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Global prosumerism

The Americans have a love of coining new phrases. To antipodean ears, they can seem verbal gadgets, eagerly assembled for momentary pleasure. The term ‘prosumerism’ is a combination of consumer and producer. Bringing them together seems a ‘neat’ way of having best of both worlds – continuing the pleasures of shopping while assuming the authority of a creator.

Yet while we often dismiss these corny notions, we can’t help being curious about the new fangled ideas that emerge across the Pacific. At least they give us something to react against.

The US jeweller Gabriel Craig is a particularly eloquent source of new perspectives. In his blog Conceptual Metalsmithing recently he writes about the ‘plural genius’ of the 21st century.

You walk into a gallery, you choose a piece you like, you buy it, and then that unique piece stands for your uniqueness. In the prosumer paradigm, the participation of the consumer is not passive – I choose that one – but active, I made this. Prosumer jewelry is asking for the consumer and the viewer to become an active participant. It is not quite a regression to the pre-choosing identity paradigm, but a shared middleground between choosing and making. Again the responsibility for the object and what it represents resides in multiple entities.

The relational paradigm is a particularly important source of threat and opportunity for contemporary craft. There’s the fear that we are lured into an ‘audience-friendly’ concept of craft only to find the very specialist skills on which the medium depends wither away.

But I tend to see it as something that can extend a craftsperson’s capacities. At first, there is the direct challenge of constructing an object on a modular basis for re-assembly (the same challenge faced by designers in IKEA). Like a good composer, you need to know the capacities of your orchestra. And then there’s the matter of working at the sociological level of human relations, and the key role that objects can play in constellating social bonds in the here and now.

It doesn’t mean jumping on a bandwagon, but it can mean that the construction of the bandwagon becomes part of our business.

Mapfara finds a clay embrace



The visiting Mozambican ceramicist Mapfara emerged last night for the opening of his first exhibition in Melbourne. Mapfara had been here on a Commonwealth Fellowship and had managed to settle himself in a foreign city, with a foreign language and make work in a little over three months – largely thanks to an indefatigable openness to whatever this strange place might offer. He was also helped by a very welcoming ceramics community. He’s pictured at the opening here with Anne Ferguson from Easy Street Studios who shared a bench with Mapfara and helped him with materials.

Mapfara’s work is a largely personal celebration of life force. In rough English, he describes it as ‘bestial’. It’s hard to know whether his creatures are made of one or two beings. They are definitely sexual, perhaps hermaphroditic. Apparently his forms have loosened a little since being in Melbourne. Hard to think that’s an influence of Melbourne, but perhaps Mapfara became a little more Mozambican while he was here.

Made in Mozambique – Ho Gan Gallery 210 Smith Street, Collingwood; 15-29 January 2009.

Tradition For Modern Times: Selling Yarns workshop



Here’s an outline for the workshop that’s being offered for the Selling Yarns conference. This will be the first in a series of workshops taking place across the South this year. They will lay the ground for the development of the Code of Practice for Craft-Design Collaborations that aims to bolster the ethical value of the handmade.

Seminar 1: Ethical consumerism – Tradition for Modern Times

How to sustain trust in products developed from craft communities
Cost of seminar: $50.00
Monday 9 March, 9:00 am – 1:00 pm

This seminar explores the ethics of craft development and how this can add value to the final product.

Ethical consumerism considers not only the product itself but also the positive impact which purchasing this product has in the world. So, even a global brand like Starbucks tries to demonstrate its fair dealings with third world producers. Ethical consumerism is becoming increasing popular in design, with great interest in stories about how the product was made. The negative impact of sweatshop stories on Nike’s brand has shown how important it is for consumers to know that they are part of a positive process.

Many designers are now working with craft communities, particularly in remote regions where traditional manual skills have not yet been eroded by globalisation. While noble in intention, these collaborations are vulnerable. Designers often have little training and experience in working with traditional communities. Being tied to the fashion cycle can mean that the designer’s involvement in the community is short-term, leaving high expectations and great disappointments in their wake. A few bad stories about craft sweatshops can turn consumers cynical about products that have a ‘handmade by traditional community’ story.

So how can designers develop relationships with craft persons who are likely to live up to consumer expectations and have a sustainable benefit to the community?

This seminar develops principles for the collaboration between designer and craftsperson. While identifying ethical ideals of this collaboration, it is also mindful of the pragmatic issues and the need for all parties to make a livelihood from their work.

The workshop program will include:

  1. Presentation of craft-design case studies from a range of regions and models
  2. Discuss the UNESCO model for Designers Meet Artisans
  3. Present hypothetical scenarios involving role play to explore the different interests at play in product development
  4. Identifying core principles towards a Code of Practice for Designers and Artisans

Intended audience:

  • Designers, including product developers
  • Crafts-persons, interested in working with communities
  • Anthropologists, committed to partnership with their community
  • Retailers, promoting world craft to local market

You can register for the workshop and conference here.

The Kula model of jewellery exchange



Non-western jewellery provides intriguing possibilities for contemporary ornament. In 1920, the Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski published an account of an elaborate jewellery trading network in eastern New Guinea, known as Kula.

Kula entails the exchange of two different sets of ornament. In a clockwise direction, long necklaces of red spondylus shell (soulava) travel from villages to village. In the opposite direction travel bracelets of white shell (mwali). When someone receives one of these ornaments as a gift, they are then indebted until they can reciprocate with the alternative good.

Though an ornament can be ‘owned’ by an individual, its destiny is to circulate through the region. Malinowsky makes the comparison with the English Crown Jewels that whose value lies in their symbolic rather than aesthetic function. He compares the ornament to a trophy that is won in a competition, but will eventually move on to the next winner in due course.

Thinking of the Kula sheds an interesting light on our economy of jewellery. In a Western society, ownership is final. An object can be exchanged for money, but we don’t tend to think of ourselves as a temporary custodian of our things. We own things for life, unless we decide otherwise.

So could a contemporary jeweller build into their work a principle of exchange? Perhaps their work creates a network of owners who can circulate jewellery between themselves?

  • Bronislaw Malinowski Argonauts Of The Western Pacific: An Account Of Native Enterprise And Adventure In The Archipelagoes Of Melanesian New Guinea  London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987 (orig. 1922)
  • Roger Niech and Fuly Peraira Pacific Jewellery And Adornment Auckland: David Bateman, 2004

Zulu Bead-Mail



South African craft is characterised by an abundance of beaded products.  One of the most charming is the Zulu Love Letter, which according to legend developed when Zulu men began working in the mines. As they were illiterate, communication from sweethearts back in home took for the form of ornament, where particular coloured beads signified different emotions.

The meanings of the colours depend as much on their combination as individual symbolism. This is a rough glossary:

Black Marriage/separation
Blue Trust/hatred
Yellow Luck/misadventure
Green Happiness/sorrow
Pink Powerful/lowly
Red Love/heartache
White Purity

The status of a Zulu woman is readily identified through her ornament – her marriage status, the status of her sisters and her home region.

According to the grammar of ornament, the triangle represents father, mother and child. The meaning of the triangle changes with orientation.

Inverted, apex downward Unmarried man
Apex downward Unmarried woman
Two joined as diamond Married woman
Joined with apexes meeting Married man

For a woman to express her love for a man, she would place a white triangle with apex down enclosing a red triangle with apex up.

Today, Zulu love letters can be obtained in tourist shops as a cheap gift. But in the context of contemporary jewellery, it does suggest particular possibilities of ornament as a communication device. While different coloured ribbons represent alternative good causes, the possibility of colour combinations has yet to be realised.

It could be objected that the meaning of any such system depends on its widespread use – something that jewellery today cannot attain. However, ornament is often the prompt for the dialogue between individuals. Translation of meaning is at least one kind of enunciation.



Really? You don’t say.

For more information, see Beadwork in the ZULU cultural tradition.

Journal of Modern Craft 1.3

The final issue for 2008 is now out.


Cleverest of the Clever: Coconut Craftsmen in Lamu, Kenya
Author: Wright, Kristina Dziedzic

Disavowing Craft at the Bauhaus: Hiding the Hand to Suggest Machine Manufacture
Author: Marcus, George H.

Russel Wright and Japan: Bridging Japonisme and Good Design through Craft
Author: Kikuchi, Yuko

British Interventions in the Traditional Crafts of Ceylon (Sri Lanka), c. 1850-1930
Author: Jones, Robin

Statement of Practice

Introduction: Ena de Silva and the Aluwihare Workshops
Author: Robson, David G.

Primary Text

Author: Myzelev, Alla

My Life Impressions
Princess Maria Tenisheva (1867-1928)
Author: Tenisheva, Princess Maria

Exhibition Reviews

Jean Prouvé: The Poetics of the Technical Object
Author: Wilk, Christopher

Hands on Movement: A Dialogue with History
Author: Zetterlund, Christina

Book Review

What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images
Author: Clemens, Justin

The Craftsman
Author: Cooper, Emmanuel

The Intangibilities of Form: Skill and Deskilling in Art after the Readymade
Author: Shannon, Joshua A.

To order a copy, go here.

The Year to Come



Designed by Renato Imboisi in Jalapao, Brazil

Well, time to draw breath and look ahead to what 2009 will unfold. There are reasons to think that it will be a full year, particularly for thinking about craft.


Early next year, a new networking platform Craft Talk about contemporary craft in the antipodes will be launched. Expect news in mid-January. Craft Australia’s online journal Craft & Design Enquiry will provide an important academic forum for craft research. Meanwhile, the Journal of Modern Craft will be launching its new website in March, which should be a way of opening up the discussion about the place of craft in modernity.


Damian Skinner and I will continue work on the history of Australian and New Zealand jewellery. As this is an important opportunity to record some of the basic elements in the evolution of this remarkable antipodean phenomenon, some of the core material will be available on Wikipedia, opening up the process to the wisdom of the many.

With FORM I’ll be working on the exhibition Signs of Change to accompany the next JMGA conference in Perth April 2010. This is already proving to be the source of many interesting discussions about the role of functionalism in jewellery and the breadth of its audience.

Home & World

Many things to fill the calendar:

Also on the horizon for 2009 is a series of workshops on the Code of Practice for Craft-Design Collaborations. After the project’s endorsement by the World Craft Council, it is intended to host workshops on the ethical dimension of craft in Australia, Latin America, India and South Africa. It seems a good time to consider the way the crafted object might embody relations between people we think are worth aspiring to.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez was fond of quoting William Faulkner, who said on accepting the Nobel prize, ‘I decline to accept the end of man.’ While the future casts long shadows over 2009, the story of craft will certainly continue, perhaps even flourish.

Thanks for all your support during 2008 and best of fortune for the coming year!

A voice for craft in the art tropics

Glenn Adamson’s first visit to Australia was engineered by the current president of the Art Association of Australia and New Zealand, Peter McNeill. On Thursday 4 December Adamson gave the keynote of the AAANZ annual conference at the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art. Here’s the outline:

Modern Craft: Directions and Displacements

After many years out in the cold, craft is a hot topic for art historians. Received narratives of nineteenth-century imperialist and industrial aesthetics are being displaced by studies that focus on the figure of the artisan. Fixtures in the Modernist firmament, from the Bauhaus to Minimalism, are being re-evaluated according to new ideas about production. Meanwhile, contemporary artists are embracing carpentry and ceramics, and a whole youth subculture is taking up knitting and other hobby techniques. In this talk, Glenn Adamson will provide a brief survey of recent scholarly work. By looking closely at three areas of contemporary practice – DIY protest art, ceramic sculpture, and so-called ‘Design Art’ – he will also suggest where modern craft is heading next.

It was a masterful talk that introduced fascinating new practices, particularly in the agit-prop domain. Adamson continued the line from his book Thinking Through Craft that while craft sits alongside visual art, is still a distinct practice of its own. A particularly charged word in Adamson’s talk was ‘friction’, which was used to express that element in craft that resisted conceptualisation.

The discussion that ensued was very interesting. The last questioner proposed that what made craft different from art was that ‘anyone can do it’. Adamson differed and argued that the ‘friction’ of craft is produced by many years of dedicated training in the understanding of materials. There seems quite a divide between the agit-prop craft that is energising collectives and the specialist craft techniques practiced by artists. How to bridge this divide is a very interesting challenge facing commentators on craft.

Leftover from Adamson’s talk is still the question of craft’s political voice, as it echoes back to the idealism of the crafts movement. Is this just ‘ideological baggage’, ‘academic chatter’, or a rationale whereby so many craft practitioners dedicate themselves to learning skills that may not seem to be overly rewarded in this world?

From trash to spectacle



Shinique Smith, Arcadian Cluster, 2006.  Installation view from P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center.  Clothing, fabric, found objects, acrylic, collage & binding. Approx 8′ h x 11′ w x 8′ d, (500-600 lbs)

Here’s an interesting discussion about new craft that eschews skill in favour of collaboration and randomness. It raises an important question about the place of craftsmanship in an un-monumental age.

Public Lecture Series, Spring 2009
Department of Fiber and Material Studies, School of the Art Institute of Chicago
Fiber and Material Studies Department Faculty (2008 – 2009): Anne Wilson, Chair, Mike Andrews, Jeremy Biles, Marianne Faribanks, Surabhi Ghosh, Karolina Gnatowski, Diana Guerrero-Macia, Kathryn Hixson, Amy Honchell, Joan Livingstone, Christy Matson, Darrel Morris, Karen Reimer, Rebecca Ringquist, Ellen Rothenberg, Shannon Stratton, Fraser Taylor, Christine Tarkowski, Sarah Wagner.

Recently, artistic strategies for production have been shifting.
Materiality and crafting are back with a vengeance. The handmade and sensuous are gaining increased favor even though, or perhaps because of, the ubiquity of current computer-screen culture and the ever-widening practice of digital processing. The New Museum’s inaugural show in New York “UN-monumental” was filled with work made of cast-off materials from the street, hobbled together; while the MCA Chicago’s recent retrospective of Jeff Koons featured his shiny stainless-steel baubles, the result of years of technological experimentation at a great cost. The 2008 Whitney Biennial presented sculptures of bird dropping patterns, along with work of sloppy craft and studio trash. Across town at Pace Wildenstein, Zuang Huan’s show presented a spectacle of art produced by teams of skilled wood carver artisans in Shanghai, and a giant gallery-filling mother and baby pair made of scores of pieced together cowhides. Artists across the world are collaborating in spontaneous or programmed DIY projects on the internet and in the street; while Takashi Murakami’s collaboration with Louis Vuitton was served by a boutique selling the artist-designed purses smack in middle of the staid Brooklyn Museum.

Trash and spectacle, collaboration and stardom, the haves and the have-nots. How and why do artists choose how to make art, and with what materials? What does the renewed interest in craft — from the sloppy to the chic — signify? Is the overall global economy impacting our artistic economy? How do the exigencies of labor and production in the global economy effect artistic choices for production, collaboration, and outsourcing as strategies? What has happened to the challenges of identity construction within recent changes? And specifically, how are artists who employ cloth and fiber as materials and strategies responding to aesthetic and economic forces?

This Fiber/Material lecture series presents views on Trash to Spectacle from the perspectives of art practice, art history, and art criticism. Two recent books offer platforms for some of the questions and debates posed in this lecture series: The Object of Labor: Art, Cloth, and Cultural Production by Joan Livingstone and John Ploof (Chicago and Cambridge, MA: SAIC Press and MIT Press, 2007) and Thinking Through Craft by Glenn Adamson (London, UK: Berg Publishers and the Victoria & Albert Museum, 2007).

This lecture series is made possible by the William Bronson and Grayce Slovet Mitchell Lectureship in Fiber and Material Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  All lectures are free and open to the public.


Thursday March 5th, 6pm, SAIC Columbus Drive Auditorium, Columbus Drive and Jackson Boulevard

Dr. Glenn Adamson is Head of Graduate Studies and Deputy Head of Research at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. In that capacity, he teaches on the History of Design graduate course run collaboratively with the Royal College of Art. His research ranges from modern craft and industrial design to English and American decorative arts during the 17th and 18th centuries. He is the author of Industrial Strength Design: How Brooks Stevens Shaped Your World (Milwaukee Art Museum/MIT Press). Dr. Adamson’s monograph Thinking Through Craft (V&A Publications/Berg Publishers) was published in October 2007. He also co-edits the new Journal of Modern Craft (Berg Publishers), with Tanya Harrod and Edward S. Cooke, Jr. Currently Dr. Adamson is at work on a project about Postmodernism for the V&A, to be on view in 2011.

Wednesday April 1, 6pm, SAIC Columbus Drive Auditorium, Columbus Drive and Jackson Boulevard
Kathryn Hixson is an art critic, art historian, and full Adjunct Professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is a PhD candidate in Art History at the University of Texas at Austin, currently working on her dissertation “Body/Image: Presentation and Representation of the Body in the 1970s.” She writes for Art US, Art on Paper, among other art journals and is the former editor of the Chicago-based New Art Examiner.

Shannon Stratton is an artist, curator and writer. Her current creative focus is ThreeWalls, an artist residency and visual arts program that she co-founded in 2003 where she acts as Director and Chief Curator. Her writing focuses on contemporary fiber and craft, and with artist Judith Leemann is producing “Gestures of Resistance: The Slow Assertions of a Craft,” an exhibition and book project slated for public release in 2009/2010. She teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Wednesday April 22, 6pm, SAIC Columbus Drive Auditorium, Columbus Drive and Jackson Boulevard

Shinique Smith is a painter/sculptor who combines elements of graffiti, Japanese calligraphy, abstract expressionism and popular culture. Working with a variety of materials, Smith creates mixed media works inspired by fashion, urban detritus and the objects that we cherish and discard, which come to shape our personal mythologies. She received her BFA (1992) and MFA (2003) from The Maryland Institute College of Art and has held residencies at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and The Headlands Center for the Arts. She has exhibited at The Deutsche Guggenheim, The New Museum, The National Portrait Gallery/ Smithsonian, PS 1 Contemporary Arts Center, The Studio Museum in Harlem, and The Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art. Smith is represented by Yvon Lambert Gallery, Paris/New York/London.

Janis Jefferies is an artist, writer, curator, and Professor of Visual Arts in
the Department of Computing at Goldsmiths College, University of London. She is Artistic Director of Goldsmiths Digital Studios and Director of the Constance Howard Resource and Research Centre in Textiles. Jefferies was trained as a painter and later pioneered the field of contemporary textiles within visual and material culture, internationally through exhibitions and texts. In the last five years she has been working on technological based arts, including Woven Sound (with Dr. Tim Blackwell). She has been a principal investigator on projects involving new haptic technologies by bringing the sense of touch to the interface between people and machines and generative software systems for creating and interpreting cultural artifacts, museums and the external environment. In the spring 2009 semester, Jefferies will be a Visiting Fellow in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies.

Jefferies will participate in the construction of a SAIC bog-website that invites public interaction on the topics presented in this lecture series.


Tongue in cheek ceramics



Mabelle Marra came out to Australia from Argentina in the early 1990s. She discovered ceramics at Chisholm TAFE and has been a big presence there ever since. When Mabelle returned to Argentina, she met up with an archeologist who had learnt ceramics in order to work with people in the north of the country, linked to the ancient Condorhuasi people. Mabelle became fascinated by the forms and started creating her own interpretations. They show a characteristic Andean facial feature – a bulging cheek (abruñita) stuffed with coco leaves. The other cheek has a coco leaf painted on it. Should they sue Toblerone for copyright?

Mabelle’s show is currently at Pan Gallery,