Tag Archives: craft

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?

On the other hand: Learnings from Kaivalam, the World Craft Summit, Chennai 2012

Summary comments presented at Kaivalam Craft Summit, World Crafts Council General Assembly, Chennai 7-10 October 2012

Mrs Usha Krishna opening Kaivalam

Mrs Usha Krishna opening Kaivalam

We’ve just shared three days of talks from extraordinary people from all corners of the world about the state of craft today. What have we learned?

There have been some important proposals for us to consider. The most salient of these has been the development of an Academy of Craft & Design, presented by the Indian Minister of Handicrafts, Anand Sharma. That I could read about this in the Times of India yesterday is testament to the usefulness of the World Crafts Council presidency to the host nation. It is a great credit to the influence of Mrs Usha Krishna that she has been able to leverage the occasion for strategic political announcements of benefit to the craft sector. We hope the academy, when finally built, will prominently feature her portrait in recognition of her resounding contribution to craft.

Looking more behind the scenes, we had advice about the need to know ourselves better, in particular to collect data that could translate our blind passion for craft into cold hard statistics. Ashoke Chatterjee spoke about this in the Indian context, contrasting the excellent business case of the craft export centre against the largely opaque local sector. Simon Ellis offered us some recent models for quantifying craft used by organisations like UNESCO.

Proposals like these will depend partly on factors beyond our control, particularly government budgets. While we need to follow up on these beyond Kaivalam, it is important that we find ways of continuing the conversation started here.

The Sari Production by Daksha Sheth, telling the story of weaving a sari from beginning to end in vigorous dance and music.

The Sari Production by Daksha Sheth, telling the story of weaving a sari from beginning to end in vigorous dance and music.

As I attempted to distil the learning of Kaivalam last night, I was inspired by the wonderful Sari Production that we witnessed, where dancers performed the marvellous process of sari weaving and wearing. They beautifully conveyed the back and forward of the shuttle that is intrinsic to weaving. And so, thinking about our discussions, rather than define our agreements, it seemed more appropriate to identify the dualities that energised our discussions. While here in India, it seems important to take one of its principle learnings, Dharma, as a framework for thinking about the dualities that have been revealed in world craft over the past three days.

While one side tended to dominate in Kaivalam, the other was evoked. Our ongoing discussion aims to weave a dense fabric of understanding moving between the two alternatives.

What is the best market for craft?

On the second day, we heard some very impressive case studies for the support of traditional craft through the luxury market. These included opportunities discussed by Marcella Echavarria for appealing to consumers in New York through clever branding, Umang Hutheesing’s continuing revival of the courtly traditions that thrived under the Maharajas, Rolf von Buerren’s tribue to the vision of the Queen of Thailand in sponsoring her country’s craft, and the marvellous tale of Jean François Lesage’s work in servicing the restoration of European aristocratic treasures through Chennai craftsmanship

There is no doubt that royalty has played a positive role in the development of craft excellence and exquisite technical skill. As craft becomes increasingly rare, it also gains in exclusive value. And if we argue that wages for artisans need to increase, we should look to the wealthy who are the ones that can afford to pay the higher prices. It seems a good bet.

But then on the other hand, as Ms Souad Amin from Lebanon asked, is craft just for the elite? Actually, the dominant story of craft invoked on the first day was that of Gandhi, who saw spinning as a spiritual exercise for the strengthening of the Indian nation after British rule. So where was the spirit of the hand-spun khadi cloth today—craft for every person and every day? In Kaivalam, this found its expression largely in the corporate sector. We heard from Janet Nkubana about how she has been able to create a craft industry for her fellow Rwandan women supplying the Wal-Mart chain in the United States. We had Ratna Krishnakumar’s beautiful presentation of saris made by the Pochampalli weavers, now providing uniforms for the Taj Hotels. For those who are able and interested to make a regular supply of craft products, there are many new opportunities to connect with corporate outlets.

On the one hand, luxury boutiques. And on the other hand, supermarkets. Both alternatives exist very much within the existing market system. Maybe there’s also a space for craft that connects people more directly than through the market. We need to think more about the egalitarian role of craft, in particular how to reconcile the DIY movement with world craft.

How can countries partner together?

As has been evident thus far, the World Crafts Council is a multifaceted forum for bringing together many different cultures of the world.

Apart from sharing a solidarity through our own individual craft traditions, the question was raised of how we can collaborate together as partners. This is particularly evident in the paper about India-Africa partnerships at NID given by Frances Potter and Shimul Vyas. As Frances said, she had presumed that all possibilities came from the north, but she just woke up one morning and thought of India. I wonder what she dreamt of during the night.

The Zimbabwe-India partnership is a perfect example of the kind of south-south cooperation that is growing so strongly now, most evident in the rise of the BRICS trading block. Of course, it is particularly strong right here in the audience of the General Assembly, where we see a growing proportion of countries from the global South. We are at the crest of the tide of history, particularly the Asian Century.

But we should never forget the North. As Adelia Borges reminded us, north-south relations can sometimes be a monologue. Northern designers can often commission craftspersons with little dialogue over the final product. But dialogue goes both ways, and we should also consider the North as an essential part of the World Crafts Council conversation. After all, it’s where the modern craft story began, with the Arts & Crafts Movement whose ideas expressed by William Morris and John Ruskin helped inspire the craft revivals in India, Japan and beyond. Today we see such innovative design emerging from countries like the Netherlands, Norway and the UK. We certainly witnessed this in Christa Meindersma’s presentation of works supported by the Prince Claus fund in the Netherlands.

On the one hand we have the South with its energy and vibrant traditions, and on the other we have the North with its modernist professionalism and institutions. Getting our two worlds to talk to each other with equal respect is a major challenge for world craft.

Kenya Hara answering the question about the space for craft

Kenya Hara answering the question about the space for craft

What is the space of craft?

One of the very surprising and thrilling discussions followed the talk by the Mooji designer, Kenya Hara. You’ll recall, he spoke about the aesthetic of emptiness and its role in design. Hara framed the place of emptiness in Japanese culture as an invitation to the gods. He contrasted this to way decoration on objects operates as an expression of power.

But then the Kuwaiti scholar Dr Ghada pointed out that in the Islamic tradition the purpose of decoration is to keep the devil out. From one end of Asia to the other we witnessed a clash of opposites—gods and devils, emptiness and fullness. Where might they meet?

When pressed on this matter, Hara observed that the very plainness of Mooji design offers a place for the crafted object to be more clearly apprehended. A simple table provides the perfect stage for a finely worked piece of craft.

This was an intriguing model for the role of design in craft: design makes a space for craft to express itself. Given the business and noise of contemporary life, making this space, what Heidegger calls the ‘clearing’, is particularly important.

On the one hand the emptiness of design, but on the other hand, the fullness of craft. As a curator, I find this duality particularly important.

How do we protect craft?

Then yesterday, we had an especially intense series of papers about Geographical Indicators. Here we learnt about the role of the law in protecting our craft knowledge. Geographic Indicators ensure that a community which has been the custodian of a particular craft tradition will be the exclusive owners of that intellectual property. These Geographical Indicators are an important addition to the legal arsenal alongside copyright, patents and traditional knowledge.

But there is also the parallel effort to protect craft from imitation and knock offs, which doesn’t rely on lawyers or courts—marketing. Today craft organisations organisations can develop websites that include images of their artisans, perhaps even videos, so the ethical consumer can feel more confident about their authenticity. More practically, this information offers a story that they can then use when sharing their purchase with others or directly when presenting it as a gift.

So we have two quite different approaches to protecting the authenticity of craft. In one we invest in the legal system, enforced by fines. And in the other, we engage in marketing, creating value in our brand. What’s it to be—the stick or the carrot?

To an extent, these alternative paths overlap the rich and poor duality. The ethical consumer tends to be a wealthier person, looking for a good story rather than just something that ticks the box. On the other hand, the lower end price sensitive market will not worry so much about authenticity In this case, we need more pre-emptive legal powers. I think there is still more potential in consumer-led protection. The customer forums that are increasingly prominent in the Internet offer greater scope for crowd-sourced whistleblowing.

What is the future for craft?

Clearly we cannot sum up Kaivalam without acknowledging the key question. ‘The future is handmade’ strikes a defiant tone. We make a bold challenge to the technological idea of progress which champions development as the replacement of human drudgery by ever more efficient machines. According to the technocrats, we are better off entrusting our world in machines, devices, clouds, rather than our own hands. It does seem unfortunately the default position of governments, but also sadly an increasingly popular attitude amongst many in the next generation.

Rather than succumb to defeatism, we take a stand. The future is handmade presumes we can leapfrog this purely technological idea of progress by anticipating a time when we realise that technology cannot answer our basic needs.

One of the quite deep aspects of Kaivalam was the way it reconfigured our understanding of time, particularly craft time. I liked the way Syeda Hameed quoted Rumi, including the line: ‘constant slow movement teaches us to keep working like a small creek that stays clear’. It’s not so much the linear flow of water, but its constant motion that is important.

There were many comments not just about the speed of progress, but also the narrowing of our time frame. Rolf von Buerren noted that the rhythm of life in the US is around five minutes, or the time between advertising breaks. Indeed, we are now witnessing an election campaign in the United States where the choice of leader in the largest world economy can be determined by a few minutes on the television screen. But more profoundly, we’re all still reeling from the devastation to our global economy caused by the intensification of short term profit by financial traders.

Craft is not so much about the past or the future, as what connects them together. As Octavio Paz wrote in that landmark 1974 World Craft Council publication In Praise of Hands, ‘The modern artist has set out to conquer eternity, and the designer to conquer the future; the craftsman allows himself to be conquered by time.’ At its core here is an acceptance of time, linking past and future.

Arguably the most treasured consumer item at the moment is the Apple iPhone 5. It has truly miraculous powers and sports deviously clever apps. But how long will its value last? Will it ever be an heirloom? The value of these gadgets starts declining from the moment we purchase them. It’s the handmade object that we will entrust with our long term future.

On the one hand our tomorrow, on the other our children’s tomorrow. Craft stretches time. And as we need to face up to long-term issues like climate change, this role is increasingly important.

Four year journey

We may have started under the cloud of the GFC, but we’ve shared remarkable times together. I’ll never forget during Abhushan, listening to Ms Azza Fahmy from Egypt, on the morning the news broke about the change of leadership, how we could all share with her that solidarity that remains between those involved in craft, despite the upheavals that affect our world.

We’ve shared now in Kaivalam a great testament to the vibrancy of the ‘World’ Crafts Council. Beyond the formal presentations, we’ve had the privilege to meet people from 39 different countries, all brought together through a common interest in making beautiful objects that have a lasting place in our world.

Part of living in the world involves accepting that not everyone is the same. Rather than dilute our identity, diversity makes it stronger. There are at least two sides to the questions we’ve been considering over the past three days. Like the shuttle that moves across the loom, the play of opposites builds a stronger understanding of where we are.

On the one hand, and on the other. What do we do? Let’s put them together and congratulate Mrs Usha Krishna for leading us through the past four years.

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.

The Unknown Craftsperson in Unexpected Pleasures

The Fine Line section of Unexpected Pleasures

The Fine Line section of Unexpected Pleasures

Unexpected Pleasures is an extraordinary achievement. Curator Susan Cohn has gathered together more than 200 key works reflecting the international scene of contemporary jewellery. This mass of work is surprisingly digestible. Rather than arrange them by country or historical movement, she has offered a taxonomic system that maps the creative energies at play in individual pieces.

These ‘idea clusters’ are quite different to the more reductive classifications that might otherwise be found in museums, based on materials or techniques. For instance, ‘Logical solutions’ attends to the creative dimension of componentry in jewellery works. The propositional nature of such groupings engages the visitor more actively than those based on academic criteria.

There’s much more that can be said about the exhibition as a whole, but I would like to respond to one of the specific challenges laid in the section titled A Fine Line. This closed installation at the centre of the gallery functions as the ‘navel’ of the exhibition, identifying the ‘origins of contemporary jewellery today’ in Art, Design, Fashion and Craft.

Practically, this is an opportunity to feature iconic works, such as Annie Alberts’ ‘Necklace’ made from paper clips that prefigures more experimental work to come. More generally, this contextualisation locates contemporary jewellery in a broader kinship system of creative arts.

This is by no means a neutral context. There is a clear value system at work in the way these origins are presented. While works by artists such as Alexander Calder are celebrated, Art as a framework for jewellery creates a remove between the artist and the work. Artists are seen to create jewellery as mostly a secondary concern, akin to merchandising. This distance from making applies to Design as well, though the designer is more comfortable the process of production:

A designer with the ability to create effective jewellery has the sensibility to understand industrial objects with a certain sophistication.

Fashion includes elements of art, design and craft, but it has the additional capacity to engage with sub-cultures in which individuals adapt clothing to create their own identities.

The final origin, Craft, is presented as ‘problematic’. The text argues that it is better to avoid the word in order to overcome ‘ultimately futile questions about the allegedly nostalgic connotations of craft.’ Parallel to fashion, this origin is presented as ‘vernacular self-expression in the anthropological sense.’ There’s a certain unresolved tension here between making and empowerment that prompts further consideration.

Unknown artist, Rirratjingu active 1990s, armband 1993, made from feathers

Unknown artist, Rirratjingu active 1990s, armband 1993, made from feathers

In the book accompanying the exhibition, craft is illustrated with a Bella Herdsman’s pendant from Birkina Faso (1976) and a photo of an ash-covered Dinka elder (1976) wearing a necklace of Dutch beads and smoking an elaborate silver pipe. In the exhibition itself, craft is represented by an armband from Arnhem Land (1993). We see craft through these works as something distant from Western culture.

While the craft section does state that making is relevant to contemporary jewellery, it is positioned in the exhibition as something performed by those ‘other’ to our culture. There are precedents for this. Primitivism has been a key influence in contemporary jewellery, particularly in our corner of the world with Peter Tully and Warwick Freeman. But this primitivism has been mediated by the artists themselves, rather presented as museum pieces.

So what’s happening in this return to ethnography in contemporary jewellery? Maybe it’s progressive. This return could be seen as part of a wider concern to give indigenous arts themselves a platform. Rather than have white artists represent non-Western cultures, it is better to give a voice to those who belong to those same cultures, as in the emergence of a new generation of Aboriginal and Maori jewellers. However, the works identified as ‘craft’ in Unexpected Pleasures are anonymous, so there is little opportunity to enfranchise non-Western artists.

The other side of this is the implied detachment of contemporary jewellery from craft. I think there are two currents at play here. The first is the exhibition’s resolutely cosmopolitan approach. While there are some references to place, such as the Dutch collar of Paul Derrez, contemporary jewellery is represented here as a relatively placeless activity. It is perhaps a sign of maturity that it, like other disciplines such as science or architecture, is presented as an autonomous profession which prizes originality above political correctness. The framework of Craft is at odds with this specialisation. It tends to be more location specific, reflecting traditional skills and local materials. Craft’s implied responsibility to place has potential to compromise creative freedom.

This is a different case for Craft than the one which Robert Baines would make in criticism of the exhibition. Baines champions the discipline of skill and tradition in contemporary jewellery. I would argue that skill does have a link to place. The logic of outsourcing in late capitalism has helped us overlook this.

The second current is the exhibition’s attempt to celebrate the wearer. This is critical to an exhibition which has the capacity, in an unparalleled way, to open up the closed circle of contemporary jewellery to the broader public. Unexpected Pleasures is cast initially to fit the National Gallery of Victoria, which has never before offered a survey exhibition of contemporary jewellery. Craft in this context provides a more internal framework of skill and mastery best understood by the makers themselves. It thus has potential to alienate the broader public.

At the other pole, the exhibition must satisfy the interests of the London Design Museum. A natural framework for Design is to consider contemporary jewellery in terms of its role in everyday life. How does jewellery affect the way people behave in the street? Certainly, the works in Unexpected Pleasures can be read in terms of user experience, such as the framing neckpieces of Gijs Bekker and Otto Künzli. But could this go further? The majority of works are still made primarily for exhibit rather than use. We don’t see work than has been subject to the additional discipline (or compromise) of the market.

Ironically, the one contemporary jeweller who seems to embrace this element of design most fully is Susan Cohn herself. The necessary absence of her work in Unexpected Pleasures is one of the few weak points.

Unexpected Pleasures is likely to prove a seminal moment in contemporary jewellery. It shifts the focus away from the subjective experience of the maker to the desires of the wearer. While this seems a necessary move, it leaves making itself in an uncertain place. Its association with indigenous culture is perhaps a holding position, acknowledging the presence of Craft while separating it from mainstream practice.

This lack of resolution opens the potential for a counter move. The alternative is more about treasures than pleasures—jewellery as a means to forge new and recovered collectivities.