Tag Archives: India

She’ll be jugalbandi – Australian-Indian ceramics collaboration

Jugalbandi is a Hindi word for collaboration. It means literally ‘twins entwined at birth’ and is applied to an improvised form of musical collaboration, sometimes involving different Indian traditions. This type of duet emerged after Independence as way of bringing together the northern and southern halves of India. A particularly good example is a duet by singers Sreeranjini Kodampally and Gayatri Asok, combining the sinewy Carnatic style with the more rhythmical Hindustani timbre. The land masses of Australia and India were also entwined at birth, when they shared the Gondwana land mass. So you can look at this 6 by 6 exhibition as a kind of ceramic Jugalbandi across the Indian Ocean.

Specifically, 6 by 6 is a ‘form and surface’ collaboration where one person makes the basic object which the other decorates. The understanding is that culture consists of a number of concepts that can take different forms of expression, sometimes with exhilarating effect. One of my most memorable theatre experiences was seeing the Jacobean tragedy ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore performed in modern US dress by the American Theatre Company. The austere contemporary military officer’s uniforms gave this play a sense of political power that was more monumental than in the original flamboyant 17th dress. It’s as though we only explore one dimension of our culture at home, leaving other facets to be revealed elsewhere.

‘Form and surface’ collaboration is particularly suitable for ceramics, where the process of modelling and decoration are relatively separate.  Sandra Bowkett used a similar method in her Cross-Hatched project in 2009, which involved collaboration between Australian ceramicists and Indian folk artists. Vipoo Srivilasa and Pushpa Kumari developed the strategy whereby one made the form, on which the other decorated in pencil, leaving the original maker to fill in the details with cobalt oxide. While very similar, 6 by 6 adds an element of surprise, where artists work only with their received objects, unaware of their story or what others are doing. This makes it a little more like the Surrealist exercise of Exquisite Corpse.

6 by 6 involves three Indian and three Australian ceramicists. Each artist makes six versions of the same form. One of each of these is then mailed to the other five who decorate it in their own style. The objects chosen are redolent of meaning.

Let’s look at the offerings.

Adil Writer

Adil Writer, Saes, soda fired

Adil Writer, Saes, soda fired

Originally from Mumbai, Adil Writer now lives in Auroville, which is an experimental international community nestled in the forest of south India, now a hub for ceramics.

For his chosen object, Writer draws from his heritage as a Parsi, the ethnic group that migrated to India when Persia converted to Islam. Parsis follow the Zoroastrian faith, which is sustained by intricate rituals involving sacred objects. For 6 by 6, Writer has chosen the saes (or sace or ses), a circular rimmed metal tray that holds silver objects, which include a cone (soparo) containing sugar rocks, a rose water sprinkler (gulaban) for spreading happiness, a metallic cup (pigani) filled with vermillion powder for regeneration and the oil lamp (divo) celebrating Zoroastrian fire worship. The saes is usually a family heirloom passed down through generations in order to maintain cultural continuity.  It is activated on special occasions such as the thanksgiving (jashan) when it is polished and adorned with garlands, sweets, an egg, dry fruits and nuts, betelnut leaves, rice, water, coconut, dates, spices and herbs.

As a diasporic object, the story of the saes takes the Parsi story beyond Iran. 6 by 6 continues the process of cultural dispersal to a land across the ocean.

On the other side of the process, Writer has soda/wood-fired the five works by other artists. Ironically, fires his kiln with Australian mountain ash timber which was planted around Auroville 40 years ago for reforestation. But the tree is now considered a blight and its destruction for this project is welcome.

Sharbani Das Gupta

Sharbani Das Gupta developed her skills at Golden Bridge pottery, Pondicherry (just next to Auroville), under Ray Meeker. Her work combines an interest in the formal properties of clay with its potential to provide critical commentary on the key issues of the day, such as global environment.

Sharbani has chosen the kaavad (‘god box’), which is a portable shrine developed in Rajasthan around 400 years ago. It became particularly important in the 17th century when the Moghul ruler Aurangzeb demolished Hindu temples and the kaavad helped maintain the sacred stories in individual homes. It is a complete wooden object with doors that unfold within doors and a drawer containing additional story scrolls. The kaavad is painted throughout with scenes from stories such as the Mahabharata, providing the bard with a device on which to base their performance. Distributed in parts to the other artists, it will only be whole again in the exhibition. Like the saes, this is a diasporic object.

In turn, Sharbani has made her received objects more useful, transforming them into a plumb line, hand warmer, magnifying tube and acupressure chart. It makes us wonder how many of our utilities began life as something more ceremonial.

Madhvi Subrahmanian

Madhvi Subrahmanian has also followed the ceramics path south-east from Mumbai to Pondicherry. Subrahmanian is particularly interested in the ancient symbolism of clay and pottery in Indian culture. Her object, the yoni, is a Hindu symbol of the divine mother, Shakti or Devi. In the temple, it is a vessel form that channels libations to the symbol of the male god, Shiva. It takes the shape of a vulva that embraces the phallic form of the lingam. On special religions festivals, or pujas, the lingam is offered libations which consist of either water from river Ganga, honey, sugarcane juice, milk, yogurt, ghee, seawater, coconut milk, fragrant oils, or rose water.

The yoni brings to 6 by 6 a particular understanding of multiplicity present in Hindu thought, especially in relation to the mystery of male and female duality within the indivisible whole. So in the logic of this collaboration, each of the artists have the opportunity themselves to offer libations in the form of pattern, glaze or smoke.

Subrahmanian’s own process involves smoke-firing, warm terra-sigillata colours derived from earth stones that are burnished and waxed. These colours are similar to those produced by Indian fabric dyes.

Gerry Wedd

Madhvi Subrahmanian version of Gerry Wedd's thong

Madhvi Subrahmanian version of Gerry Wedd's thong

Gerry Wedd from Adelaide plays with the cultural differences of West and East. He has subverted the regal language of blue and white ware to express the popular dimension of Australian culture, including surfing, football and rock music. His offering is the iconic Australian thong. The word originates from the proto-German thwang, meaning ‘to restrain’. In Australia, it took off when Dunlop released the rubber thong in 1959—a perfect fit for Australia’s informal beach culture. In summer, thongs save many Australian feet when, wet from the surf, they have to fire walk across the baking bitumen of the beach car park.

There’s an uncanny resemblance between the lingam and the thong. Both are similar shaped containers for a human appendage. But the concept of libation is a very uncommon one to such a pragmatic country as Australia, which does not usually subscribe to sacrifice as a cultural practice.

Wedd’s responses are related to the Logic Magic Kingdoms by Eduardo Paolozzi, which combined his own sculptures with several hundred museum artefacts. Such ‘collaboration’ confuses authorship and opens up new perspectives.

Trevor Fry

Trevor Fry is a creature of Sydney. As well as exhibiting in public galleries he is involved in Sydney’s artist run scene and has shown in the Mardi Gras festival. Fry was part of the Wild Boys collective that stages radical drag performances. His work is provocative, using coil-building to create transgressive objects with deviant sexual and scatological meanings.

Fry has tested the boundaries of this project by creating six different objects from the letters of the word ‘English’. The linguistic legacy of British colonisation is clearly one of the strongest links between Australia and India. But there is tension between the ‘Queen’s English’ that is maintained in formal education and its ‘bastardisation’ in the periphery of the empire. The YouTube series ‘How to talk Australians’—Indians trying to learn to talk ‘sheep shaggers’ for work in call centres—evokes a common distance from the language heard on the BBC.  Fry subverts the capital letters with scenes of debauchery, invoking the cultural corruption that occurs on both sides of the Indian Ocean.

Fry has decorated the others with a camouflage design, which is both critical and decorative. He immerses these pieces in the contested terrain of Australian politics.

Janet deBoos

Janet deBoos is at the same time a very local artist, reflecting the natural beauty of the Brindabellas where she lies, and a potter of the world, working in other countries like China. She is an advocate of the ‘distributed studio’, involving collaboration between artists in varied times and places, drawing on their own unique specialisations. Her designs also involve a cultural patchwork, juxtaposing different designs on the one piece.

For this show, deBoos chose a form that celebrated Australia’s myth of the noble failure. The grand expanse of the Australian continent is littered with failed explorers, such as Ludwig Leichhardt, Burke and Wills and Lasseter. Sidney Nolan’s 1948 series of paintings reduced the bushranger Ned Kelly to a black mask with a letterbox opening. The view from the helmet flattens landscape, reducing the world to the horizontal. Next to India today, Ned Kelly evokes the failure by Australia to define itself as an independent republic.

One positive consequence of that failure is a cultural pluralism, which deBoos realises in the variety decals and glazes she uses on her received pieces.


6 by 6 demonstrates the power of clay to create a cultural alchemy. At one level, the works give new expression to another’s cultural forms. But through this most plastic medium, we are reminded how much cultures themselves are fluid, reflecting continual displacement. In the context of reincarnation, the Jugalbandi never ends. These twins keep being reborn.


Indian craft is set in stone

S. Swaminathan giving his learned analysis of the Mamallapuram sculptures.

S. Swaminathan giving his learned analysis of the Mamallapuram sculptures.

While we’ve been subject to gruesome images from the Isis insurgency, the latest scenes of destruction to Assyrian stone artifacts are particularly shocking. Even if vile in lack of regard for humanity, the beheading of an ‘enemy’ at least has the logic of war. Whereas the smashing of ancient sculptures seems inexplicable. Why destroy our link to the classical civilisations of Mesopotamia?

As Guy Rundle wrote in response to this devastation “…without our heritage and a commitment to it, there is no ground to life, to meaning.” We can keep plugging away in life, paying bills and meeting deadlines, but in the end we are faced with the question: what lasting culture do we have to pass on to the future?

Beings of the 21st century salute the beings of the 9th century Pallava dynasty.

Beings of the 21st century salute the beings of the 9th century Pallava dynasty.

Set against what is happening in Syria, the persistence of Mamallapuram over the centuries is particularly edifying. Mamallapuram is a town near Chennai which hosts a continuing tradition of stone carving since the Pallava dynasty in the 3rd century.  I visited as part of a jury for the Cities of World Craft (with Dr Ghada Hijjawi-Qaddumi and Mrs. Ruby Ghuznavi ), which endorses the efforts of particular cities to sustain their craft traditions.

I was impressed to find in Mamallapuram a thriving community of nearly 500 families working with a mixture of hand and machine tools. It’s certainly exacting work, but the pay seems reasonable and there appears to be a sense of community. Coming from Australia, where we are so sensitive about occupational health and safety, I worried that the artisans were not wearing masks. But nor do they wear helmets on motorbikes on busy Chennai roads. Fortunately, the state of Tamilnadu has universal health care.

Working with hand and machine tools.

Working with hand and machine tools.


The chisel has to be sharpened hourly. There are men employed full time just to keep them sharpened all day.

The chisel has to be sharpened hourly. There are men employed full time just to keep them sharpened all day.

The sculpture college seemed to provide a broad education which included not only the craft techniques but also related cultural knowledge such as Sanskrit. This teaching is important to understand the cultural context which gives meaning to their work.

Students at the sculpture school at Mamallapuram.

Students at the sculpture school at Mamallapuram.

There is relatively little design innovation apart from miniature sculptures for tourists. The design principles are taught from the ancient principles of Shilpi Shastra, which determine the various proportions of the body parts.

The Shilpi Shastra book wtih all the correct proportions for statues

The Shilpi Shastra book wtih all the correct proportions for statues


So an eye is shaped like a fish?

So an eye is shaped like a fish?

Much of the work now comes from foreign clients. Some of it involves public art of sculptures carved from photographs sent over email. But there is growing demand from the Indian migrant communities who need these statues for their new temples.

Here, the sculpture becomes more than an art object. It is an idol to be worshiped. This is evident in the many customs associated with the sculptures. During construction, the sculptures are usually covered with sand as a mark of respect. Here is one that is exposed for us to see.

A large statue is usually submerged in sand to protect it from profane eyes before going to the temple.

A large statue is usually submerged in sand to protect it from profane eyes before going to the temple.

They are also lovingly cared for, such as a weekly beauty treatment with coconut oil!

Freshening up a statue with coconut oil

Freshening up a statue with coconut oil

But most remarkable is the ceremony the accompanies their entry into the temple, when their sacred status is activated. Here it is described:

These sculptures lack religious significance until its eyes are “opened” or sculpted (Nayanonmilanam). The eyes need to be opened at the temple itself, with a gold needle and a silver needle, both of which need to be provided by the temple or the client (and can’t be reused.) The right eye is opened with the gold needle, which evokes the image of the sun. The left eye is opened with the silver needle, evoking the image of the moon. A silver hammer is used as an aid as well. This is a job that only sthapatis are allowed to do, so if there is no sthapati in the area of the temple, either Mr. Shanmugan or Mr. Subramanian need to hitch on a plane to the locale and sculpt the eyes themselves. “I’ve been to Mauritius, Australia, Malaysia…” Mr. Subramanian noted. After the eyes are opened, only priests of the temple can touch the sculpture; the ownership of the sculpture (both religious and literal) has passed on from the sthapatis to the priests.

Malarvannan, Apoorva. 2014. The Life of Mahabalipuram: Pulsing Stories Trapped in Stone.

Opening the eyes on a statue

Opening the eyes on a statue

But it doesn’t stop there. Here Dr Santhosh Babu, chairperson of the Tamilnadu Handicrafts Development Corporation, translates the procedure that follows:

One presumes that the pleasure in its own craftsmanship eases the shock for the idol of its coming into existence. Along the way, this ritual changes our relation to an object which is looked at to something that can look at us.

These are the kind of magic processes that are lost when a craft object becomes just another consumer product. For those of us who are not Hindu, the challenge is to find other ways of activating our objects to they can give meaning to our world and the people we care for.

What should we do today? Would we hold a mirror up to your treasured craft object? Or would you prefer to post an image on Instagram? We have much to learn from the Indians about how to sustain a tradition.

Postscript on Indian contemporary jewellery

Amman Rashid necklace (2011) Kingfisher beer bottle cap, lotus seed beads, glass beads, copper wire, cotton thread and carnelian agate, approx 14 inches, photo: Anil Advani

Amman Rashid necklace (2011) Kingfisher beer bottle cap, lotus seed beads, glass beads, copper wire, cotton thread and carnelian agate, approx 14 inches, photo: Anil Advani

This is an update to an article that I wrote for Art Jewelry Forum The DIT (Do It Themselves) Movement In Indian Contemporary Jewelry. In it I mentioned the work of the Bangladesh jeweller, Amman Rashid:

The Bangladeshi jeweler Amman Rashid would seem a more conventional candidate for contemporary jewelry. He sources materials from a broad range of cultural sources, including ink pots, trade beads, hookah parts, old brass seals, old cutlery, and old broken pottery pieces. Each work is unique and has its own name, such as Chiroshokha, Krishnobott, Kanchon, Protnotattik, and Aadibashi. There is no gallery for his work, and he has never heard of contemporary jewelry. He frames the work himself under the concept Aadi, which means “beginning” in Sanskrit. His work fits the studio model, and he is keen for international exposure. Can we imagine a Bangladeshi in Munich?

Above is an image of his work that is missing from the article.

Since then, I’ve also heard from the Indian jeweller Eina Ahluwalia, who I wrote about in a previous AJF article. She gives a little more background to her workshop conditions. She has three teams of artisans who have their own workshops and work on contract. There are occasions when the teams introduce their own ideas into the design process. The way she operates, the price is fixed by the craftsperson. For Eina, is it important that their interests are served for the long term survival of skills:

It is imperative that we make the trade monetarily worthwhile for the artisans to keep the craftsmanship alive. We need to compensate them for their unbelievable skills, their patience, perseverance and enable them to live the lives they wish for themselves and their families, or else they will leave the trade.

Let’s hope we see more of the work by jewellers like Eina and Amman in the future. They have much to give to the contemporary jewellery field.

A long and winding road through Rajasthan

Among a new generation of idealists in Kishangarh

Among a new generation of idealists in Kishangarh

I was in Ahmedabad for ten days recently to work on the Make it New Again conference at National Institute of Design. In the enchanted city, we had a delirious range of master craftspeople, young entrepreneurs, adventurous designers, Aboriginal artists, and craft intellects gather to share ideas about the enhanced role of craft in the contemporary world.

Generally, I get a privileged view of what’s happening in world craft, filtered through the programing of events such as this conference and World Crafts Council extravaganzas. But it’s getting on the road and visiting villages where craft is still practiced that I tend to learn about what’s missing from these rosy views.

I had the opportunity after the conference of going to Kishangarh to teach a workshop at the new University of Central Rajasthan. I arrived late at night, embracing the warm night air after being confined in the freezing AC in First Class (there were no tickets available in Sleeper). Stumbling across the tracks, I found my host waiting patiently, who took me to my accommodation in the Heritage Hotel. Like many developments in Kishangarh, this mock Haveli is only two years old.

I found out soon after arrival that there was no WiFi or Internet in the rooms, but the staff lent me their hotel’s own dongle so I could get a connection during the night when they didn’t need it. This is a typical Indian exchange – disappointment with services followed by a generous gesture. Perhaps there would be more reliable Internet in Australian hotels, but they would charge you for it and would happily abandon you if there was a fault.

The motto of Central University of Rajasthan is ‘Education for Sustainable Development’. For our workshop, we focused on the concept of sustainability, to understand what it means to preserve the past, and when it might be better to let go. The students were mostly Rajasthani and quite idealistic about the negative impact of economic development. They seemed to embrace the discussions, offering critical perspectives on commodification. It was clear that this was a new generation of open-minded young Indians which offered much promise for all the new organisations and businesses that are starting up around the country.

Women from Jharkhand learning to make circuits for solar panels with Barefoot College in Thilonia

Women from Jharkhand learning to make circuits for solar panels with Barefoot College in Thilonia

After the workshop I was kindly invited by local Australian Fiona Wright and her husband to visit Thilonia, the fabled village of Barefoot College. I’d seen Bunker Roy speak about this in 2010 and found it impossibly idealistic. But seeing for myself the women from Jharkhand making circuits for solar panels, I lost any doubts about the project. It was an inspiring experience.

Wall in Thilonia where the recipients of a work subsidy are named, along with number of days and full payment. There's no escaping the truth.

Wall in Thilonia where the recipients of a work subsidy are named, along with number of days and full payment. There's no escaping the truth.

Afterwards, a person who runs a new start-up for online craft sales offered to show me some villages on the way back to Jaipur. In his little jeep, we trundled down endless bumpy roads to find a village that he has been working with to supply goods for sale.

On arrival, I found myself the object of a traditional welcome. A woman came out of the house to drape a garland of flowers around my neck and anoint my forehead with a tilak red thumbprint. I do confess to a romantic notion about traditional welcome ceremonies, so was quite overcome to be greeted like this.

Residents from the village of Kashod in Rajasthan prepare something in recognition of Sangam Project.

Residents from the village of Kashod in Rajasthan prepare something in recognition of Sangam Project.

We then went inside for a chai and sit down. During this time, various men came and went. They seemed quite distant from any craft production, and I began to wonder if I was captive to some patriarchal elite in the village. After some time, and in fading light, we eventually went to visit some of the homes were women embroidered. In what seemed an endless succession, I was invited into room after room where women stretched their fabric to work on. They eagerly demonstrated their techniques for me. I was very grateful for the contact, but the embroidery itself seemed quite elemental, particularly compared to the masters present in Make it New Again. Many of the sequins were glued onto the stretch fabric.

Being shown the embroidery set up

Being shown the embroidery set up

This in itself isn’t an issue for a village that clearly maintained a local craft production. But there were expectations attached to my presence that I could be able to take it further, perhaps opening new markets for them. It is conceivable that a designer could come to live with these women and develop a unique product that would stand out from others. They were in the business of setting up an impressive village office, that could prove a hub for this. But visiting their homes, I was quite struck by the wonderful visual sense evident in the arrangement of objects on shelves. An alternative route would be develop the design skills of the women themselves in an alternative medium, like graphics.

During the long freezing drive back to Jaipur, I worked through the experience. What to do with such great expectations? Is the one-off presence of an outsider like myself sufficient in itself as an unusual event to give honour to the local embroiderers? How can a product carry values that are part of village life? There was many questions floating around, but one definite conclusion settled in my mind. I discarded any notion that Rajasthan was saturated with craft NGOs. The region has a potent combination of need, and capacity, but the challenges should not be underestimated. I do dip my lid at those who make a fist of it.

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.

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.

Sustainability in Craft & Design

‘Sustainability’ certainly seems the word of the 21st century. But it is not unprecedented. As the papers in the latest issue of Craft & Design Enquiry show, there are strong connections with the response to industrialisation by the Arts & Crafts Movement in 19th century England. Reviewing this history may provide an important guide to the future.

Craft Australia announces the publication of the third issue of craft + design enquiry, its open access, peer-reviewed online journal interrogating discourses surrounding craft and design practice. See www.craftaustralia.org.au/cde

Sustainability in craft and design explores the role of craft and design in social change responding to the challenge of global warming.

It features articles:

  • Towards a post-consumer subjectivity: a future for the crafts in the twenty first century? by Peter Hughes
  • Ideological constructs – past visions/future possibilities: evaluating the endangered subjects in the context of emerging global sustainability and environmental agendas by Mary Loveday Edwards
  • Theorising a transformative agenda for craft by Matthew Kiem
  • Ecology and the aesthetics of imperfect balance by Roderick Bamford
  • Craft and sustainable development: reflections on Scottish craft and pathways to sustainability by Emilia Ferraro, Rehema White, Eoin Cox, Jan Bebbington and Sandra Wilson
  • Sustaining crafts and livelihoods: handmade in India by Sharmila Wood

If you would like to engage in a discussion about this issue, you are welcome to join the discussion at the Table with the Journal of Modern Craft

The Visible Hand: What Made in India means today

You are invited to a discussion about Australia-India partnerships in craft and design.

Thursday 21 July 6-7:30pm
Yasuko Hiraoka Myer Room, Sidney Myer Asia Centre, University of Melbourne

Speakers include Ritu Sethi (Director, Craft Revival Trust), Chris Godsell (architect with Peddel Thorp), Sara Thorn (fashion designer) and Soumitri Varadarajan (Industrial Design, RMIT)

This is a State of Design event presented by Sangam – the Australia India Design Platform, a program of the Ethical Design Laboratory at RMIT Centre for Design, in partnership with Australia India Institute, Australia Council, City of Melbourne, Asialink and Craft Victoria.

India is both one of the world’s leading economies and a treasury of cultural traditions. While in the past, many craftspeople and artists have travelled to India for creative inspiration, today new partnerships are emerging in design. Architects, fashion designers and industrial designers are finding new opportunities in the demand for skills both inside and outside India. In particular, India has an enormous capacity of craft skill that is lacking in the West. As India gears up for increased export activity, how will the ‘Made in India’ brand compare to ‘Made in China’? What are ways of local designers to add ethical value to their products through partnership with India? How can cultural differences between Australia and India be negotiated to enable productive partnerships?

Design can play an important role in building partnerships in our region. Globalisation is now extending beyond the large-scale factories of southern China to include smaller village workshops in south Asia. This offers many opportunities for designers to create product that carries symbolic meaning. But to design product that is made in villages requires an understanding of their needs and concerns.

This event is about design practice that moves between Australia and India. It is looking at how the stories of production can travel across the supply chain from village to urban boutique.

This seminar is part of Sangam – the Australia India Design Platform, a series of forums and workshops over three years in Australia and India with the aim of creating a shared understanding for creative partnerships in product development.

RSVP by 15 July to rsvp@sangamproject.net. Inquiries info@sangamproject.net.

Sangam – the Australia India Design Platform, is managed by the Ethical Design Laboratory, a research area of RMIT Centre for Design, including researchers from Australian Catholic University, University of Melbourne and University of New South Wales. It is supported by the Australia Council as a strategic initiative of the Visual Arts Board and the Australia India Institute. Partners in Australia include Australian Craft & Design Centres including Craft Australia, Arts Law and National Association of the Visual Arts. Partners in India include Craft Revival Trust, National Institute for Design, the National Institute of Fashion Technology and Jindal Global University. This platform is associated with the World Craft Council and the ICOGRADA through Indigo, the indigenous design network.

Photo of Kolkata flower market by Sandra Bowkett

Australia-India Design Residency

How would you like to work with Indian craft?

Flower market in Kolkata by Sandra Bowkett

Flower market in Kolkata by Sandra Bowkett

Australia India Design Platform is seeking expressions of interest for an Australia-India Design Residency.  AIDP is a three year program of forums and workshops in Australia and India that aims to develop fair standards in product development which can add value to craft practice in partnership with art and design.

India contains a wealth of traditional craft skills. They developed over millennia in a context of religion, caste and patronage. In the 20th century, craft became a key expression of nationalism and democracy that emerged following independence from British rule. The twin forces of globalisation and urbanisation are now threatening these crafts. Cheap imports undercut local markets and faster lifestyles provide less time for handmade production. But given the enduring importance of craft for identity, many seek to adapt craft traditions for the changing world.

Australian craftspersons and designers have been travelling to India since the 1970s. The culture is a rich source of inspiration for visitors. It not only provides a feast of colour, but also a love or adornment that can be applied to creative practice back home. In recent years, relationships have developed that represent more ongoing forms of partnership. These have included attempts at product development that provide alternative markets for otherwise languishing crafts.

These partnerships are likely to increase as artisans become more connected. But how can these kinds of craft-design collaborations develop beyond a model of outsourcing that takes production for granted? This is a time for new forms of collaboration that reflect an increasingly multilateral world and a maturing partnership between Australia and India.

The AIDP residency is an opportunity for an Australian designer or craftsperson to travel to India and develop ideas for potential product development.


  • To introduce an Australian designer/craftsperson to opportunities of working with Indian artisans
  • To contribute to a forum and workshop in Delhi planned for 14-18 October
  • To explore models of creative collaboration between Australia and India, craft and design
  • To support a traditional craft through product development for urban markets
  • To develop new paths of regional engagement for Australian designers and craftspersons
  • Residency details:

  • Date: 10 October – 7 November 2011
  • Location: New Delhi Arts Residency, Lajpat Nagar, New Delhi
  • Residency includes:

  • Return economy airfare
  • $3,000 expenses
  • Four weeks accommodation
  • Eligibility:

  • You must be an Australian citizen.
  • You must have an established practice in craft and/or product design.
  • The application must contain:

  • A CV
  • A biography (less than 200 words)
  • An explanation of why you want to work in India (less than 500 words)
  • Up to six images of relevant work
  • Applications are due 30 June 2011 by email to aidp@newtrad.org.

    For more information

  • Email aidp@newtrad.org
  • Website http://aidp.newtrad.org
  • For a taste of Indian crafts, look at Handmade in India by Aditi & M.P. Ranjan
  • This project has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council for the Arts, its arts funding and advisory body, and the Australia India Institute.

    The Australia India Design Platform is managed by the Ethical Design Laboratory, a consortium based at RMIT Centre for Design, including researchers from Australian Catholic University and University of Melbourne. Partners in Australia include Australian Craft & Design Centres including Craft Australia, Arts Law and National Association of the Visual Arts and COFA at University NSW. Partners in India include Craft Revival Trust, National Institute for Design, the National Institute of Fashion Technology and Jindal Global University. This platform is associated with the World Craft Council and the ICOGRADA through Indigo, the indigenous design network.