Tag Archives: Australia

Welcome Signs – early notice

Var mala exchange of garlands at Indian wedding (photo by k♥money on Creative Commons license)

Var mala exchange of garlands at Indian wedding (photo by k♥money on Creative Commons license)

Var mala exchange of garlands at Indian wedding (photo by k♥money on Creative Commons license)

Early notice of an exhibition of jewellery from the Asia Pacific region

The World Craft Council are hosting a conference in New Delhi, 4-6 February 2011. The event is titled Abhushan: Tradition & Design – Dialogues for the 21st Century. A key element in this event is a series of exhibitions surveying jewellery from different world regions.

For the Asia Pacific region, works will be gathered that respond to the theme of welcome, using the garland as a reference. These garlands are typically given to honoured guests and are either made of flowers or have a floral design.

At a time when there are tensions regarding global migration flows, it seems important that we sustain traditions of welcome. But given limited access to flowers, are there alternative materials that can be used? Also, can these otherwise ephemeral works be transformed into longer-lasting objects, such as jewellery, that can testify to bonds of friendship.

The Asia Pacific region has a rich set of traditions that bestow a garland or neck-wreath. These include:

  • var mala ceremony in Indian weddings
  • phuang malai Thai garland
  • East Timorese tais
  • salusalu welcome wreaths and leis from the Pacific
  • selendang (welcome) in Indonesia
  • medals in Australasia

The exhibition Welcome Signs: contemporary interpretations of traditional garlands will contain works that draw from such traditions for use today. At early this stage, expressions of interest are welcome. Please send them by 30 June 2010 to welcome@craftunbound.net.

Share your charms

Southern Charms: New Power Jewellery Across the Pacific

Exhibition in development

Announcing a project to reveal new developments in ‘power jewellery’ that bring together craft cultures across the Pacific ocean. ‘Power jewellery’ claims to not only to be an object of beauty, but also to have an effect on its wearer. Most commonly, it protects the wearer against ill fortune. While traditionally this has been associated with superstitions, such as the evil eye, in this case the ‘power’ is understood as the strength that is sustained through social relations, such as friendship, solidarity or hospitality. The project is to explore ways of re-casting traditional forms of the charm for a modern secular world.

The net is cast across the Pacific, including Anglo cultures in Australasia, Aboriginal indigenous jewellery, Pacific islander ornament and charms from the Andean cultures on the Pacific’s eastern edge.

As well as providing new tools for social support, the Southern Charms project also aims to foster new conversations and networks across the Pacific. You can find out more at www.craftunbound.net/projects/southern-charms.

For expressions of interest, please contact Kevin Murray by email at charm(at)craftunbound.net. At this stage, examples of work are most welcome. Please note, the works will include charms that are designed to be used by others, rather than purely personal reflections on culture. An important question to consider is how their power be released into the world. The exhibition is planned to open in 2012.

Future events:

  • Workshop in Santiago, Chile (May 2010)
  • Workshop with the Melbourne State of Design Festival (July 2010)
  • Grass to Gold jewellery conference in Delhi (Feb 2011)
  • Workshops in Pacific (TBC)

Subscribe to Craft Unbound updates to be notified of future posts on the charmed theme.

Authentic punk, handmade with attitude in Indonesia



Danius Kesminas embodies some of the wilder energies of the Australian cultural scene. The tireless Melbourne artist is very much embedded in the art world – his exhibitions in a cutting edge commercial art gallery quote from modernist art history. Yet Kesminas’ work is far from pretentious: his many projects set about attacking art’s elitism by popularising its most privileged secrets. His weapon of choice is rock music, particularly Punk. His band Histrionics perform songs about revered contemporary artists, like the Thai relational artist Rirkrit Tiravanija who transforms galleries into restaurants. The lyrics follow a familiar tune: ‘I don’t like Rirkrit, no, no / I love him, yeah /I don’t like your bean curd / Don’t mean no disrespect / I don’t like your tofu / If this dish is an art object.’

Kesminas shares a Lithuanian background with the founder of the Fluxus movement, George Maciunas. He acknowledges Fluxus in the project Vodka Sans Frontières, which traces an illegal vodka pipeline that travelled under Maciunas’ house in Vilnius. But in a different way, Kesminas’ work also seems quite at home in an egalitarian country like Australia, where the elitist authority of global visual arts has relatively little purchase.

So we might be surprised to learn that Kesminas has commissioned work from traditional Indonesian artisans. This would seem exactly like the kind of naive ‘politically correct’ art world project he would make the target of his satire. Despite its seeming worthiness, Kesminas has been able to develop an anarchic mode of collaboration which challenges our understanding of what it is to work with artisans.

At the end of 2005, Kesminas arrived in Jogjakarta for a three month Asialink residency. His only preparation for the new culture was reading a book, The Politics of Indonesia, by Damien Kingsbury. It was a dense read, filled with acronyms. Despite their inscrutability, these acronyms would later end up being an important creative resource.

Soon after he arrived, Kesminas started hanging out at the local art school. There he found a familiar scene of young rebels playing aggressive rock music. So he decided to form a band of his own and went about recruiting musicians, with immediate success. As Kesminas didn’t speak any Indonesian, they created lyrics together that were inspired by the acronyms he had read. Fortuitously, this method corresponded with a local word game plesatan, which sends up official language. For example, the song TNI is based on the acronym that stands for Tentara Nasional Indonesia (Indonesian National Military) but which is sung as Tikyan Ning Idab-Idabi (Poor but Adorable). In a similar vein, the band adopted the title Punkasila, which is drawn from the concept pancasila, the official five ideological tenets of Indonesian nationalism.

Danius Kesminas with locals celebrating the carving of the Punkasila emblem (photograph supplied by artist)

Danius Kesminas with locals celebrating the carving of the Punkasila emblem (photograph supplied by artist)

Danius Kesminas with locals celebrating the carving of the Punkasila emblem (photograph supplied by artist)

Local involvement in Punkasila expanded rapidly. A batik artist produced the band uniform in military camouflage. A wood artisan carved elaborate machine-gun electric guitars from mahogany. Others produced t-shirts, stickers, videos, etc. Much of this was well beyond Kesminas’ control, but this was exactly as he wanted it – ‘you’re a catalyst lighting this wick.’

Like many foreign artists, Kesminas enjoyed the freedom to make art in Indonesia. He contrasted this with the situation in a country like Australia where everything has to be paid for – ‘over there it’s different. You just do things because you do them.’

Artisan designing machine gun guitar with skeptical mother (photograph supplied by artist)

Artisan designing machine gun guitar with skeptical mother (photograph supplied by artist)

Artisan designing machine gun guitar with skeptical mother (photograph supplied by artist)

Given the role of the military in Indonesian life, Kesminas was afraid their provocative repertoire would endanger his collaborators. He claimed that he ‘always had to defer to them for limits. We never did anything they didn’t want to do.’ Yet at the same time, he recognised that his role as an outsider was critical: ‘There was a nice unspoken agreement. I gave them a kind of cover, as a naïve Westerner.’ It’s hard to tell who is using who in this situation. Even though punk is an identifiably Western popular movement, Kesminas associates it more broadly with a DIY principle of cultural independence. Like the paraphernalia that was locally made for Punkasila, it represents self-sufficiency in culture and defies a reliance on imported readymade products.

For Kesminas, the most significant complaint against Punkasila came from ‘NGO do-gooder missionary types’ who thought he was showing disrespect for Indonesian culture. Kesminas would claim that he actually more respectful by following the authentically carnivalesque nature of Indonesian street culture. According to this line, what we normally associate with Indonesian traditions, such as Wayang, is just a cultural commodity sustained for Western tourists. The real life is on the street.

There’s plenty to suspect Kesminas of. ‘So he likes the fact that they don’t have to be paid! But, hey, doesn’t he end up marketing their product in his exhibitions back in Australia?’ This line of interrogation seems to be missing the point, and indeed play into the very stereotype of political correctness that Kesminas’ satirises. As far as I know, the work based on Punkasila has not sold. In the meantime, Kesminas raised money for his fellow band members to participate in the Havana Biennale, which profiled them on an international stage. Sure, it all contributes to his cultural capital, but compared to other artists who use artisans like Jeff Koons, it’s relatively high on the scale of collaboration.

Indeed, there’s something quite refreshing about Punkasila. It makes us re-consider whether work with artisans must only be in forms that they are familiar with. It adds a pinch salt to our sanctimony and a dash of chili in our philanthropy.

Danius Kesminas with fellow Punkasila band members in Havana, Cuba (supplied by artist)

Danius Kesminas with fellow Punkasila band members in Havana, Cuba (supplied by artist)

Danius Kesminas with fellow Punkasila band members in Havana, Cuba (supplied by artist)

But in the long run, there may be problems. While an important detour from cultural conservatism, we need to admit a certain guilty pleasure in Punkasila. It shows an image of Indonesian society that reflects back our familiar ideology of Western individualism. In the spirit of good ol’ rock’n roll, we have a natural tendency to champion those individuals who defy authority. We join them in solidarity against local leaders – the patriarchs, warlords and ‘tin pot dictators’.

But who are these foot solders really fighting for in the long term? We need to think of the broader context. Countries like Indonesia face significant pressures from overseas companies to ‘open up’ for ‘development’. So why should the polygamous village elder stop you from selling your land to Monsanto? Who’s the fat old chief to say you can’t sign away royalties for your village’s traditional chant? While rock’n roll is great for breaking things down, such as a military regime, it’s not disposed to building new structures.

Thank god that Kesminas has finally let the cat out of the bag. But the mice better to get organised.

Craft out of the cage – Wanda Gillespie’s marvellous discoveries

Wanda Gillespie is an Australian artist who discovered the Indonesian craft of bird cages during a residency with Asialink. While there she worked with the artisans to create a series of works based on the fictional scenario of an island that exists only in her imagination (and the now the art gallery).

This island of Swi Gunting is the scene of some remarkable discoveries. Included this very early versions of the scissor-lift (see below)…



You can find out more from her website. You can also see a short film about her stay in Indonesia and work with the artisans here. Or if you are in Melbourne, you can see it at SEVENTH Gallery, 155 Gertrude Street Fitzroy, 3-21 November.

In her invitation, she credits the work thus:

This was a collaborative project with craftsmen from Jatiwangi West Java. Project managers Anex (Nana Sukarna) and Kwa Ping Ho, and craftsmen – Didi, Tata, Ugang, Endany, Entis, Uri, Wawan, Umu. Special thanks to Jatiwangi Art Factory, Arief Yudi, Loranita Theo and Umi Luthfi.

This project was made possible with the help of Jatiwangi Arts Factory, Arts Victoria’s Cultural Exchange fund and the Anthony Ganim Postgraduate Award, (Victorian College of the Arts)

It’s another example of the very creative collaboration developing between Australian artists and Indonesian carvers. Maybe it’s time for a joint exhibition…

Horse hair – the new Chilean gold



Crin is one of Chile’s most distinctive folk crafts. In markets around the country you will find delicate forms, often taking the shape of insects, woven out of dyed horsehair. Despite its distribution around the country, almost all Crin originates from a small town called Rari.

Crin appeared mysteriously around 200 years ago, as local women found they could weave poplar roots into figures. After discovering the flexibility of horse hair they combined a Mexican plant fibre Ixtle which provided structural strength. It’s not clear why this technique emerged there in particular, but the town’s proximity to a spa resort meant that there was a ready market for cositas (little things).

Crin is made entirely by hand. No equipment is involved, even knitting needles. But unlike the chunky results of finger-knitting, crin is exquisitely fine.

As a folk craft, crin was rarely taken seriously. However, it is now finding a niche as a versatile, colourful and particularly Chilean component in the burgeoning new jewellery scene in Chile. But its recent success comes with complications.

Women crin weavers from Rari

Women crin weavers from Rari

Women crin weavers from Rari

A Santiago architect Paula Leal has been exploring ways of collaborating with artisans from Rari. An earlier attempt with weaver Alba Sepúlveda led to the award for the 2008 UNESCO Seal of Excellence for Handicraft Products. The product incorporated modernist forms of crin into a hair clasp.

But the business of incorporating crin into jewellery is actually quite a political issue. In some ways, it parallels the movement of New Zealand jewellers who sought to include local materials and techniques such as jade carving into their work. In some cases, this meant reviving some of the lost Indigenous skills, while at the same time not simply imitating traditional Maori culture.

In the case of Chile, it is still the case that you can’t incorporate crin into your work without the willing cooperation of an artisan. It seems the nature of Chilean society that local skills are not easily generalisable. It would be extremely rare for someone in Santiago to teach themselves how to weave with crin. This division of labour creates an asymmetry, particular in the relative prices of crin sold in markets and jewellery featuring crin in fashionable jewellery boutiques.

Even for someone who has achieved success such as Paula, this can be difficult. She had to find some new crin weavers when her previous collaborator broke the partnership. Apparently, she felt resentment that she was sharing the stage with a designer who didn’t actually make anything herself.

Manuela Tromben and Paula Leal

Manuela Tromben and Paula Leal

Manuela Tromben and Paula Leal

Recently, Paula Leal formed a partnership with fellow architect Manuela Tromben in the development of an exhibition devoted to crin. Orígenes Y Atuendos Imaginarios (Origins and Imaginary Outfits) included jewellery and wall work that manipulated elements of traditional crin to create new works. For instance, the cylindrical form that normally is coiled to form the body of a snail was uncoiled and introduced into a necklace form. Local jewellers Walka Studio added the silver attachments.

Orígenes Y Atuendos Imaginarios installation

Orígenes Y Atuendos Imaginarios installation

Orígenes Y Atuendos Imaginarios installation

Crin has a long way to go. There’s potential for much experimentation. It seems inevitable that someone in Santiago will eventually learn to make it themselves. But I hope that doesn’t exclude the possibility that some of the women from Rari might themselves engage actively with product development.

But here, on the other side of the Pacific, a recent exhibition in Melbourne shows an alternative path. Vicky Shukuroglou recently completed her Masters in Gold and Silversmithing. Vicky had previously taken a South Project residency in Brazil and was interested in weaving with alternative materials. While at RMIT she had furthered her manipulation of horse hair to create extremely delicate woven structures.

Vicky Shukuroglou object [PW] steel wire, horse hair 60 x 90mm

Vicky Shukuroglou object [PW] steel wire, horse hair 60 x 90mm

steel wire, horse hair
Vicky Shukuroglou object [BHH] steel wire, horse hair [double bass bow] 150 x 130 x 130mm [variable]

Vicky Shukuroglou object [BHH] steel wire, horse hair [double bass bow] 150 x 130 x 130mm [variable]

steel wire, horse hair

Vicky’s objects are designed deliberately to appear insubstantial. They certainly are not made to function as jewellery, lacking solid form and metal clasps. But as such, they might seem to be true to the wispy material itself, allowing it to unravel freely. Some are likely to worry that she is taking the object out of the normal circuits of exchange that connect it with people’s lives – it can only live on a plinth. Is this a possible path in Chile?

In all, what’s happening with crin tells a story similar to other crafts across the South. Part of the post-colonial process involves coming to terms with the immediate world around us. This means not always looking North for what’s precious, but learning in how to find the beauty in what is at hand.

That process has barely begun.

Janet DeBoos – hand-designed in Australia, factory-crafted in China



In Australia, ceramics is under siege. Since the boom of the 1970s, the number of courses available have rapidly declined. For today’s iphone generation, the dedication required by clay-making poses a significant lifestyle challenge – it threatens to disconnect you from the ‘clouds’ of text and image that give meaning to the day. Of course, as craft advocates we perceive the danger that this will lead to a closed system, where our cultural ecology loses the language of the material world outside. In ceramics, we have a particularly primordial understanding of the ground on which we stand. Without this ‘earth’, we risk a cultural short-circuit.

Thankfully, Janet DeBoos has been successful in adapting ceramics education to this new generation through her model of the ‘distributed studio’. Sustaining this is a new audience that she has discovered which is deeply appreciative of Australian ceramics. But it’s not the white knight of the American collector, willing to pay thousands for a unique work. Rather, it is the Chinese factory owner who can see in the Australian ‘hands-on’ ceramic style something of great value to his growing middle class market.

Janet seemed destined to work in China. She first encountered Chinese ceramicists in the mid-seventies, when a delegation came to East Sydney Tech. In 1996, she received an invitation to be part of the First Western Yixing Teapot Symposium, where she was introduced to Zisha-ware. This was followed in 2001 with an invitation from The Chinese Ceramic Industry to attend and speak at the International Forum on the Development of Ceramic Art in Zibo, Shandong province.





On the strength of her presentation, DeBoos was invited to return and make work with the factory. She has subsequently made work in collaboration with Prof. Zhang Shouzhi in which she produced the form and he provided the decoration. Shouzhi’s design is based on a traditional Ding-ware, though it is applied with a decal rather than traditional hand-carving. The company produce only for internal market as they prefer to make work of high standards rather than cut costs as would be demanded for export. 250 sets were made and subsequently all were sold at the Zibo ceramic Industry conference and expo at the end of 2007. They sold for twice the price they would attract in Australia.





Janet’s experience reminds us how important it is to be open in dealings with businesses in China. While Australian craft has traditionally looked north (to the ‘developed’ countries in Europe, Japan and North America) to gauge its progress, the horizon needs to be broadened to engage with the emerging economies. In the case of China, the depth of appreciation for ceramics is something that a country like Australia could do well to import.

You can find an article by Janet about her China experience in the After the Missionaries issue of Artlink. The presentation set will be on display in the World of Small Things. Janet is current head of the ceramics department at the ANU School of Art, Canberra.

Magicians of the South

A paper presented to the Craft in the 21st Century conference in Edinburgh (2002)



It seems these days we are blessed, or cursed, by long-term incumbent governments. Yet despite their seeming inexorable hold on power, we know that eventually, as night follows day, the UK will eventually be Tory and Australia will be Labor.

For Hegel, the popular understanding of the dialectic is expressed in the phrase, ‘Live and let live… each should have its turn…’  While Hegel’s logic is most commonly applied to the relationships of social class, dialectics can be useful in understanding other hierarchies, such as the one we all live in-the world. History has conspired to divide the world up into quarters-north and south, east and west. The uneasy relationship between these parts has provided the engine of much that we know of as world history. Today, the process of globalisation is seen to realise the dominance of one quarter over another-the west over the east, and the north over the south.

The role of craft in this world dialectic is particularly interesting. The crafts movement has defined itself by reference to the creative energies of the northern peoples. We can see today, though, a new destiny for craft in the post-colonial predicament of the south. The purpose of this paper is to outline what this destiny might entail.

To find our way south, in the space of a few minutes, we need to begin at the start of our journey—the west.


The Greek world view was defined by contrast with the barbarians beyond its borders. The Persians by Aeschylus is the earliest known Greek play, taking as its theme the invasion from the east. After the defeat of Xerxes’ Persian armies in 490 BC, the chorus laments:

Now All Asia’s lands
Moan in emptiness

For post-colonialist Edward Said, this play sets the stage for the dialectic of orientalism that dominates the West’s imagining of the east in centuries to follow: to Asia is a lost glorious past that only the West can recover. I’m sure that we are all familiar with this position and it doesn’t bear rehearsing here.

Orientalism was clearly important in the development of Western decorative arts. Styles such as Chinoiserie helped the rigid Europeans break out of their rigid conventions and embrace the arabesque.


But such exoticism is vulnerable to the inevitable criticism of decadence. In the late nineteenth century, the Arts & Craft movement proposed an alternative polarity that replaced the lost civilisation of the East with one more directly related to Europeans—the noble world of the north. The spiritual centre of William Morris’s craft revolution was Iceland, which he described a ‘holy land’, evoking the romance of the Norse sagas. On a parallel path, John Ruskin praised the ‘magnificent enthusiasm’ of the Gothic.

Along the vertical moral axis of the Arts & Craft movement, the vigorous character of the north is contrasted with stultifying hierarchies of the Latinate south. There were ample precedents for such a hierarchy. Germania, written by Tacitus in the first century, marvelled at the rude energies of the northern races. In the mid-eighteenth century, Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws laid the philosophical foundation of the European state with a climatic analysis of politics, contrasting the sincere north with the passionate south.

This movement certainly had its timeliness.

This North-ism is an occidentalist alternative to the decadent fascination with an exotic orient. It turns the gaze back on the orientalist to question his own lost origins. But the dialectic never rests: North-ism leads to its own alternative (with an interest) in the spontaneous creative energy that lies in the south.

‘Each should have its turn.’


In the early twentieth-century, many French artists looked south to refresh their jaded imaginations. In 1930, Henri Matisse travelled to Tahiti ‘to find simpler ways which won’t stifle the spirit’. One of the distinctive crafts in that part of Polynesia is tivaevae, appliqué quilts in bright colours. This flat decorative style re-emerges in Matisse’s later works using the cut-out technique, such as the Jazz series. As far as we know, Matisse established no enduring relationship with Tahitian crafts practitioners. His debt to their tradition is never acknowledged.

Closer to our time, this primitivist idealisation is often directed to the indigenous races of the south. The 1989 exhibition Magicien de la Terre invited third world artisans who had for so long been an inspiration to French artists. They were taken out of their ethnographic cabinet to sit alongside the individual western artists in a contemporary art setting. Magicien de la Terre was widely criticised for its Benetton-like global context. These artisans were the exotic guests in a modernist palace.

At this point, I should acknowledge the hospitality of Edinburgh College of Art in allowing ten Australasian jewellers to present their work in conjunction with this conference. Guild Unlimited works its way into this argument as a neoclassical regeneration from the antipodes: the intensely hierarchical structures of guild from the old north are here opened up to a pluralistic imagination of the new colonies.

Returning to south-ism, there have been attempts in Australian decorative arts by those originally from the north to incorporate indigenous motifs. The Australian printmaker Margaret Preston called for a new school of decorative arts influenced by Aboriginal designs. In 1925, she called for a national theme based on indigenous crafts:

. I have studied the aboriginal’s art and have applied their designs to the simple things in life, hoping that the craftsman will succeed where, until now, the artist has certainly failed.

Though artists like Preston seemed to celebrate indigenous culture, they were largely oblivious to the need for Aboriginal participation in this process.

This brings us to the post-colonial phase of the world dialectic, when the subaltern eventually asks to take the lead. In their recent book Empire, Hardt and Negri draw on Sartre’s concept of the ‘the moment of the boomerang’ to describe this phase. Here the exotic other begins to speak back, and so Aboriginal Australians began to increasingly assert their independence. In Australia, every important occasion is now preceded by an acknowledgment of traditional owners.

Thus we have seen a flowering of Aboriginal crafts in Australia. Just to take one example, Tiwi Island ceramics, originally established by Michael Cardew, was recently revived and exhibited as Yikwani, containing sculptural works of great invention.

Craft has become so associated with Aboriginal culture that in a recent government report (Inquiry into the Contemporary Visual Arts and Crafts by Rupert Myer), the generic term ‘Art and Craft Centres’ was used to describe Aboriginal places for making art. It was assumed that an ‘Art and Craft Centre’ would not be something that non-indigenous Australians would use.

We might feel a sense of completion with such an arrangement, as though we were at the natural end of the dialectic, when the passive object of colonial fascination is finally the active agent in the construction of their own culture. Yet, as Soviet Marxists found to their dismay, the dialectic is never finished. What is the sound of one hand clapping?

The indigenous flowering of craft occurs surrounded by a non-indigenous audience. They are the writers, curators, gallery visitors, administrators, bureaucrats, art advisors and connoisseurs. They are the silent participants, enjoying the other’s enjoyment.

As the identity of place is increasingly deferred to the original people, the moral tenure of northerners gone south becomes problematic. The question is raised: what can they give in exchange for the exotic delights they receive from the southern peoples?

And here we come to the present crisis in south-ism.  In recent years, this has become especially evident with the defeat of apartheid in South Africa, and the increasing recognition of first peoples in Australia and New Zealand.

Politically, bi-polar dialogue seems stymied with fears of land claims. Sport is often seen as the level playing field for Western and traditional, but there is little evolution of understanding. However, quietly working away in their studios, craft practitioners are stitching, soldering and dove-tailing together two otherwise incompatible cultures.

I’d like to mention briefly some developments in what used to be called the ‘southern dominions’.


To begin in Australia, textiles tend to be the preferred medium for craft exchange between indigenous and non-indigenous cultures. In Western Australia, the fibre artist Nalda Searles has developed a strong collaborative method with Aboriginal artists—Noongar in the south and Ngaanyatjarra in the Western desert.

In her art, Nalda Searles has been exploring ways of combining natural and man-made fibres. This includes embroidery of flora on found fabric, such as blankets and clothes. Her work reflects on the tenuous place of white people in this land. Searle’s signature piece is White Boy Blazer, a school uniform on which have been sewn the brachia of Xanthorrhea, known colloquially as Black Boy. Each of these brachia has been painted white, showing the uneasy tension between settlement and the wild bush beyond.

As a result of her long involvement with Ngaanyatjarra people, Nalda Searles is known by the word Kabbarli, which means ‘grandmother’. This term had been applied most famously to another woman living in the Nullarbor Plain a century earlier—Daisy Bates. Searles is currently developing a series of works that explore the confrontation between European dress and the more natural indigenous ornament. Bates’ morning toilet is a fascinating ordeal of Western decorum sustained in dramatic isolation. She writes,

I made my toilet to a chorus of impatient twittering. It was a fastidious toilet, for throughout my life I have adhered to the simple but exact dictates of fashion as I left it, when Victoria was queen—a neat white blouse, stuff collar and ribbon tie, a dark skirt and coast, stout and serviceable, trim shows and neat black stockings, a sailor hat and a fly-veil, and, for my excursions to the camps, always a dust-coat and a sunshade. Not until I was in meticulous order would I emerge from my tent, dressed for the day. My first greeting was for the birds.

This encounter between Western dress and southern wild nature provides the perfect scene for Searles’ craft process. Initi gloves combines the white gloves that Daisy Bates wore all the time during her dealings with the Aborigines and the initi seeds that they wore in their hair.

Searles’ combines both modern and traditional elements in a way that exposes their separation.

New Zealand

The dialogue mellows as we cross the Tasman Sea. There has been a more consistent history of reciprocal dealings between the Maori’s and their British guests. In the spirit of bi-culturalism, those of European descent refer to themselves as Maori term, Pakeha, meaning ‘those who arrive on ships with tall white sails’.

In the twentieth-century, there was much interest by Pakeha in the Maori ornamental traditions. This culminated in the Stone, Bone & Shell exhibition which toured Australia in 1988. It included jewellers and sculptors who drew from the Maori carving traditions, especially using Pounamu, or greenstone.

In 1998, the school was criticised for its appropriation of Maori culture. The jeweller Warwick Freeman was singled out as a ‘plunderer of the Pacific’. At a conference in Hobart in 1998, Freeman defended his practice as a form of dialogue between cultures.

Bi-culturalism calls for active exchange between the cultures—art is a fundamental participant in this engagement—it functions well in the so called ‘negotiated space’ – the space between two cultures

More recently in New Zealand, there have been a number of Polynesian artists, especially from Samoa, who have begun to exploit this irony. Niki Hastings-McFall is of Samoan descent and combines in her work reference to traditional islander forms and modern symbols, such as the conjunction of Solomon Island breastplates and modern symbols such as mag wheels. Her series ‘Flock’ uses the techniques of traditional breastplates but incorporates alternative materials, pearl shell and silver. Included in the radial design are aeroplane symbols which reflect an ironic continuity of traditional and modern.

For all the inevitable conflicts and misunderstandings, New Zealand craft appears to play on a relatively reciprocal exchange between Western and traditional cultures.

South Africa

The parallel path of relations between first and subsequent peoples has taken a dramatic turn in South Africa. Under the Dutch Reform Church, Afrikaners saw themselves as the chosen people and their Great Trek was a journey to the Promised Land. Now, in the Rainbow Nation, they must take their place amongst the heathens not as masters but as equals.

Apartheid had extended to the arts as much as politics. There had been little appropriation of African crafts by settler artists. The curios that could be purchased during holiday treks to the Transvaal were largely imported from countries like Congo and Nigeria.

It’s different now.

New crafts have emerged as hybrids of traditional technique and modern lifestyle. Telephone wire weaving was developed initially by city nightwatchmen, who sought to fill their time by weaving as they would in their village home. Without natural grasses, they were forced to gather whatever was to hand. Odd pieces of telephone wire provided particularly colourful materials for weaving.

Today, telephone wire weaving has become the main source of income for villages like the township of Umlassi in Durban. It has reached the stage now where the main telecommunications company Telkom distribute the wire for free—for the practical reason that otherwise people would steal wires off the poles and so disrupt the telephone system.

While these crafts provide important sources of income, they have not as yet been able to establish themselves as individual artists with reputations in their own right.

Among visual artists gaining reputation in the new South Africa are Zulu men who aspire to the status as healers. These are often charismatic figures whose work is informed by visions.

Lange Magwa looks particularly to objects that are held as sacred to both Western and traditional cultures. ‘Made in China’ is a large gramophone horn woven from cow hide, inside which is a speaker broadcasting in different languages represented in Durban radio. It rests on a springbok hide which is laid over an Indian fabric. For Magwa, his work aims to operate magically to heal the rift between the three main races of Durban. In Zulu ritual, the horn is used as a symbol of magical protection: it can be ground up as healing powder, used as a container of medicine or added to other objects, like a house, to protect it from evil spirit. By finding a link with the European white magic of the gramophone, Magwa is extending the power of the horn into the new South Africa.

So where does this leave white Africans? Many white artists have moved now from their own work to facilitating others. One such artist is Andries Botha. He has established a philanthropic project, Amazini Abisifazane (Voices of Women). This is a cooperative venture presenting embroideries by women about their traumatic experiences. While such projects are important to the economic development of the new South Africa, they do risk entrenching a victimary identity on the previously disadvantaged.

Botha’s own sculptural installations move towards greater self-understanding. In his monumental series What is a Home (1995), a three-metre high steel-plated man with Afrikaner hat is clutching a straw woman in Zulu headdress performing a dance known in Afrikaans as binne boet (‘inside the arse’). In his own work, Andreas is attempting to uncover the folk tradition of Afrikaner culture to find something that is more complementary to the Zulu values.

Contemporary sculptors in the new South Africa are drawing on their own craft traditions to weave together the black and white cultures that have been kept strictly separate during most of their lives. There’s a long way to make up.

Magicians of the south

And here we get to the bottom of things. The bottom of the world is emerging as a forum whereby the European self and its exotic other can finally meet and engage in reciprocal dialogue. This ‘south’ offers a backstage where the exotic actors can exchange masks with their ordinary audience.

In this setting, craft provides an important common language whereby exchange can develop between traditional artisans and Western artists. Old techniques can combine with introduced materials. Alien symbols emerge out of traditional patterns. Using the charismatic authority of magicians, prophets, healers and artists, these individuals can realise new similarities and differences between the two worlds that find each other in the south.

The wrongs of the past certainly demand reparation. Someone needs to say sorry. But the process of empowerment still bears the legacy of colonial paternalism. ‘Live and let live’ carries an onerous responsibility—not only to allow others to fulfil their lives, but live one’s own as well. While global culture offers a nowhere-land of vicarious experience, the local cultures of the south provide a way of re-orienting ourselves where we are, if we can listen.


G.W.F. Hegel Logic (trans. W. Wallace) Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975 (orig. 1830)

Edward Said Orientalism New York: Pantheon, 1978, p. 57

Fiona MacCarthy William Morris: A Life for Our Times London: Faber, 1994, p. 309

John Ruskin Stones of Venice New York: Da Capo Press, 1960 (orig. 1853), p. 176

Thomas McEvilley Art & otherness: crisis in cultural identity Kingston, NY: Documentext/McPherson, 1992,  pp. 69-70

Margaret Preston ‘The indigenous art of Australia’ Art in Australia 1925, , pp. 3-11

Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri Empire Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001, p. 130

Daisy Bates The Passing Of The Aborigines: A Lifetime Spent Among The Natives Of Australia London: Murray, 1938, p. 198