Tag Archives: jewellery

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

Primitivism without the primitive

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

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

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

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

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

Cochrane states:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for starting the argument Grace. To be continued…

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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The Ba Experience – jewellery workshop in Fiji

Ilse-Marie Erl with her team in Fiji

Ilse-Marie Erl with her team in Fiji

Currently I am working as a private consultant for The Value Chain Analytical Group PARDI-ACIAR of the University of Adelaide. In short I am on a research project in Ba, a little town far off the tourist trail in the north of Viti Levu, the main island of Fiji, for all together 7 weeks. I am up skilling a group of 10 women and one man in the handling of mother of pearl to produce souvenir and jewellery items using the side product of the famous Hunter Pearls from Savusavu, Vanua Levu. The group is part of the Ba Women’s Forum, an umbrella for some of the many women’s clubs operating in every village here and calls itself WoW (women of work/ worth). The ladies are mature women who are trying to gain skills and knowledge that might help them setting up a sustainable cottage industry with the prestigious ‘Fiji made’ accreditation.

My assignment is to set up a professional shell working workshop with wonderful top of the range equipment (without going green with envy) that has been funded by the Universities of Adelaide and Suva. Further I am translating mass produced neck pieces from Bali into local designs. Little do we tourists know that most of the souvenir items sold in shops or by locals at the beaches are actually made in Southeast Asia. Part of the outcome of this exercise is intended for Robert Kennedy, a fashion designer from Sigatoka who will present his fashion range and our neck wear end of May at the Fiji Fashion Show in Suva. In addition I have to design a production line to be sold at the ubiquitous Tappoo department stores. The ideal is to leave the group with the skills required to keep designing, producing and promoting their authentic and indigenous mop jewellery.

Quality control, quality control, quality control, quality control, quality control…

Quality control, quality control, quality control, quality control, quality control…

My challenges are many and remember I am NOT sitting at a beach sipping nice drinks. Ever heard of Fiji time? Fun when on holiday, not so fun when working within a very tight time frame. Ever contemplated the complexities of aid projects? Extremely complicated and at times very frustrating. However, it is a fantastic experience, the wonderful people, the multicultural aspects of Fiji, the awesome food (think spicy Indian), and walking home tired from a days hard work (yes, hard work) up the hill past a lush green tropical scenery to my charming Filipino guest family, hearing a muezzin calling from a mosque, some Hindu chanting in a temple and gospel singing in a church, all within a few hundred meters. Sounds like heaven to me. And it is warm, always.

Clay beads and vau have arrived from Natunuku village.

Clay Beads from Natunuku Village

Just outside the village of Natunuku in the province of Ba, is the special place to collect black clay for making beads. The clay gets sifted through to remove all stones and grit. Water in which cassava (an edible starchy tuberous root) has been boiled and some sand are mixed thoroughly into the matter to make the soft clay firmer. White sand from the beach is used first but to make sure the clay retains its black colour sand from the muddy black mangrove area of the sea is added later on. This mixing in of sand and cassava water is continued till the clay has the right consistency. To check a roll of clay is formed and wrapped around a finger. If the roll does not break the clay is ready to be used. It now has a smooth and almost oily consistency. The beads need to dry in the sun for 1-2 days. Then they are put on the ground and a fire is build over them using mangrove wood. For black coloured beads the firing time is 2 hours and for brown coloured ones it is 4-6 hours. After firing the beads are lightly varnished.

During the time it takes to make these beads the women are not allowed to have sex. Women who are menstruating are not allowed to make beads. These restrictions are called tabu and are still in place today.

 

Voivoi cord made by Kini

Voivoi is the fibre of the long, sharp blade-like leaves of the pandanus plant. First these leaves are boiled and then laid out to dry in the sun. Once dry the wrinkled leaves need to be smoothed out by pulling them back and forth over a metal rod or file. Now they are ready to be cut into thin strips to be used for weaving. Voivoi is sold in rolls at the markets in its natural colour and in black. Black voivoi is made by boiling the material in a leaf from a little shrub. Almost every Fijian home features hand woven voivoi mats. Kini from our group is using the fibre to weave the cords for our neckpieces.

Urmilla is modelling a Paddle sample of the production line

Urmilla is modelling a Paddle sample of the production line

Naz is modelling a sample of the Triangle range

Naz is modelling a sample of the Triangle range

Sai is modelling a sample of the Banana Boat range

Sai is modelling a sample of the Banana Boat range

Sisi is modelling a sample of the Vula (moon) range

Sisi is modelling a sample of the Vula (moon) range

Bula, WoW Ba proudly presents a sneak preview of some of our pieces for the Robert Kennedy range for Fiji Fashion Week in Suva end of May. These are our ingredients plus mother of pearl and a lot of work and patience:

Samples of the Robert Kennedy range and our work at the Fiji Fashion Show in Suva

Samples of the Robert Kennedy range and our work at the Fiji Fashion Show in Suva

Samples of the Robert Kennedy range and our work at the Fiji Fashion Show in Suva

Samples of the Robert Kennedy range and our work at the Fiji Fashion Show in Suva

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What to make of 2014

Master batik artist Tony Dyer with a young Japanese textile student at the Semarang International Batik Festival in May 2013

Master batik artist Tony Dyer with a young Japanese textile student at the Semarang International Batik Festival in May 2013

One of the major events of 2014 will be the Golden Jubilee of the World Crafts Council, which will be held in Dongyan, China, 18-22 October. It will be very interesting to see how the Chinese presidency of WCC uses this unique occasion to promote local craftsmanship. One day ‘Made in China’ may be something that actually adds value to a product.

The China event will be an important occasion to present the Code of Practice for Partnerships in Craft & Design, which has been developed over the past three years of discussions that were part of Sangam: Australia India Design Platform. We’ll be developing a platform based around those standards to promote fair partnerships between producers and developers. This year, the network will extend to Indonesia, with a workshop at Kampoeng Semarang looking particularly at commissioning of batik artists.

One of the important elements that draws me to craft is the way it engages with tradition. While the modern world encourages freedom, it is hard to conceive of a meaningful life without responsibility. Custodianship gives meaning to our otherwise fleeting lives. And craft traditions require skill and imagination if that are to be something we can pass on to future generations. This involves interpreting traditions through current concerns. As they say, we make it new, again.

This is something quite evident to indigenous peoples, whose own culture is vulnerable to colonisation. Retaining language and custom gives purpose and honour to individual lives in indigenous communities.

By contrast, the dominant white Anglo world seems to require little from us in order to flourish. It runs increasingly on automatic, sustained by machines and global corporations. But there are still buried traditions that we can uncover and pass on. Colonisation involved removing the social value from objects, otherwise considered the primitive domain of fetish or idol. The challenge is to recover social objects such as charms, crowns, garlands and heirlooms that offer a hard currency of interconnection.

Amulets from the Sonara Market in Mexico City - how to turn objects of destruction into agents of good?

Amulets from the Sonara Market in Mexico City - how to turn objects of destruction into agents of good?

The project Joyaviva: Live Jewellery across the Pacific travels to Latin America this year. It will be very interesting to see how these audiences respond to the challenge of designing a modern amulet. Can folk traditions transcend their nostalgia and become relevant elements of contemporary life?

The broader questions associated with this will be played out in a series of roundtables as part of the South Ways  project. This will seek to identify creative practices that are unique to the South. The first one in Wellington will look at the relevance of the Maori ‘power object’, or taonga, to Western art practices such as relational jewellery.

Other projects will help tie these threads together. The performance work Kwality Chai will explore what an Indianised Australia might be like. This relates to the utopia of Neverland, in which Australia becomes a haven for cultures that have no home in the world, such as Sri Lankan Tamils.

Craft keeps us alive to the debt we owe to previous generations. I’m very pleased to be involved with Wendy Ger’s Taiwan Ceramics Biennale where many artists have mastered clay as a language for the unique expression of ideas and values.

So there’s much to be made of 2014. Let’s hope this includes a future for 2015 and beyond.

Amman Rashid

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.

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A spatial understanding of craft practice

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

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

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

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

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

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Jewellery for you, me and them

Participation and Exchange (Brisbane, 12-14 July 2013) was the 15th JMGA conference since 1980. 33 years of sustained dialogue around contemporary jewellery is a remarkable achievement for relatively small population on the other side of the world to the main centres. The relative lack of collectors compared to the USA and Europe means that artists more often fall back on ideas to support their practice.

According to organisers, the theme was chosen ‘to reflect the changing focus of contemporary practice, from sole practitioner to collective participation and crossing boundaries’. The program included a diverse sample of relational projects from Australasia and Europe.

Particularly energetic were the mobile collectives of jewellers without a dedicated workshop. This included Blacksmith Doris presented by Mary Hackett as a fiercely contested space where women could come together to learn and master blacksmithing. Not so hands on, but still productive, Christine Scott-Young described the activities of Part B that make a space for experimental public engagement outside the gallery walls.

Tricia Flanagan from Hong Kong helped place participation in the context of social practice in the visual arts. As an information platform, the focus was more on the making process than the exchange of objects. Preserved Fish linked communities that share a common involvement in the fishing industry. And broad project Peripatetic Institute for Praxiology and Anthropology (PIPA) engages in ‘conspicuous moderation’ by gathering local craft skills from bricoleurs and tinkerers. It was important to have this broader context for the discussion of participation in jewellery.

Scene from Tricia Flanagan's PIPA project, collecting craft skills

Scene from Tricia Flanagan's PIPA project, collecting craft skills

Laura Bradshaw Heap spoke about her projects involving communities of women – Bosnian survivors and Irish ‘travellers’ (Roma). Her practice involved partnering with a community for ethnographic purposes, teaching them some basic jewellery techniques in exchange for information that she could then use in her own work. It was salutary to hear about her initial offer to teach jewellery to the Irish participants was rebuffed in favour of experiences, like cooking and museum visits. This precluded the possibility of including their work in the final exhibition – an exercise of free choice rather than exclusion. True exchange is impossible to pre-determine. It would have been good to hear more about the interest that Laura Bradshaw Heap brought to the exchange, particularly as initiator. There is an implied concern for displaced women – could this be developed further so that the Irish and Bosnian participants might connect?

Image from Laura Bradshaw Heap's 'This is me' project; photo: Jennika Argent

Image from Laura Bradshaw Heap's 'This is me' project; photo: Jennika Argent

The Australian jeweller Roseanne Bartley offered a sophisticated and critical take on participation in her Seeding the Cloud project where she takes groups in different locations through the streets gathering plastic remnants that are then made into a necklace. The results are quite a diverse mix of forms and colours, which Bartley related back to the work of David Turnbull, a sociologist of science who considers the role of craft practice in creating a social fabric. Bartley raised a critical question about the nature of the social that is implied in relational jewellery.

Given the diversity of participatory paradigms, Kirsten D’Agostino’s taxonomy of collective practices was welcome. Naturally, New Zealand figured strongly as the origin of engaging new models, such as Broach of the Month Club. But this taxonomy is relatively academic without a critical framework.

The critical context for contemporary jewellery is itself in development. As a field, it seems to reward originality that reflects new aspects of the jewellery form, whether in materials or use. If this new practice of relational jewellery were to take on the critical framework of participatory art, as outlined by Claire Bishop in her book Artificial Hells, then it is likely to be riven between the competing claims of morality and freedom. For Bishop, participator art is on the one hand about filling the gaps left by privatisation and on the other a matter of exposing contradictions in our preconceptions of community. The kind of participation implied by the conference presentations were more likely the former – to fill the gaps left over in modernity.

This leads to one of the critical questions not really addressed in the conference – what kind of community does relational jewellery seek to constitute? The democratic impulse within contemporary jewellery follows the path of political movements that seek to exchange the franchise. In this sense, participation that only involves other jewelers is relatively limited. How might participation engage people who might otherwise never meet, from different parts of the world?

We didn’t have far to look. Internationally, the JMGA conference was remarkable from the number of New Zealanders, both speaking and listening. Peter Decker’s opening keynote was book-ended by Alan Preston’s evocative account of Fingers 40 year history on the last day, joined on stage at the end by all the Kiwis to sing a traditional mia. It was a touching trans-Tasman moment to remind us how powerful this dialogue across the ditch has been.

One of the real surprises came from the other side of Australia – the Indian Ocean. Helena Bugucki told of her work premised on the fantasy of being shipwrecked near Geraldton and having to make work from what’s at hand, in dialogue with a local Aboriginal man. And to the north, Alison Stone presented a paper about her experience working with a British NGO who runs jewellery workshops in Nepal. The adventure of both projects was admirable, but they didn’t provide a critical reflection on what their own role was in this situation. The principle of reciprocity seems a critical element in participation, whether it is the Aboriginal perspective on settler jewellery or Nepalese own craft traditions.

There’s a lot more to be said about participation and exchange in jewellery. The recent interest in the ‘gift economy’ brings us back to the rituals of exchange in precious objects. There are perspectives from anthropology, sociology and more recently Actor Network Theory that offer frameworks for understanding the value of the precious object in a contemporary context.

Participation and Exchange has placed all this on the agenda, which is exactly what you expect from a JMGA conference. We now have to find a forum to work through this agenda.

And the next one? The region beyond the Tasman Sea is calling. Australia is well placed to extend this conversation into the emerging contemporary jewellery scenes in Thailand, Indonesia, China and India.

Jewellery in the bigger picture

Once more with Love gathering at North City 4

Once more with Love gathering at North City 4

As the Melbourne post-industrial suburb baked on a hot February afternoon, a gathering of 40 or so contemporary jewellers talked about the ethical nature of materials they use. The forum preceded the launch of Once More with Love, a touring show of jewellery resulting from a recycling challenge. The organisers Suse Scholem and Simon Cottrell introduced the issue in their own distinct ways. Suse spoke of the need to build a body of research that could help inform jewellers about the choices they make in materials. More generally, she advocated for a kind of ‘artivism’ that linked creative output to good causes. Simon gave a more personal talk reflecting on ethics as a subject of contemporary jewellery. He mentioned a work by Johannes Kuhnen that exhibited a gold wedding ring along with the 35 tons of ore produced to mine the metal.

Despite the energy sapping heat, the audience was quite vocal throughout the day. There were ‘real world’ considerations, such as Caz Guiney’s point that a couple commissioning a wedding ring will normally presume it is virgin gold, as it is seen to symbolise a new relationship. But sometimes frustrations erupted. At one point, a woman broke down in tears when describing the environmental devastation from mining, implying that talk was useless. Roseanne Bartley, who had previously warned that certain talk about ethics was ‘middle class’, defended jewellery as a form of knowledge that can make a difference.

The call to action was well captured by Ali Limb and Anna Davern who set up a whiteboard to gather suggestions for making a difference. One suggestion that seemed to get traction was the use of celebrities to champion ethical jewellery.

This discussion certainly brought people together in a common cause. The obvious challenge was to find a platform to carry this work further. Once More With Love as the prime mover will be critical, but this is a project rather than an organisation. There was talk of raising this issue at the next JMGA conference in Brisbane, but the scope of that organisation is much broader than ethics. One possibility to consider is the formalisation of a link with the USA based organisation Ethical Metalsmiths, whose project Radical Jewelry Makeover had been the catalyst for this issue in Australia. Does that mean setting up an Australian chapter? Would it operate under the main board in the USA? Do jewellers in the USA and Australia face the same ethical issues?

Sitting lightly alongside the pragmatic discussion was a more speculative conversation about the various interests at play in jewellery. Vicky Shukuroglou demonstrated the creativity of children in responding to artistic challenges. Catherine Truman focused in on the body as the site of the experience of making. While not strictly relevant to mining, their talks did serve to open up jewellery as a space of different interests.

While mining was the most salient issue in the Once More with Love forum, the ethical domain invites other concerns into jewellery. Like much of modern ethics, the day’s discussion implied an extension of the franchise of ethical interests—not just to sub-groups like queer, but also to non-human actors, such as nature itself.

So the day presented two complementary platforms for ethical jewellery. One was a pragmatic focus on specific activist goals, such as reduction in mining through increased use of recycled metals. The other was a more speculative reflection on the kinds of interests at play in jewellery production and consumption. Ethics does often demand some imagination, particularly when the interests cannot speak for themselves, as in nature. As with most forms of action, it seems important to have reflective space for mapping your direction, to ensure you are on the right track.

One important issue in this speculation is the recent thinking about the agency of the object itself. The sentimental value of jewellery is premised on a contact between wearer and object. While humans enjoy the capacity of enjoyment in the world, we are fundamentally limited for four score or so years. On the other hand, as they say, diamonds are forever—along with other metals and stones. Our bodies are thus imperfect hosts for the kind of enduring connection we seek with others. Through the act of empowering objects to carry our affections, we do qualify objects themselves to have an interest.

This issue emerged several times during the discussion, particularly regarding recycling. Caz Guiney, for instance, questioned whether she should recycle her unsold exhibition work. In everyday life, parallel dilemmas arise when we question whether we should give a keepsake away—is it better to preserve its original message or pass it on to someone who will use it more?

This may seem an indulgent exercise, evocative of the more arcane versions of thing theory found in the academy these days. But these speculations can be useful for extending the ethical space of jewellery. It has potential power as counterweight to the consumerist paradigm that sees the world as reducible to human need. Indeed, the alternative model of custodianship has strong associations with Pacific notions of power in the object, such as taonga.

Dear jewellery, would you mind if….