tomorrow, on the other our children’s tomorrow. Craft stretches time. And as we need to face up to long-term issues like climate change, this role is increasingly important.
Four year journey
We may have started under the cloud of the GFC, but we’ve shared remarkable times together. I’ll never forget during Abhushan, listening to Ms Azza Fahmy from Egypt, on the morning the news broke about the change of leadership, how we could all share with her that solidarity that remains between those involved in craft, despite the upheavals that affect our world.
We’ve shared now in Kaivalam a great testament to the vibrancy of the ‘World’ Crafts Council. Beyond the formal presentations, we’ve had the privilege to meet people from 39 different countries, all brought together through a common interest in making beautiful objects that have a lasting place in our world.
Part of living in the world involves accepting that not everyone is the same. Rather than dilute our identity, diversity makes it stronger. There are at least two sides to the questions we’ve been considering over the past three days. Like the shuttle that moves across the loom, the play of opposites builds a stronger understanding of where we are.
On the one hand, and on the other. What do we do? Let’s put them together and congratulate Mrs Usha Krishna for leading us through the past four years.
La Paz Bolivia has a very special significance for Joyaviva, the exhibition of modern amulets. It is the home of El Ekeko, the inspiration of Angela Cura Mendes El Ekeko Proyecto and represents an original take on luck in South America. This Andean god of abundance is the centrepiece of a festival known as the Alisitas, when people exchange miniature versions of consumer goods. The city has an entire mini-economy devoted to the fabrication of miniature tools, cars, money, food and even certificates. These all go on sale at noon, 24 January, where the city’s population gathers to purchase the object of their and others desires.
On other times of the year, you can supply your wishful thinking at the Calle de las Brujas (Street of the Witches). All along the street are shops selling amulets, votive offerings, charms, herbal medicines and the ubiquitous llama foetus. It’s an extraordinary display of invention and ritual that both attracts and repulses. The Joyaviva challenge is to find ways of drawing on this amazing heritage without reverting to primitivism.
Bolivia is a fascinating stage in the Joyaviva journey. Though it is the poorest country in Latin America, it is incredibly rich in popular culture. There is a great love of festivals, featuring stunning parades in the Fiesta de Gran Poder and Carnival. It is also the most strongly indigenous country in the continent, with a President who proudly follows his Aymara heritage. Politically, Bolivia aspires to world leadership in climate change, presenting the figure of Pachamama (mother earth) as a global ideal.One of the distinctive features of La Paz is the indigenous woman, known as cholita, who dresses in a distinctive derby hat (bombin). Forced to adopt European clothes by their Spanish masters, the indigenous women decided to craft their own image from variety of disparate sources. In what might be considered Andean bling, the women wear multilayed skirts often embroidered with glistening metal thread. Jewellery is taken very seriously, particularly when attached to the hat. The women commission specific pieces that relate to their identity, featuring ornate animals or mythical figures.
Joyaviva itself is blessed with a wonderful partner in Bolivia. The Jalsuri Foundation works with artisans across the country hosting workshops and developing quality craft product that they sell in their shops. Under the leadership of Daniela Viscara, they gathered a fascinating combination of artists, jewellers, designers and artisans for the Joyaviva workshop. She gave an outline of the design process and her colleague the historian Silvia Azre presented a fascinating genealogy of El Ekeko. The dialogue between Western, Latin and indigenous cultures proved quite fertile. So what did they come up with?
That week in La Paz had been quite difficult. The bus drivers had blockaded the city, making it impossible for people to get to work or the shops. And then in the weekend, a large group protesting against the blockades themselves disrupted the city. It’s no surprise then that one of the situations they identified as needing luck was the task of getting to work each day. While this might be taken for granted in most other cities, in La Paz it might be considered a blessing to actually arrive at work in the morning. Other work related concerns included having for a job interview and sitting an exam. These were very different from the traditional contexts for amulets, which included fertility, good harvest and personal wealth. Might there be a new generation of Bolivian amulets relevant to the needs of a modern city?
The Alisatas Festival that holds particular promise. While over-consumption is recognised as producing great strain on the environment, a decline in consumer demand is seen as stalling the world economy. Alisatas is a celebration of desire and consumption, yet because the items are miniature, this has a positive effect on the local economy. In the Western version of Alisatas, known as Christmas, the ultimate gratitude for all the goods we unwrap is to say ‘But this is exactly what I wanted. How did you know?’ Perhaps the recognition of desire is more important than its satisfaction. If this is so, then the Alisatas is the perfect way of bringing people together.
The particular desire for Joyaviva is to have the exhibition in La Paz at the same time as Alasitas. This not only touches on the spirit of the project, it also provides a generative platform for the burgeoning jewellery network. After all, rendering the world in miniature is a special power of the jeweller.
Margarita Sampson grapples with the rates of exchange between celebrity and local jewelleryIn February I had the pleasure of attending Jemposium, a symposium of contemporary jewellery held in Wellington, NZ. Among other esteemed practitioners, Ted Noten was billed as a keynote speaker, the Dutch jeweller who with associates Marcel van Kan & Cathelijne Engelkes had successfully transformed his Atelier Ted Noten (ATN) into a sought-after brand, utilising the tropes of fashion & advertising in a Hirst/Koons/Warholian fashion. Ted was elevated to a near-mystical persona, with witty slogans that suggested “Ted Noten loves women” among others.
Ted, alas, was not able to make it, and sent both a video of himself and his 2-I-C Marcel van Kan. Meanwhile, over at Photo-Space the ATN Miss Piggy “Wanna Swap your Ring?” project was in full swing. The concept: a certain amount of pink nylon pig- rings (of an infinite series) were arranged in the form of a gun, and you could take one and replace it with a ring of your own you didn’t want any-more. It could be a failed experiment from your studio (the text suggested), a ring (ie engagement) someone had given you that you never wanted, etc. It took place in different cities in the world, with each one assuming its own character. The wall of rings will now be exhibited elsewhere, so the New Zealand one, as others, one will form a unique snapshot of a time and place.
It troubled me somewhat, and investigating exactly why has taken a while to nut out. It’s complex and I’m not sure I’ve nailed it even now. Here’s the deal: the rings read to me as design-trinkets. A ring that had any associated value to me (even bad memories) as a straight swap to a ring that came out of a big plastic bag by the handful? That doesn’t seem fair, ATN – where are your memories and associations? Your offering, as it were, of yourself? Or are we buying into a rhetoric that says: because of your status, your mass-produced trinket is glamorous, desirable and equal one-to-one with anything we may have to offer? Strangely, if they had been for sale (they retail at 30 euros online), I would have been happy to buy one. Money has no intrinsic value, either. So what price do I put on my ring-associations? I would have been happy with a swap between people in different countries where we offered a similar ring (I loved the pin-swap with the ‘two hour time limit ‘making-parameter). I would have been happy to give a ring to the project, and it would have pleased me to think of it sitting next to the others. Interestingly, Marcel expressed ATN’s mild disappointment that the Japanese version contained many swapped rings made (on the spot) from wire or paper, or a cheap key-ring, for instance, thus subverting the suggested rules of exchange. So why not offer up a scrap of twisted paper, you ask? It…it just felt a bit disrespectful. Maybe the problem was that I was unable to proffer an equivalent item for exchange and thus felt thwarted by the original premise. Marcel had said that ATN wanted to play with ideas of value and worth, which, if that was the object, has been mightily successful in this case.
So, it wasn’t a high priority to get myself one…and yet, there was a little nagging envy as Jemposium people waggled their pink pig rings at each other. The allure of the desirable, finite item. The Birkin bag of Jemposium? Perhaps I should hurry down and get one? Rumours were that they’d all gone…Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Marcel van Kan took us through a presentation on the work of ATN. Despite being an admirer of the virtuosity of the work of ATN for many years, the talk left me a little cold for various reasons, not least being their condescending attitude to women…fickle, high-heeled-wearing, diamond-bedazzled-creatures… It felt like were we in another era (The text should read “Ted Noten loves his own idea of Women”). I was left with the feeling that there wasn’t much mana in the “Big Banana” of ATN.
At the conclusion of the talk Marcel, with a flourish, took a handful of leftover yellow rings from a previous project and threw them into the audience. One was heading straight my way, gosh… and as X (next to me) put in a heroic goalkeeper’s jump in front of me, the ring deflected off his sleeve and fell between my feet. Ah, the little yellow ring. Viperish thing. Hell, it was between my feet, everyone was excited, it was all good fun, wasn’t it? Still I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d been swapped a shiny mirror for a piece of land. Beads and a handful of nails while the Euro’s steal the show. Again. I wasn’t the only one with misgivings, as later discreet, over-coffee-mutterings percolated.
So, I wore my yellow ATN ring for two days. I showed it off when people admired it. I tried to admire it myself. Were they now more desirable than the Miss Piggy ring? More exclusive? Was I special? X next to me was downcast, the pink rings had all been taken and the yellow was his last chance for a ring. (Although a mysterious VIP ATN banana ring showed up later…) Were we now in a strange ring-stratified hierarchy with ATN at the head? How did this happen so quickly, so easily? I loitered near the Miss Piggy ring-gun-wall later at the closing party and tried to screw up the courage to swap my yellow one for any number of the recognisable & desirable rings on the wall. Oooh, look, a minimalist Warwick Freeman, a cheeky Karl Fritsch, a lush Julia de Ville… not to mention the many other beautiful pieces with their hidden associations for the wearer. What was it that Warwick didn’t like about his ring? Or had some-one else put it there? The wall felt rich and meaningful and secretive. Full of narrative. Would I betray them by doing the clandestine swap? Certainly their work was desirable, but they had given it up in good faith. And I’m well-mannered by nature, was sober enough to decide it was probably theft, and thus kept my yellow ring.
By the last day I’d taken the yellow ring off. It wasn’t attractive in itself and I had very mixed feelings about it. I found X at the Masterclass and discretely handed it over. Oh Joy! I’d gotten rid of the troublesome thing and it had gone to someone who really wanted it, and was overjoyed to unexpectedly receive it. And here the story might have ended, except some time later, he came up and gave me a beautiful hand-made ring from his own studio… black, faceted, asymmetrical, bold & strong. A ring I would have chosen from a line-up. Tears sprang into my eyes. We each had a memento of Jemposium. We all came out happy. Larks sang from the treetops. The End.
Miss Piggy: “A democratised ring for everyone, available for a low price and manufactured in an unlimited series. With this rapid prototyped ring the artist tries to conquer the world: a genuine Ted Noten ring for every woman on earth is his ideal.” From the ATN website.
PS. On reading Kevin Murray’s ‘Till Death do us Part: Jewellery & its Human Host”( Noris Ioannou (ed.) Fremantle Arts Centre Press (1992)) I have a feeling some of this may have to do with a formalist vs a functionalist approach to jewellery. What do you think? Or is it Design vs Craft? Check out his article here.
Margarita Sampson is a Norfolk Island & Sydney-based contemporary jeweller & sculptor.
The story begins in 1981, when Craft Australia had the foresight to bring out the US fibre artist Douglas Fuchs. At the time, the development of contemporary craft benefited immeasurably from these foreign visitors, bringing together the nascent communities of fibre, textile, metal, clay and glass artists.
Fuchs was a fibre artist particularly inspired by traditional basketry, such as native American traditions. He travelled widely through Australia, giving workshops and spending time in Maningrida learning the ways of traditional Yolngu fibre crafts. The tour eventuated in the exhibition titled Floating Forest, which launched at Adelaide, Festival Centre in 1981, then toured Sydney and Melbourne in 1982. The visit was quite critical for Australian craft.
Fuch’s statement in the exhibition reflects the mystery that he seeks in fibre art:
Psychologically the forest symbol represents the unknown in each person’s being — a beckoning desire to get lost, or discovering aspects of life that may be more challenging and difficult than already comprehended… My concept of a ‘Floating Forest’ environment was an attempt to construct and symbolise this state of feeling, this symbol that has become central in my imagination. Many other people have done it in different ways. I happen to be a person who makes objects in basketry techniques and materials.
A particularly moving part of the symposium was delivered by Wendy Golden, who read out Virginia Kaiser’s reflections on the experience. Kaiser had been unable to attend herself due to ill health, but the sound of her words vocalised by an equally dedicated and innovative basketmaker was quite powerful. Before Fuchs’ visit, Kaiser had been studying weaving. His workshop had the effect of connecting her with a world of twining and coiling. The exhibition itself was a revelation. The theatrical display of sculptural vessels, figurative pieces and floating structures demonstrated the expressive potential of fibre as an art form.
Thankfully, the exhibition as a whole was acquired by the Powerhouse Museum. And fortunately for us, Anthony Camm at the Ararat Regional Gallery had the vision to restage the exhibition 30 years later, reflecting the gallery’s specialisation in fibre arts. The installation was combined with works from the collection and new works made to honour Douglas Fuchs.
Three decades later, a symposium about Floating Forest was an opportunity not only to acknowledge the enduring influence of an exhibition, but also to recognise the revival of indigenous basketry that had occurred in the meantime. In recent years, there has been a wave of fibre exhibitions touring around Australia, such as Recoil, Woven Forms, Tayenebe, Floating Life, and Louise Hamby’s Art on a String and now touring Clever Hands. Increasingly these reflect the resilience and innovation of fibre work in Indigenous communities. More than any other material, fibre connects with the land.
The symposium featured some fascinating reflections on southeastern indigenous fibre. Museum Victoria’s Antoinette Smith gave some fascinating insights into traditional use of baskets, sometimes reaching a massive size to reflect the status of its owner. Marilyne Nicholls reflected on her monumental works using open coil technique. And Brownyn Razem reflected on a wide variety of southeastern fibre arts, such as the revival of possum skin cloaks.
Given the connection to land, there’s a temptation to think then that fibre is an exclusively indigenous art form. An very interesting text panel in the exhibition quoted from a review of the Australian basketry exhibition by Anna Griffiths in Craft Victoria (1992) which downgraded the value of non-functional and conceptual works. But a number of presentations in the symposium showed how it was a continuing form of experimentation for settler artists. As a Victorian basketmakers, Maree Brown showed some very fresh work using a wide variety of materials, from plastics to jigsaw pieces. Lucy Irvine took this further with her phenomenological abstract forms using nylon and cable ties.
So do the settler and indigenous fibre traditions meet? Adrienne Kneebone, mentored by Nalda Searles, presented a paper about her Pandanus Project, involving a dialogue around the Northern Territory town Katherine. This featured some quite haunting indigenous fibre work, including the mysterious mukuy forms. But this isn’t the only influence on Kneebone. Talking with Adrienne in the gallery, she told me how moved she was to see Floating Forest. ‘Virginia Kaiser has been such an influence on me. And here is the exhibition that so inspired her.’
Congratulations to Ararat Regional Art Gallery. Floating Forest helped remind us of the power of craft to both connect people and express deep emotions. It’s a lead that others should follow.
I’ve been enjoying a recent issue of Hand/Eye, which lives up to its normal high standards of journalism and design. Number 06 is a particularly broad-ranging issue, covering craft in West & North Africa, South-East Asia, India, Brazil and Australia. Each contributes to a broad spectrum of colours, which gives this issue an especially sumptuous feel.
It’s hard to say this, but the photography is almost too good. The scenes and saturated hues are so intense that it throws the reader back into role of spectator, awed by the glorious colour. This is perfect as a celebration of craft, but it doesn’t really allow for any critical engagement. I feel myself left asking, as a typical self-castigating liberal, what are the terms of engagement between me and the subjects on these the pages? It feels like they’re the actors and I’m the audience, which is familiar in fashion or cinema. But I wonder if there are more active forms of engagement available in crafts.
As always, I highly recommend reading Hand/Eye. There’s been nothing like it in terms of a forum for the richness of global craft culture. But this particular sumptuous feast may require a digestive.
The Australasian Craft Network has been established as a bridge down-under with the World Craft Council.
The World Craft Council is the umbrella organisation of five regional associations (Africa, Asia Pacific, Europe, Latin America and North America), within which are various sub-regions. Historically, Australia and New Zealand have been in the South Pacific sub-region of the Asia Pacific region. The WCC General Assembly meets every four years. Regional groups meet annually.
The WCC has two main goals:
- To disseminate knowledge, to help craftspersons and revive languishing crafts in these regions and to provide a network and fellowship among craftspersons of the various nations, and to ensure that they are in communication with each other.
- To bring crafts and craftspersons into the mainstream of life, connecting with the past through maintaining inherited traditions and looking into the future through the use of modern technology to experiment, innovate and reach out to new markets.
In 2008, the Pacific Craft Network was established as a means of disseminating information from the World Craft Council to the island communities, as well as providing a platform for development of projects particularly in association with the Pacific arts festivals.
To complement that, the Australasian Craft Network provides those non-islanders of the South Pacific with a similar conduit to the World Craft Council and also a means of organising activities to the broader benefit of craft culture.
In particular, there is interest in a future conference to consider the relevance of craft today in our region. Initial questions include:
- Should craft, as a form of tactile literacy, be an essential part of education?
- How does craft contribute to a healthier society?
- Could the Global Financial Crisis lay the ground for a craft renaissance?
- How does craft related to emerging practices such as ethical design?
- How is a professional craft practice viable when there are no more collectors?
- What are positive models for the relationship between craft and design?
Are there questions that you would add to this list? Please feel free to reply with your suggestions.
Members of the Australasian Craft Network will:
- Receive emails of World Craft Council activities, including upcoming workshops and forums
- Contribute to shaping events in the Australasian region that connect with the international craft world
Dr Kevin Murray, vice-president, World Craft Council Asia Pacific Region
Lindy Joubert, Australian national entity, UNESCO Observatory