Time to get horizontal in Asia

 

Sandra Bowkett is an Australian potter who has been able to establish deep connections with Indian culture through respect for their craft traditions. You can read her story here and listen to the recent ABC Radio National program about her here.


Last night, I attended the launch of a paper by Carillo Ganter and Alison Carroll, Finding a Place on the Asian Stage. This was an Asialink event, designed to advocate for a great focus on the region. In a daring move, they invited the ex-Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd to official launch the paper.

After outlining his own history of involvement with Asia, Rudd made some forceful points about what Australia should do. He emphasised that Asia contained some of the oldest continuous civilisations in the world. For Rudd, it was critical that Australia show respect for these cultures. Rudd argued that this respect was manifest in the commitment to learn the languages of the region. He reflected sadly on the recent decline of Asian literacy in Australia. 

In terms of continuous civilisations, Australia certainly does have an indigenous culture, which it proudly presents on the world stage. But as a postcolonial nation, it tends to overlook its own cultural traditions. Art forms that are revered in Asia, such as calligraphy, ceramics and puppetry, tend to be dismissed in Australia as hobbies. Australia’s modernist outlook has professionalised the arts and privileges originality above mastery. While this has enriched its theatre stages and art galleries, it has led to the neglect of traditional arts. It seems important for dialogue in the region that Western countries like Australia more clearly identify their own traditions.

What’s to be done? There are three steps that I believe could made a difference:

  1. National representation for traditional arts such as crafts as points of contact for corresponding bodies in the Asian region
  2. Greater involvement in bodies such as UNESCO and the World Crafts Council which Asian nations look to as keepers of heritage
  3. Support for creative collaborations between contemporary and traditional art forms

Above all, it is important to avoid the arrogance that sees traditional arts as a sign of backwardness. Cultural practices such as fibre arts are celebrated in Australian indigenous culture. They should also be respected in the region.

This situation has bitten me recently with the visit to Australia of the largest ever craft delegation from China. This includes 28 leaders in the crafts, organised by the China Arts & Crafts Association, the official crafts body in China representing 3 million members. Having recently defunded Craft Australia, there was no equivalent national body to welcome this delegation. Many state organisations will open their doors to the delegation, but there is no Australian body through which to follow up the opportunities that are created.

In its heyday, Craft Australia was funded to both host and send delegations in the Asian region. If Australia is serious about engagement with Asia, then it needs to ensure that it covers all the cultural bases. There needs to a horizontal re-alignment across art forms. While this does offer the promise of deeper connection with Asia, it also has potential to enrich Australian culture too, re-connecting it with its own past.

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