Tag Archives: Australia

Anna Davern
Absent
2007
reworked tin placemat and biscuit tin
250 x 200 x 5 mm
Private Collection
Photo: Terence Bogue

Primitivism without the primitive

Anna Davern, Absent, 2007, reworked tin placemat and biscuit tin, 250 x 200 x 5 mm, Private Collection, Photo: Terence Bogue
The book by Damian Skinner and I, Place and Adornment, was recently reviewed by Grace Cochrane for Art Jewelry Forum. Cochrane is an authoritative craft historian, and her The Crafts Movement in Australia: A History (New South Wales University Press, 1992) is a bible for researchers like myself.

While mostly positive, the review did criticise our use of the word ‘primitivism’. Here’s the relevant section from our book:

Primitivism is one of the main ways that contemporary jewellers in both Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand worked out their relationship to place, in part by making explicit references to indigenous adornment practices. This, as we will show, was less common in Australia than Aotearoa New Zealand, partly because of differences in colonial history, but it was also discarded in Australia because of the ways in which the Australian contemporary jewellers chose to position themselves in terms of place – not by embracing it, and playing up primitivism as happened in Aotearoa New Zealand, but by arguing against the relevance of place to the creative process. Interestingly, some Australasian contemporary jewellery at the beginning of the twenty-first century seems to return to primitivism, but conditionally, as if seeking to create a primitivism without reference to the ‘primitive’.

Primitivism is not the exclusive focus of our history, but it is one of the key threads we found to connect together practices in Australia and New Zealand.

Cochrane offers a concise and lucid review of primitivism in early 20th century Australasia, particularly its implication in the appropriation of indigenous cultures . This criticism helps identify a key issue in our book that warrants further elaboration.

Cochrane states:

the term “primitivism” has not been used to describe contemporary crafts (and I checked with colleagues), not because of our ignorance of the issue, but because many of the so-called “primitivist” influences are in fact continuing characteristics of cultural groups living firmly in the present, and whom we respect.

True, few jewellers used the actual term ‘primitivism’, but nonetheless their statements and creative energy reflect a desire to draw from non-Western cultures. For instance, we quote Ray Norman who critiques the intellectualist bias in Western society: “‘Our society is hung up on words, isn’t it? And all the words keep going on while other “languages” are virtually ignored.’ By contrast, the ‘aboriginal man’ still knows how to feel things intuitively.” (p.90)

The underlying assumption that can be identified as ‘primitivist’ is that the development of Western civilisation entailed an alienation from nature. This has a long legacy in Western thought, stretching at least as far back as Montaigne. His essay on Cannibals in 1577 creates this distinction between natural indigenous and corrupt European:

They are savages in the same way that we say fruits are wild, which nature produces of herself and by her ordinary course; whereas, in truth, we ought rather to call those wild whose natures we have changed by our artifice and diverted from the common order. In the former, the genuine, most useful, and natural virtues and properties are vigorous and active, which we have degenerated in the latter, and we have only adapted them to the pleasure of our corrupted palate.

This concept of the ‘noble savage’ underpinned an Enlightenment quest to think beyond existing traditions and hierarchies. While this seems bold and revolutionary in the North, where the ‘primitive’ culture exists in an exotic and distant location, it is a different story in the South, where those assigned this role actually live.

The situation in countries like the Australia and New Zealand is different. Here post-colonial critique involves a speaking part for these symbols of a more wholesome otherness. Now we hear the other side of the story as indigenous voices speak beyond these Western preconceptions. This argument bites particularly in Australia, with the Marcia Langton debate about the right of Aboriginal peoples to seek mining rights and aspire to the very middle class lifestyles that urban romantics see as inauthentic.

So where is the link today with the primitivism of our naive settler forbears?

Peter Tully Australian fetish 1977, coloured acrylic, coloured oil paint, wood (gumnuts), metal length 37.0 h cm, Crafts Board of the Australia Council Collection 1980, Courtesy of copyright owner, Merlene Gibson (sister)
In writing this book, we were wary of the lure of ‘contemporary’ as a state where past prejudices have been magically transcended. In tracing contemporary practices back to the settler experience we wanted to revalue the primitivist strategy to consider its positive creative potential. The idea of a ‘primitivism without the primitive’ involves taking on its radical energies without using indigenous cultures as an alibi to mask one’s own experience. Whitefellas should be able to  seek a space beyond their inherited European perspectives that doesn’t involve ‘black face’ or other appropriations of indigenous culture. We see a version of that in Peter Tully’s ‘Australian Fetish’, which draws on a colonial concept yet identifies it with Australian popular cultures. His Urban Tribalism uses the space opened up by primitivism to represent city lifestyles, particularly in Gay and Lesbian communities.

The story we seek to tell is the transformation of primitivism from its origins in the patronising colonial mindset to the drive for jewellery to come from its place on the ‘other’ side of the world. This primitivism aligns with the critical force of modernism in contemporary jewellery, particularly in the critique of preciousness. According to this perspective, the meaning of jewellery has been corrupted by the capitalist system that reduces all value to the economic. One alternative lies in a return to the symbolic uses of adornment that preceded modernity. This is one of the unique perspectives that Australasian jewellery contributes to this global movement.

Alice Whish, Touch pins, 2006, 925 silver red and yellow ochre and natural resin, 22mm across and 8mm deep Photo by Orlando Luminere
The issue, then, seems one of terminology. We seek a broader definition of primitivism than that usually ascribed to exotic fascination, such as the inspiration that Picasso drew from masks of the Ivory Coast. In the case of contemporary jewellery, this reflects an interest in the pre-capitalist use of adornment, where it signified social identity rather than personal wealth. This is one of the most powerful references in the critique of preciousness. In this, the Pacific cultures provide important models for non-Indigenous Australasian jewellers. The challenge is to now go beyond appropriation behind the scenes and to engage in direct dialogue, as Alice Whish has done in her collaborations with Rose Mamuniny from Elcho Island.

We also wanted primitivism to include non-indigenous cultures, such as the life of the street that contemporary jewellers have turned to in this century. This turn often presupposes that the energies of the street are more spontaneous and less contrived than the isolated context of the art gallery. Fashion, popular trends, tribal identities and personal narratives can be seen to give ‘life’ to jewellery, in a way parallel to the social function of adornment in traditional communities. This is a concept of primitivism that is embraced by even a resolutely modernist jeweller as Susan Cohn.

Would ‘post-primitive’ better reflect its ironic use in Australia? Maybe. But for every playful Peter Tully, there’s also a serious Ray Norman or Alice Whish. And recently, contemporary Indigenous jewellers like Areta Wilkinson and Maree Clarke seek to recover lost elements of their culture through ornament.

So maybe primitivism can be redeemed as a positive creative energy, once we stop speaking on behalf of others. As the Spanish architect Gaudi said, ‘originality consists in returning to the origin.’

Thanks for starting the argument Grace. To be continued…

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New Things: Koskela lights made in Elcho Island

This is a story of new things.

Three and a half years ago Sasha Titchkosky was browsing the Internet when she came across a site displaying weavings from Elcho Island. She recalls being struck by their beauty. Sasha contacted ANKAA in Darwin for more information. A helpful person then put her in contact with the new arts centre manager at Elcho Island. From him she learnt about the Selling Yarns conference in Darwin, where she was able to discover more about indigenous craft in the top end.

Ten years ago Sasha and her husband Russel left their corporate jobs to start a design company called Koskela, specialising in Australian-made furniture and fittings. Sasha felt there was potential to present work made from Elcho Island to Koskela clients, but she had to think of a suitable product. Most homeware products were unsuitable, because there was direct competition from mass manufacturers. With this question in mind, she returned to the second Selling Yarns in Canberra, where a light bulb clicked, literally. Sasha thought that her clients might be willing to spend a little more on a beautiful light as a piece of sculpture than something purely utilitarian.

Sasha’s challenge was to develop a means of production that was sympathetic to the lifestyle on Elcho Island. It would be difficult to expect production on an industrial scale. So a frame design was developed around which fibre could be woven, allowing the application of traditional basket-making techniques. She took this idea to the Darwin Art Fair where she met art centre manager Dion Teasdale and Mavis Ganambarr, leading artist from Elcho. Mavis thought it was a good idea. Last year Sasha visited Elcho Island to confirm the arrangement and conversations continued when Mavis and Dion came down to Sydney.

Product development was a two-way process. As the lights began to be produced, some modification was required. Mavis didn’t like working with white-coloured frames as the colour showed through the weaving. So they stuck to black.

The arrangement is quite novel for Koskela. They normally work closely with manufacturers in developing products. The process maintains an industrial discipline in order to maximise consistency of output. In this manner, they had previously developed a series of lights with Mud Ceramics, which were quite tangible yet standardised in appearance.

The method developed by Koskela is rather designed to maximise variation. This is not solely to provide a more diverse product for the consumer, but also to be able to sustain the interest of the artists. Here the approach is more like an artistic commission, which depends on the enjoyment of the producer. The women weavers are more than technicians—a set of skilled hands. They also have a sensibility that is expressed freely.

Ten women were involved in their production. They were evenly divided between those living on the island community of Galiwin’ku and those who belong to Arnhem Weavers, a collective living in the Mapuru Homeland. There were some problems at first in adapting basket-making to the new task, but Mavis organised the women into groups so she could work through the process with them. After this, they seemed quite happy to go back to working on their own.

Earlier this year, Koskela exhibited their work as Yuta Badaya at Object Galleries in Sydney. The title means ‘In a new light’, with reference to the opportunity of showing traditional weaving techniques in a fresh context. According to the artist statement by Mavis, ‘I thought it would be interesting to take our traditional Yolngu materials and use them on Balanda objects. We all thought this would be a good way to show a new audience what can be done by Yolngu artists with materials from the bush.

There are two quite striking features about the lights. First, despite common methods, the results

are quite diverse. The women all employed similar traditional techniques: fibre gathering, use of natural dyes and string making. But the weaving styles were quite different and sometimes alternative materials were incorporated. Margaret Gudumurrkuwuy, for instance, includes shells and feathers in her lights. The range demonstrates a strong degree of artistic expression in the process.

Second, these pieces express a compelling tension between modernist design and handmade textures. We are used to traditional baskets that have a relatively loose organic form, which suits well their use as objects carried near the body. Seeing them stretched on a three-dimensional metal frame brings into contrast their handmade quality. It’s an interesting step towards a range of Indigenous products designed for urban use. And it’s a refreshing contrast to the dominant method today, where Aboriginal designs are licensed to manufacturers, detaching the form from the process of production.

The fourteen initial lights sell from between $890 and $2,000. The artists are paid an up-front fee, negotiated through the Art Centre, who is also paid a commission. Sasha sees it as important to support the Art Centre. The first buyers were individual clients who responded to an article in Vogue Magazine. They are now getting inquiries from interior designers, including a restaurant.

Koskela also sell Tjanpi baskets from the Western Desert. They have been keen to have some lights made by Tjanpi weavers and are now finding some women interested in this.

This is interesting not just for the beautiful objects that are produced, but also for the cultural politics. There are some who might be concerned at the intervention into traditional weaving. What results are not the baskets and bags associated with life around Elcho Island, but products specifically designed for city living. Electric lights on the island consist of bare fluorescent tubes. So we might be concerned about the experience of alienation in this process, as products are being made for an application that is quite foreign to the lives of those who produce it. While this might be taken for granted in an industrial context, we tend to subscribe to a sense of authenticity in what emerges from remote Aboriginal communities. We like to see images of works like grass sculptures in situ, at home with the community. These lights don’t seem to fit into life at Elcho.

This thinking can take us in circles. We want a product that the artists want to make, but they are making something that they think we like to have. Sometimes, the only way to get out these kinds of circles is to talk to someone directly.

Indeed, when I asked one of the weavers who came to Sydney for the opening how she enjoyed the weaving process, she did say that she found it awkward at first to be working with metal. She was used to making baskets free-form. It’s difficult to know how to take comments like this. It could well just be a teething process—indeed, she seemed to enjoy the attention the results were receiving.

Later, I asked Mavis how the women initially reacted to the task of weaving around wire frames. She said they were quite interested because it was yuta djama, a new thing. While this phrase is very familiar to us, it does seem important in this context. As would be expected, some are uncomfortable at first with new ways of doing things. But this seems outweighed in the end by a desire from the women to expand beyond a fixed traditional repertoire.

Taking a step back, this issue does raise the problem of how contingent the value of these works is on the perceived attitude of the producers. Would it matter to us if the person who assembled our iPhone resented the drudgery of the assembly line? I doubt anyone gives this a thought. But it is different in a cultural context. Scandals about carpetbaggers holding desert painters hostage to produce art works make us sensitive to this issue.

There is a sense that in purchasing one of these lights, we are acquiring some of the good will from the community. There’s an important social dimension to this, which shouldn’t be overlooked. This importance of this good will goes beyond our own personal satisfaction. Things carry stories. The lights naturally lend themselves to conversation. If a client enters the meeting room which is lit by one of these lights, there are likely to be curious about where it comes from. The resulting story will reinforce positive values in the company—allegiance to Australian culture, ethical vision, etc. With

companies eager to subscribe to values like Corporate Social Responsibility, there is a growing market for objects that reinforce this message.

But given the sophistication of marketing, such designs always need to be one step ahead of the manufacturers. We see this obviously in the tourist industry with boomerangs made in China. Once these flood the market, we become more wary of the value of the boomerang as a cultural artefact. One day, a company in China might indeed employ local artisans to produce almost identical looking lights to those designed by Koskela. While difficult to distinguish, they would lack the essential ingredient—the story.

Koskela have raised the bar. Critically, they have proven that there are alternatives to industrial manufacture in design. But we need to develop systems that ensure the value we give to them as cultural artefacts is true to the experience of those who produced them. We need to keep the story alive.

I asked Mavis what she’d like the Balanda to think about when they look at their lampshades. She said that she hopes that they can appreciate this ‘yuta djama and see that we in Elcho Island can made different things.’

It’s curious to put innovation into an indigenous context. We tend to think of Indigenous culture itself as a fixed entity: change emerges through contact with Western modernism. But we need to remember that today’s tradition is yesterday’s innovation. As the Jewish proverb advises, ‘Make your days new as of old’. Australian craft and design has a new thing. The story continues…

Originally published by Craft Australia in 2010

Place and Adornment: A History of Australasian Contemporary Jewellery

Place and Adornment – the jewel in the antipodes crown

Six years ago Damian Skinner approached me with the idea of a joint book about the history of contemporary jewellery in Australia and New Zealand. Damian has an impressive track record in getting books to print, and I’d always thought that the epic story of contemporary jewellery in our part of the world had yet to be fully told.

The trans-Tasman conversation can be testy, but inevitably fruitful. We worked through the obvious difference in the respect that the two countries treated the body ornament of their first peoples. The history of European colonisation in New Zealand involved an appropriation of Māori ornament, while in Australia until recently Aboriginal jewellery was dismissed as childish. Despite this gap, there was a shared experiment with primitivism on both sides of the Tasman which helped lay the ground for a jewellery that was distinct of its place.

Both countries also shared the fortuitous arrival of northern Europeans from the 1960s, who brought with them the calling of modernism. This inspired some key early figures to develop ambitious international platforms, like Cross Currents and Bone, Stone and Shell. The top-down support from bodies like the Australia Council had clear positive results (an important reminder now in this period of neglect for crafts).

Beyond the major events, there were a myriad of smaller experiments, whose relevance might emerge only decades later. It was difficult work distilling so much information into condensed profiles, balancing word count against image size.

The story of contemporary jewellery in Australasia demonstrates that it is possible to develop an art form far from the transatlantic centres. While work from here certainly features strongly in Munich, it also has its own distinct frame of reference. Contemporary jewellery should certainly sit alongside painting, film and literature as an art form that reflects meaningfully on what it means to live on this side of the world. This is  especially the case in Australia, which is so dependent on extraction of precious metals for its wealth.

But the story is certainly not over. Not only are there are many innovative new jewellery practices emerging now, there are also scenes being developed in other countries far from the historic centres, such as India, Taiwan, Mexico, Chile, Argentina and Indonesia. Contemporary jewellery today is a rich global conversation.

And this is only one of the stories to be told about craft in Australia. There are many other remarkable threads where skilled and imaginative artists have learned the language of the land to create something meaningful and original. I think particularly of media like ceramics and fibre (wood generally).

Though relatively young as an art form, craft in Australia already has a legacy that could inspire future generations. We just have to believe that the value of living on this side of the world is what we make of it.

Place and Adornment: A History of Australasian Contemporary Jewellery is distributed by Bateman (NZ), Powerhouse Museum (Aus) and Hawaii Press

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What do we make of Australia?

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At the same time that the long-awaited NAVA National Craft Initiative report was released, the US Whitehouse hosted its first Maker Faire. It makes an interesting comparison.

With the de-funding of Craft Australia, the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council directed the money saved to NAVA, who were charged with writing a report on the craft sector and organising a conference. The report is finally out now and looks an impressive document. It’s especially good at covering the broad spectrum of craft and design organisations. As to be expected, it argues that craft practice is diversifying and needs greater promotion. Hopefully, the document will be useful in arguing the case for continuing support for craft practice, but it should be especially useful as a springboard for discussion in the conference planned for 2015.

It’s worth at the same time listening to Barack Obama’s speech to inaugural the first Maker Faire to be hosted by the Whitehouse. With a great comedic sense of timing – ‘I’m just saying…’ — Obama lists the numerous innovations on display that demonstrate US entrepreneurship. What’s especially impressive is the easeful way he invokes the many individuals involved, as though they are all his buddies. It’s a far cry from the anonymous acronyms and corporations that normally represent technological development. The personalised account matches this form of economic development with a democratic ideology. We are all familiar with this narrative of opportunity and dream – Obama plays it to perfection.

The coincidence of these national celebrations of craft leads us to question what the metanarrative of craft in Australia is, or more broadly what kind of story is leading our creative energy. There’s little in the report about the place of craft in society, and in particular the tension with an extractivist economy that locates value below ground rather than what we can make above it. What does Australia have that matches the English sense of tradition, Italian luxury, Germany technique, Scandinavian simplicity, Indian workmanship, Chinese industry or Latin American folk culture?

While DIY has become official ideology in the USA, it is possible for Australia to make a virtue of its capacity to work in partnership with its neighbours. Australia has the capital that enables it to take risks, offering spaces for innovation. Our neighbours like India and Indonesia have great craft capacity that is currently under-valued. We have an ability to strike a deal between capital and labour that embodies mutual respect rather than race to the bottom. This could be what distinguishes Australia.

I’d argue for Australia’s virtue as a good friend in our region – dare I say a ‘mate’. It’s our capacity to work with others that distinguishes us from other more established cultures. For all the seeming contradictions in this picture, at least it would get the argument started. What do you make of Australia?

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Farewell to Marea

Ex-Director of Crafts Council of Australia, Jane Burns, gave this tribute to Marea Gazzard, along with Cristine France and David Malouf.

Marea

A remarkable and most distinguished Australian.

I had the privilege of working closely with her in the 1970s and 1980s when she was including national and international crafts organizational responsibilities among her huge bag of activities.

I’m really thankful to be asked to say a few things about her this evening and in Utopia Gallery which was so very important to her. I’d like to dwell briefly on her role as an organizational and visionary leader .It’s a sort of cliché I suppose but Marea had the rare ability to see the big picture and take big and risky steps and she enthused everyone on the way to achieve results.

Marea in the 1960s, – artist, wife, mother of Nicholas and Clea, activist in movements such as the Save Paddington Society and the Save The Queen Victoria Building – was among a select few studio artists in the mediums of ceramics, metal, textile, wood, glass in Australia who understood the need for there to be support systems which would enable them to undertake tertiary training within their discipline, exhibit their work in commercial and other galleries, and for their audience to learn about them and their work. Nowadays we take all those things somewhat for granted. But in the 1960s it was a vastly different story.

No arts white pages directories or internet existed. Without contact points other than personal friendships the select few (including Helge Larsen, Les Blakebrough, Heather Dorrough, Mary White, Joy Warren, Moira Kerr, Fay Bottrell, Peter Travis here in NSW and Milton Moon, Carl McConnel, Joan Campbell and others interstate) formed a Steering Committee in Sydney which set out the ways and means to establishment of a national crafts organization. Marea became the chief of this select group in 1970 when their efforts bore fruit and the Commonwealth Government issued a cheque for the princely sum of $12,000 for the Crafts Council of Australia to come into existence, with Marea as its first President. Sir John Gorton was then the PM and he personally directed Dr. Nugget Coombes and Dr Jean Battersby of the then Australian Council for the Performing Arts to administer this grant rather than the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board. That in itself was extraordinarily prescient because with the election of Mr. Whitlam as Prime Minister, the Australia Council was completely restructured. Marea was invited by Gough Whitlam to be Chair of The first Crafts Board and to develop policies and plans to place the contemporary crafts on an equal footing with art forms of the other seven Boards and within the spectrum of the visual arts. This meant that she had to resign from the fledgling Crafts Council of Australia Presidency, six months after she was elected, and the Vice President, Marcia del Thomas from South Australia replaced her there. In the space of a year Marea went from being Chair of a Steering Commiitee, to President of a new non governmental crafts organization (The Crafts Council of Australia) to Chair of the major governmental crafts organization (The Crafts Board of the Australia Council). Breathless activity by any standard.

When Gough Whitlam asked Marea, along with the other Board Chairs, to nominate a budget figure to cover possible needs she had took an educated guess and asked for 2 million dollars – an unheard of amount then and to put it in perspective, overnight the grant allocation to the Australia Council from the Federal Government went from $4,000,000 annually to $14,000,000. Wise heads and capable hands were needed to administer these funds. Marea surrounded herself with those she trusted to sit on her Board and those who would join the public service on the staff of the Australia Council in the Crafts Board. Moira Kerr and Felicity Abraham were among the latter. Wisdom personified.

It wasn’t a coincidence then of course that Marea was invited from Australia as one of the select group of people from North America, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and Africa to take up the challenge of the American philanthropist Mrs. Vanderbilt Webb to form the World Crafts Council. Mrs. Vanderbilt Webb intended this to be a networking link for craftspeople world wide to provide the strength of numbers and opinion, to influence governments.

Marea had artist friends and colleagues as personal contacts in each of those regions, friendships which remained strong throughout her life, and like her these people recognized what a huge advantage the network of these connections could be. The World Crafts Council gradually included over 50 countries and Marea became World President in 1980. It was during her Presidency (again by judicious use of the right contacts and right approaches) that the organization achieved unheard of Category A Status as an NGO with UNESCO. This gave it an annual subvention to establish its own secretariat. And this made it possible for Marea to undertake travel to each of the five regions of the WCC and to play a part in the necessary high level discussions with individual governments which gave national organizations necessary support. She acted in the manner of a diplomat, meeting official people at the highest level and bringing great distinction to the WCC as well as to Australia because of this.

Here in Australia, the Asian Zone of the WCC was set up within the offices of the Crafts Council of Australia and Pat Thompson (writer, scholar and former co-warrior with Marea in the Paddington Society) became its Hon. Secretary.

Many of the legendary stories of these extraordinary times and Marea’s part in the contemporary crafts renaissance of forty or so years ago have been captured in Grace Cochrane’s marvellous history but I hope I’ve given you some inkling of just how pivotal she was in leading the change in the contemporary crafts landscape nationally and internationally.

And also maybe what an extraordinarly busy and interesting life she had.

And throughout all of this heady activity on the organizational front she was also trying at a very high level to pursue her own artistic career. The exhibition with Mona Hessing in 1973 Clay and Fibre at the National Gallery of Victoria which was such a hit with gallery audiences certainly gave the critics of the time something to think about. I remember the outrage when Donald Brook, art critic for the SMH, wrote, with outrage showing in each word, something to the effect that these were crafts people and Marea should get back to making ceramic mugs and Mona to making useful woven rugs. Marea and Mona were completely confident in their work but this was understandably annoying. However, in fact it illustrated so well why they wanted attitudes and awareness to alter.

As an aside here and one of those whose professional life has been in administration of the arts rather than in the practice of it I am always amazed at the generosity of artists who are prepared to give time and energy away from their professional career to ensure the fight for the arts as a government priority goes on.

I’d like to finish with an illustration of Marea’s practical skill and capacity always to see solutions rather than problems.

In 1973 The WCC Secretariat asked her to find a Polish fibre artist Ewa Pachucka who had defected to Australia and could possibly need support to find her feet in this new country. Marea drove a blue mini minor at the time and one morning she arrived at CCA and together we tooled off to Carramar where Ewa and her husband were living in a migrant hostel. How Marea tracked her down I’ve forgotten but such was her brilliance at this sort of tricky thing that I remember it didn’t faze me at all. Ewa and her husband Romek were surprised and overjoyed to see us and even more flummoxed when within weeks Marea had arranged rental accommodation for them in a cottage in Milsons Point and Rudi Komon, had offered Ewa a solo exhibition at his Paddington Gallery for six months time. He knew of her work from exhibitions she had had in London and Denmark. The exhibition at the Rudi Komon Gallery was a sensation and James Mollison acquired major works from it for the national collection. And Ewa began her life as an artist anew in this new country. The sort of fairy story ending in a way to this extraordinary train of events which Marea set in motion, is that both Marea and Ewa were among artists commissioned by Aldo Girgulo and Pamille Berg to undertake major works for Parliament House in Canberra when it opened in 1988, Marea’s bronze sculpture in the Executive Courtyard at the formal entrance to the Prime Minister’s office suite, and Ewa’s stone sculpture in the Lobby Courtyard Garden adjacent to the House of Representatives.

Marea’s place in Australian art history is well assured. It will always be recognized by those who see the Judy Cassab portrait of her at the National Portrait Gallery and through her work in public and private collections. For her friends and colleagues it will be in the knowledge of a myriad of little and big things which she managed so intuitively. She was absolutely a remarkable person and it was a privilege to have known her.

Jane Burns

November 25 2013

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A spatial understanding of craft practice

The new publication Contemporary Jewelry in Perspective (Lark) helps realise the vision that Damian Skinner brought to his role as editor for Art Jewelry Forum (until 2012). As a New Zealander, Skinner has argued forcefully about the need to open contemporary jewellery up to perspectives from non-European cultures. According to his view, while the movement has its centre in Munich, its evolution in ‘peripheral’ regions such as Australasia and Latin America need not be seen simply as aspirations to European culture. The book includes contributions from Skinner himself (Australasia), Valeria Siemelink (Latin America) and Sarah Rhodes (Southern Africa) that identify the original contributions made from these regions to the broad global conversation about preciousness and adornment.

I was part of a roundtable in Seattle that Skinner convened with curator Mònica Gaspar, Benjamin Lignel (current editor of AJF) and Namita Wiggers (Director, Museum of Contemporary Craft, Portland. The task was to develop a critical framework for contemporary jewellery. After much discussion, we settled on a spatial analysis that looked at the way the object circulates between bench (workshop), plinth (gallery), drawer (collection), page (book), body (desire), street (fashion) and world (ethics). Each space has its own set of critical values for judging the worth of the object. What this enabled us to do is to situate arguments within the field as forms of contest between spaces. It was possible thus to say that the relational push in recent jewellery practice champions the street as the authentic scene for jewellery, where the meaning of works is realised through use rather than limited purely to the intentions of the maker (bench). This helps clearly identify the interests at play in these arguments. In particular, it offers an alternative to the simple linear progress of ideas that seems the implicit understanding of conventional art history.

Clearly, we had to be quite selective about the spaces that were included. There were some, such as bin (thingness) that could not be included (ironically in this case). But we did hope that the book might trigger discussions about spaces that we had left out, or wrongly included.

But interestingly there is the potential to apply this kind of spatial analysis to other media. Namita has already used this framework to look at ceramics (playfully including the tent as a space). This offers a potentially engaging and challenging review of craft theory, beginning by spatialising the art object within individual fields, then attempting to look at broad patterns that connect them together. While the life of the art object is predominantly on the plinth, the craft object seems distinguished by its potential to travel into other modes of existence.

It is to be hoped that this yellow slab of a book sits loudly on the library shelf and in the gallery bookcase testifying to the liveliness of contemporary jewellery as a field of creative and intellectual endeavour. Future companions would be most welcome.

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Craftsmen and women of Australia, give us a hand.

Installation from the exhibition String Theory, Museum of Contemporary Art, until 27 October 2013

Installation from the exhibition String Theory, Museum of Contemporary Art, until 27 October 2013

Craftspersons have a privileged role to interpret the land Australians have been gifted – turning earth into ceramics, metal into jewellery, wool into textiles, trees into furniture and sand into glass. It’s a sign something meaningful can be made from good fortune, rather than just ship it offshore as raw material.

As a studio practice, crafts share many interests in common with the visual arts sector. These include support for Australia Council funding, artist fees and government procurement. But there are differences. Given the reduced secondary market, re-sale royalties are not that relevant. The decline of the TAFE sector is a special concern, but that is largely for state governments.

It’s the bigger picture that matters. Federal government needs to address the way Australia has been left behind in support for crafts. While here Craft Australia has been de-funded, Crafts Council UK and American Craft Council continue to play significant roles, producing magazines, television programs and national strategies.

Why have we fallen behind? While there are specific factors in play, the mining boom hasn’t helped. The ‘Dutch curse’, where resource richness causes decline in production, doesn’t inspire the making spirit. Why make things ourselves when a strong dollar brings in cheap imports? An important role of government is to honour individual creative resilience against the tide of economic expedience.

LNP – not conservative enough

LNP have been generally good for the arts. The Visual Arts Craft Strategy gave the sector an unparalleled burst of confidence. But they miss an opportunity to champion crafts in particular.

LNP is not conservative enough. A conservative party would speak to the importance of preserving culture and common traditions, such as craft skills. While this may not include contemporary practice, at least it acknowledges the worthiness of spending 10,000 hours learning your craft. The UK Conservative Party came to power with clear support for crafts in all guises. The Minister for Culture, Ed Vaizey opened the national crafts conference claiming that ‘Craft is front and centre of our cultural thinking’.

In the recent policy launch, George Brandis championed art for art’s sake, rather than for instrumental ends such as nation building. He argued for a ‘self-confidence’ in arts, which means support for ‘international repertoire’ rather than the ‘cultural cringe’ of local content. This argument could easily be reversed: a truly confident culture produces new work of its own.

While the commitment to re-establish the Australian International Cultural Council is welcome, Brandis focuses on ‘the great classical works and artistic movements which have shaped and defined Western civilisation’, suggesting a limited creative dialogue with our region.

ALP – lacking a common story

The ALP comes to the election with the national cultural policy Creative Australia as a feather in its cap. This includes continued support for the Art Start program, which has particular relevance to graduates seeking to establish craft workshops.

How does Creative Australia fare on the election trail? Tony Burke’s policy launch was very general and lacked strategy, but at least he spoke about the role that arts play in ‘telling our stories’. It’s a shame this is not supported upstairs. On his return to leadership, Kevin Rudd repeated the call for Australia to ‘remain a country that actually makes things.’ But this translated into subsidies for overseas car manufacturers, rather than a narrative of pride in local capacity.

Historically, ALP identified itself as a nation-builder. Whitlam’s rallying call, ‘Men and women of Australia’, evoked a collective interest in the shared benefits of public infrastructure. Today, policies are framed to appease specific interest groups, especially the embattled ‘working family’, rather than contributing to a common national purpose.

Greens – big potential, but lost in detail

The Greens lack a substantial policy like Creative Australia, but some of their election promises are relevant to crafts. The aim to reverse recent government cuts to universities will have an indirect benefit in supporting the academics whose teaching and publishing make a valuable contribution to the craft ecology. In particular, the aim to restore TAFE will have a tangible benefit, though their capacity to implement this from Canberra is dubious.

Strangely Christine Milne’s policy launch in Darwin focused on support for regional arts, playing the game of courting sectional interests rather than evoking a common story. Support for crafts could so easily resonate with their argument for our responsible custodianship of nature.

Still, it is worth remembering that the only public concern expressed about the demise of Craft Australia came from the Greens. In 15/2/12, Christine Milne raised this issue at the Senate Estimates Committee. She spoke to the concerns about the implications for Australia’s place in the region. The incoming President of the Worlds Crafts Council from China was arriving in Australia with a large delegation, but found there was no matching national body to greet them. While government obviously takes the Asian Century seriously, it lets slip this critical point of contact with our region, confirming the worst regional stereotypes of our cultural insensitivity.

We all need a good cuppa

Overall, the parties miss an opportunity to champion crafts as part of the Australian story. What the crafts need is a broader vision of our capacity as a nation to make something meaningful from the riches the continent has provided. This entails recognition of the crafts as an essential pillar in our cultural life.

Recently, independents Xenophon and Madigan (DLP) purchased from their own funds a new Australian-made 750-piece crockery service for federal parliament. Major parties should drink from that cup.

This piece was commissioned by the National Association of the Visual Arts as part of their 2013 election coverage.

No such thing as a free football–we need to defend ‘made in India’

Headline from the Age newspaper in Grand Final week

Headline from the Age newspaper in Grand Final week

The iconic Australian football manufacturer Sherrin has been forced to withdraw its half a million footballs, after it was discovered they were sewn by poor children in India.

With maximal impact, the scandal broke in Fairfax media at the beginning of Grand Final weekend. Despite safeguards and standards of corporate social responsibility, it was revealed that children in the slums of Jalandhar in the Punjab are paid as little as 12 cents an hour. At the same time, they experience damaging side effects including septic fingers, allergies and back problems. More importantly, they also lose the opportunity to gain an education and escape poverty.

The follow up story at the beginning of the week reported that a young boy Dylan Ferlano had found a needle in an Auskick football. This prompted Sherrin CEO Chris Lambert to withdraw all the footballs to the coast of $1 million.

From a global perspective it’s a salutary tale. Footy is one of our most sacred institutions. The oval ball is an object around which we celebrate noble Aussie virtues of mateship, guts and reconciliation. Yet even here, the snaking supply chain of globalisation finds its way in, taking away our otherwise innocent enjoyment. In this case, it literally pricks out conscience. It’s similar to the scandal associated with worker suicides at the Foxconn factories that produce the iPhone.

This is not a new story. The tale reinforces the colonial perspective on the Third world that was so masterfully captured in Joseph Conrad’s depiction of Congo’s rubber plantations in Heart of Darkness—‘the horror, the horror.’ The immediate response is to cease supporting the operation and hope it closes down. Bit the Sherrin football scandal has the potential to taint other products made in India by association.

Without diminishing the shame of child labour, the Sherrin scandal does reveal the strength of craft skill in contemporary India. While we might see it as drudgery, there are at least 20 million Indian adults who take pride in their capacity to made beautiful objects by hand. The techniques of block-printing, hand-weaving and natural dyes are becoming increasingly rare and sought after.

Artisans of Fashion display in Strand Arcade, Sydney

Artisans of Fashion display in Strand Arcade, Sydney

At the same time that ‘made in India’ is vilified in Melbourne, it is being celebrated in Sydney. From late winter, the Artisans of Fashion program has been promoting the craft skills of India. Australia’s top fashion designers feature in parades and exhibitions centred in the city’s Strand Arcade. Billboards around Sydney featuring waif like models set against a backdrop of vibrant colourful India.

Far from demonising hand production, the key aim of Artisans of Fashion is to help it survive. According to its founder Carline Poiner , ‘Once a generation stops using a particular technique, it is lost.’

Increasingly, Australian designers are going to India to take advantage of these skills. And it’s more about quality than profit margin. In the case of that other iconic sport, the Melbourne design Simone Le Amon has made a career out of partnership with an Indian cricket ball manufacturer, who provides offcuts for her ‘A good sport’ bracelets.

Set in Sydney’s design precinct of Surry Hills, Planet is one of the many upmarket outlets which is increasing amount of product that is made in India. For owner Ross Longmuir, making things for others is a long-standing practice in India, ‘Traditional hand craft skills in India go back centuries for export production and are spectacularly good’. Longmuir is even planning to set up a second home in India to focus more on local production.

Rather than pull out of India, Longmuir recommends that Sherrin set up education subsidies for female children in these communities. ‘And for this not to be a token move, I would suggest that Sheridan executives should visit India and get involved directly with this project and that there should be a follow up of results.’

For many Australians, involvement in India is not just a matter of getting stuff made cheaply. They have an interest in long-term benefits. Designer Carole Douglas helped in the reconstruction of Ahmedabad after the earthquake. Funds from Artisans of Fashion go to towards supporting an orphanage in Jaipur.

We’ve become increasingly dependent on the skills of people from countries like India. They make our clothes, build our gadgets, answer our telephones, administer our finances and code our software. Returning footballs, even in such quantity, is not going to stem our increasing dependence on the work of others.

Certainly, it is important to develop strong codes of practice and workable auditing procedures. But in the end, it will come down to the consumer to accept that we have to pay more for what we use. There’s no such thing as a free football.

Craft Aotearoa launches in Wellington

Launch of Craft Aotearoa at NZ Academy of Arts

Launch of Craft Aotearoa at NZ Academy of Arts

Twenty years after the closure of the Crafts Council of New Zealand, a new national organisation has been founded to advocate for the country’s crafts. Craft Aotearoa was heralded by a large crowd at the New Zealand Academy of the Arts on 6 September 2012. It coincided with the opening of Kete, an exhibition of work from participating New Zealand craft galleries and accompanying forum.

Craft Aotearoa is led by Jenna Philpott, who conceived the idea after spending time with Craft UK, when she saw the positive impact of having a national craft organisation. The names ‘Craft Aotearoa’ and ‘Kete’ have a distinctly bicultural meaning. This was welcomed by Toi Maori, who joined in as partners in both the exhibition and talks. Warren Feeney, director of the NZ Academy, coordinated the four day event.

Keri-Mei Zagrobelna at her work in Kete, the craft fair at Wellington

Keri-Mei Zagrobelna at her work in Kete, the craft fair at Wellington

The range of galleries was impressive. Highlights included the carved Corian tiki by Rangi Kepi, Matthew McIntyre Wilson’s woven copper kete, the resilient Christchurch gallery The National, the edgy work from Whiteriea’s jewellery students, Anna Miles Gallery, Masterworks, the ceramics of Mia Hamilton and the inventive products coming from F3 Design in Christchurch. Indeed, there was a lot of talk about Christchurch at Kete, as residents battle on into the second year without reconstruction. Despite these challenges, a new powerful spirit of creativity seems to have been forged amongst those who remain.

 

Reuben Friend, curator at City Gallery, (extreme right) showing a mallet by Lionel Grant, housed in a specially made box by Tim Wigamore (on extreme left). He made the point that the taonga (cultural power) was as much in the box as in what it contained - a statement some strongly disagreed with.

Reuben Friend, curator at City Gallery, (extreme right) showing a mallet by Lionel Grant, housed in a specially made box by Tim Wigamore (on extreme left). He made the point that the taonga (cultural power) was as much in the box as in what it contained - a statement some strongly disagreed with.

The Toi Maori forum was particularly interesting. Mention was made of the Maori designs that Rangi Kipa made for underwear to coincide with the Rugby World Cup. While this was seen by some as degrading, Rangi defended his work on the basis of implicit acceptance by his elders. The forum demonstrated that there is no one position when it comes to the relation between tradition and opportunity in Maori design practice.

Mia Hamilton's ceramic wall jewellery

Mia Hamilton's ceramic wall jewellery

It will be fascinating to see where Craft Aotearoa goes from here. Clearly ObjectSpace in Auckland represents the front stage of craft and design, exhibiting cutting edge work. But there does seem space for an inclusive organisation that can offer a broad spectrum of artists with a common story. The craft fair Kete was particularly promising and it would be great to see it grow in coming years – perhaps even with some Australian representation.

As an Australian, the whole weekend was a captivating experience. It was refreshing to witness such commitment to a constructing a national story through things.

I only hope that we won’t have to wait another 20 years before we can come together to celebrate Australian craft like this. While the Federal funding for Craft Australia was meant to be channelled into a national craft strategy, the first year has been taken up with the cost of winding down the organisation. As yet, there has been no public consultation about what the next three years will bring.

With the support of crowd-funding, Australia has been able to maintain its global link through the Australasian Craft Network, which will be recognised at the upcoming World Crafts Council General Assembly in Chennai next month. Now with Craft Aotearoa as a partner, there’s the potential for a strong regional network that can demonstrate the importance of craft as a lingua franca in our part of the world.