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The Secrets of Henna



Humna Mustafa is a Pakistan-born artist currently living in Adelaide. She has an exhibition coming up at Brunswick Gallery in Fitzroy, Melbourne, opening December 5. You can visit her website here.

Below she answers some questions about her practice, in particular the history of Henna.

How did the decorative art of henna develop?

The history of Henna goes back 5000 years and is believed that the Muslims have used it since the early days of Islam. It is said that the prophet Muhammed (p.b.u.h)  used it to colour his hair as well as, more traditionally, his beard. He also liked his wives to colour their nails with it. Prophet Muhammed (p.b.uh.) was and remains a model of perfection for Muslims has ensured the continuing popularity of Henna as a decorative art within Islam.

It is also said to have been used in ancient Egypt to colour the nails and hair of mummies, as a mark of protection when entering the new life. Hindu goddesses are often represented with mehndi tattoos on their hands and feet. In the 12th century, the Mughals (Moguls) introduced it into India, where it was most popular with the Rajputs ot Mewar (Udaipur) in Rajasthan, who mixed it with aromatic oils and applied it to the hands and feet to beautify them. From then on Henna has been regarded as essential to auspicious occasions, particularly weddings, birthdays, celebrating the maturity and many such occasions across the world now.

What are the designs based on?

(this is my own interpretation of the designs!!)
The designs, motives and patterns are influenced by religious and cultural environments. Muslims like to draw repeated floral trellis patterns, as a form of worshiping, a prayer. The hindhus designs are more inspired by symbols of the gods e.g ganesh for good luck. The Moroccans are influenced by their environment and hence using the geometric lines of the mountains they are surrounded by. The patterns of Henna, have always been looked at only for its beauty but there is a secret language of the souls behind every single creation.

Which parts of the body are used and why

(this is my own interpretation of the designs!!)
The two main parts of the body henna is applied on for centuries are the hands and the feet. They get the darkest colour of all, due to the skin texture.

The feet, are the vehicle to make you walk on your journey on this land, and the hands make you achieve that destiny that is yours. Both parts are gifts that are these days and also in ancients times been taken for granted. Hence the Art of Henna, gifts these parts the moment of just being.  Henna celebrates these the miracle of creation and a vehicle of love, by taking care of our Hand and feet. It focuses our attention on the sacred nature of their activities. It is after all the hands that we join in greeting or farewell, in worship or wedlock !!

When is henna applied to the body?

Henna is applied to the body at night, as an old myth told to me by my grandmother "Henna is shy in the morning and for it to grow on your, it needs the darkness of night, and the warmth the body" – I am not sure if this was to make me get it done before I went to bed, so I wont spoil it or is it really true. not sure !

In general henna takes a few hours for it to mature and give the body its best colour and hence it is usually applied at night time, so the pigment can stay on the skin for a long undisturbed period of time.

The silver lining



A scene from November 2005, when the rise of the stock market seemed as endless as the war on terror.

Below is a copy of the speech I made for the opening of the graduation show of RMIT Gold & Silversmithing 2008. It was a wonderful show. Students showed how they had mastered their materials by transforming a cold material like metal into quite organic shapes and textures. It was difficult in such a celebratory atmosphere to raise the issue of our current financial crisis. But it seemed important to address this directly, in a positive way, rather than have it fester away as a silent doubt that dare not be spoken.

For years we have been reading predictions of a financial crisis. It wasn’t so much a question of it, but when. There was just too much leveraging going on. It would take a small shock for the market to suddenly call the bluff of derivative dealers, and the system would implode.

So while we’ve enjoyed an unprecedented period of economic growth, we have always had in the back of our minds the sense that this would come to an end. This leant an air of unreality to our prosperity—that we were living on borrowed time, as well as money.

And now that the crash has come, with prospect of a long and hard recession, we can’t help experiencing a little relief. It’s like sitting in the dentist’s chair, squirming at the pain, but inwardly knowing that at last that nagging toothache is being addressed.

While the financial situation is the ongoing story of late 2008, it has special pertinence here today, as we welcome the next generation of jewellers into the fold of Melbourne’s extraordinary jewellery culture. The last five years have seen amazing growth in the jewellery sector, with one or two new galleries opening every year. I can’t think of a city in the world with this many new jewellery galleries. And this has provided a rich field of opportunity for young jewellers, who have been extraordinarily successful in attracting the surplus capital created by an economic boom.

So what will the future hold? Jewellery is very much at the discretionary end of a personal budget. Apart from wedding and engagement rings, there is little reason other than whim to purchase an item of jewellery. We need to face the prospect that Melbourne will not have so many jewellery outlets next year, as it does today.

That’s a difficult prospect to consider right now, as we are cheering on these talented young jewellers, into a world that may not be so inclined to buy a $1,000 necklace, or $800 brooch.

But in the immortal words of Percy Bysshe Shelly, ‘If winter comes, can spring be far behind?’ While for the past few years we have been distracted by dark clouds on the horizon, now the storm is here, we can focus instead on the silver lining. As Spinoza said, ‘There is no hope without fear, and no fear without hope’.

So while cycle will eventually begin its upswing, we have possibly two or three years when things will be tight. What can be done during the lean years?

I’ve been recently fascinated by the contrast between rich and poor in Australian jewellery. This is self-evident in jewellery, with the quality of metal and stones marking a clear class distinction in their wearers. There’s an obvious contrast between the elite conceptual works made by jewellers purchased from galleries with an international reputation, and the cheap manufactured chain wear you find on the pavement in Swanston Street.

But rich and poor do not always follow a clear demographic divide. These styles quite readily flip their assigned position in society. Nothing so defines the working class as bling with bold fake stones, while versions of poverty chic are enduringly popular among the cultural elites. Ali G versus Naomi Klein.

Poor craft provides a potential rich vein of creative endeavour during a recession. And Melbourne jewellery has a strong tradition of found materials—what Penelope Pollard refers to as objets trouvé in her erudite catalogue essay.

But how will this jewellery circulate if there are fewer galleries. I think it’s interesting at this point to look across the Pacific to our cousins in Latin America, which experienced quite radical financial crisis in the early years of this millennium. In Chile’s capital, Santiago, there is a new cultural movement they called abajismo, from the word ‘abajo’ for below. This movement is led by the young people who are leaving their wealthy families in the suburbs to live close to the street in the inner city. Like Melbourne’s enchanted glade of Gertrude Street Fitzroy, a new streetwise economy has been borne.



By chance one evening recently I was walking down a very busy street in Santiago’s Bellavista, equivalent of Fitzroy, and stumbled across an incongruous looking vegetable garden in the middle of the sidewalk. Various greens showed signs of a loving care and there was a sign in the middle inviting neighbours to take a leaf or two, as long as they left enough for the plant to keep growing. I traced the garden to a small shopfront right opposite called Jo!, which contained a wild assortment of inexpensive jewellery made from found materials like computer keyboards. Talking with the owner, while she continued assembling these pieces on her shop counter, it seemed she had a real engagement with her neighbourhood.

That’s an enduring story of financial downturn. It brings people together. When things look good, our focus is more on individual aspirations, distinguishing ourselves from others. But during bad times, we must rely more on others.

10,000 hours is a long-term investment. You have a lifetime ahead to reap the rewards. Thankfully, these skills will be honed in the first several years after graduation. Necessity will be a faithful companion, guiding your choice of materials and design.

As the Chinese say, ’the gem cannot be polished without friction, nor man perfected without trials.’

Tabling our differences





Melbourne-based furniture maker Damien Wright was recently commissioned to make the central table for the new Koori Court in Morwell, Gippsland. The opening was an emotional event. It felt like the two cultures, Koori (indigenous to south-east Australia) and Gubba (word for non-indigenous to those Kooris), were finding a common ground that was even than previously. As the material surface around which those cultures meet to deliberate on their laws, the table plays a critical role in the trust different parties place in the process. Damien sourced a black ‘ancient’ redgum for this purpose. It was launched with a traditional smoking ceremony, which left it strewn with gum leaves. The centre axis embeds electronic outlets. It’s a powerful demonstration of how cultures can meet through craft.



Garth Clark in top form

I heartily recommend that you listen to Garth Clark’s lecture at Portland’s Museum of Contemporary Craft. It’s typically witty, droll, informed and sharply polemical. He takes Glenn Adamson’s line that 20th century craft went astray by trying to dress itself up as visual arts.

Like all good conservative critics, Clark polices the social boundaries for empty aspirationalism, in this case craftspersons who envy the attention given to those in the visual arts. He argues that craft should accept its position outside the art world, even suggesting that the American Craft Council should move out of New York to a more modest location such as… Portland (received with great applause by his audience, naturally).

Clark blames the academic world for falsely propping up the pretensions of craft. He contrasts this with the world of design which has managed to survive on its on in the marketplace. However, he doesn’t mention the deluge of marketing associated with design, which creates an even less critical environment.

More seriously, as he is castigating the upstarts, Clark ignores the politics of craft as a critique of modernity. This has gained considerable momentum in recent years with movements such as ‘renegade craft’ in the USA. As a champion of the market, I’d be very interested to know what Clark’s view of the most recent financial crisis is.

While he and Adamson have made good points about the inherent differences between craft and visual art, I think dialogue between the two is important for craft to sustain its message. Let’s hope Portland keeps the argument open.

Signs of Change – are you interested?



The election of Barack Obama seems to have galvanised the world at a time of great social risk. Some have seen the current financial crisis as an important opportunity to ‘re-boot’ the system, to develop more constructive bilateral relations and initiate more inclusive policies. With the glow of change in the air, there is a new jewellery exhibition in development. It has the working title, Signs of Change: Jewellery Designed to Make a Better World. Developed by FORM to coincide with the next JMGA conference in Perth, it provides the opportunity to re-think jewellery as something for the many, rather than the exclusive few. They are currently calling for expressions of interest, due end of January 2009.

Here’s a brief outline (the full document is available here):

Exhibition Curator: Elisha Buttler/FORM (
Exhibition Guest Curator: Kevin Murray ( Exhibition venue and dates: April-June 2010, Midland Atelier, Perth

Can jewellery function as an instrument of change?

Jewellery is expanding in scope. Traditionally, the production of a beautiful adornment served as a marker of individual status. Emerging trends in jewellery and related object design are beginning to challenge many customary ideas of jewellery. The creative power of the jeweller is extending beyond the bench to the world which the object will inhabit.  This includes jewellery as a functional device, an agent of social change and a way of bringing people together. These trends provide the basis of a FORM exhibition in development for 2010.

Concepts such as ‘functionality’ and ‘change’ are open to multiple interpretations. However for the initial purposes of this exhibition, they have been grouped into two key categories:

1. Function and Technology

This category includes jewellers and related designers who create products possessing tangible functions or new technologies which aim to deploy specific benefits to individuals and/or the broader community. Emphasis will be placed on designs that point to long-term benefits, rather than one-off, largely conceptual pieces.

2. Sociology and Symbolism

This category includes the less tangible elements of contemporary jewellery which have potential to alter perspectives and promote action through their symbolic connotations. Like the Function and Technology category, the underlying themes here are designs which focus on benefits and heightened social awareness for individuals and the broader community.

The exhibition will explore jewellery that fits into either (or both) of the above groups, while focusing on the varied levels of ‘change’ jewellery can wield; namely in the areas of health, technology, sciences and community.

This is a relatively new area of development but one which possesses immense potential for groundbreaking innovation and cross-disciplinary, cross-industry advancement. A central aim of the exhibition will be to highlight this potential for innovation and cross-sector collaboration through jewellery design, and the strategies, investment and other conditions required to foster these new directions.

Also key to the exhibition will be examinations of the crossovers between the two categories, and the relationships between aesthetics and practicality.

Observations on the Olympics of Chinese craft

The World Craft Council General Assembly in China provided an opportunity to see aspects of a craft culture that is ancient in a very modern way.

We were taken on an official visit to the Zhongyi lace factory, which is one of the economic jewels of the Toglu province. The showroom featured a performance by a dozen or so lacemakers embroidering designs with great concentration.





This factory specialised in ‘wanlus’ lace, originally imported from Venice in 1919. It has transformed this technique into a major industrial enterprise, as we saw when we strayed from the showroom into the factory complex. Solitary young women supervised rows of massive and loud mechanised looms producing lines such as polyesterlace.

Within the context of the Western craft movement, this contrast between the tranquil scene of traditional handiwork and the mechanical world beyond would normally be something ironic. But the factory owners seemed proud that both could exist together.

In association with the General Assembly there was a huge exhibition of crafts, mostly Chinese. Two in particular seemed worthy of note.



The pride of the exhibition was the Temple of Heaven Pray Year Palace. It was manufactured by Hong Kong Huangyungguan Bijouterie Co.Ltd, planned by Huang Yunguang and Wang Yongqing, and designed and supervised by Wang Shuwen.

This work transforms a historic architectural monument into a piece of jewellery. The original palace in Beijing was made for the Emperors of Ming and Qing to pray for a successful harvest. The exhibition piece is a quintessential piece of ‘rich craft’. It includes:

  • micro-inlay technology
  • 5,693 golden gemstones
  • 10,000 inner and outer door arches
  • 100 kg silver
  • 200,000 diamonds
  • cadcam technology


As with the lace, this work is presented in a way that sees no conflict between modern technology and traditional craft values. The work ‘integrates oriental traditional cultural characteristics with modern civilization’.

This year’s Beijing Olympic opening ceremony demonstrated a similar reverence for traditional crafts, particularly calligraphy. The craft and sports Olympics both avoid any reference to the history of modernity, leapfrogging from traditional to contemporary. The craft on display seemed completely divorced from the everyday experience of people living in China. Is this the inverse of the Cultural Revolution, when the traditional was banned in order to focus exclusively on the modern struggle? In today’s China, is the traditional something quite new and fresh? Many questions are left hanging after this brief encounter with craft. As China eventually becomes the world’s leading economic power, we would not be remiss to consider these questions a little further.

Some other observations:



In a more traditional vein, the exhibition included work by the revered master of Tiny Sculptural Calligraphy, Zhang Yuanxing. Recognised as ‘exclusive work in China’, this work consists of miniature calligraphic script carved into jade. According to his brochure, this craft relates to ancient Buddhist mythology:

A legend in the Buddhist stories says that the Buddhism has the boundless power so he can put a huge mountain into a grain of millet, which is magically spectacular.

Zhang Yuanxing has an interesting personal history. He grew up in the village of Shenyang during the Japanese occupation. While the period is regarded as a tragedy in Chinese history, he combines both Japanese and Chinese script in his work as a gesture of harmony between the nations. It’s an interesting example of ‘craft diplomacy’ through ‘small things’, which enable cultural exchange by slipping through the net of international relations.



Zhang Yuanxing with his granddaughter Xu Jingmei who hopes to continue his craft of tiny sculptural calligraphy.


The pendant on the bottom right has a script that advocates filial piety. Mr Yuanxing sells this for half price to encourage its message.

On a more sensory level, there seemed a particular taste in the Chinese aesthetic for complex rhizomic forms. This monumental sculpture of a monk emerging from the ground won much praise from visitors:





And in the nearby tourist attraction of Westlake, many of the features reflected an inscription set in a chaos of rock.




And from Shanghai airport, the Remy Martin ad for cognac tries to appeal to the same kind of aesthetic.

Perhaps like the rich ginger sauces of Chinese cuisine, these wild baroque forms offer a kind of visual pungency. Yet at the same time, the word of authority emerges from its core in a way that cannot be traced back to any root.

The Chinese showed a great commitment to craft in hosting the World Craft Council General Assembly and creating a virtual Craft Olympics around it. Like the other Olympics, the organisation was flawless. The world of craft owed a great debt to China, and one that it should seek to repay in starting what should be a rich and long-term dialogue.

Making Futures craft conference

This seems an important event for our time:




‘Making Futures’ will be held on Thursday 17th and Friday 18th September 2009 within the magnificently sited Mount Edgcumbe estate on the River Tamar opposite the city of Plymouth, Devon, UK.

The CALL FOR ABSTRACTS is now open and the closing date for receipt is 1st April 2009. ‘Making Futures’ invites submissions from craft practitioners, curators, historians, theorists, campaigners, activists, and representatives from public and private institutions with an interest in the relationship between the contemporary crafts and sustainability issues.


The aims of the ‘Making Futures’ research conference are to improve understanding of the ways in which the contemporary crafts are responding to ideas and agendas connected with global environmental and sustainability issues. Also, to try to discern whether these new imperatives present opportunities for the crafts to redefine and reconstitute themselves as less marginalised, more centrally productive forces in society.

The crafts, perhaps more than many areas of creative practice, have instinctively strong affinities with concerns for environmentally responsible and sustainable development. For example, Western craft ideals (perhaps less so realities) have typically sought to mobilise aesthetic experience as a key dimension and expression of responsible living in the face of mass industrialization – through their empathy with natural materials and the natural world, and through ‘slow’ and cooperative models of living. Indeed, important initiatives in pursuit of ethical and sustainable development objectives continue to take place within craft enterprises and agencies today. But the fact remains that our understanding of the interactions between the contemporary crafts and the modern environmental and sustainability ‘movements’ remains largely uncharted, unrepresented and under-theorised.

‘Making Futures’ takes up this challenge and will explore the ways in which environmental and sustainability discourses might be leading to new formulations, or re-articulations, of craft practices, identities, positions and markets, in ways that might engage more directly with contemporary social, cultural and economic needs. Perhaps even, to recover ideological purpose.


The conference scope is international and will welcome accounts from non-western contexts, especially those experiencing rapid industrial and urban development and newly expanding consumer markets. These will be contrasted with analysis from within the so-called post-industrial ‘leisure economies’ of the West in order to generate comparative insights and heighten awareness of the trans-national nature of many of the issues. The conference is therefore interested in inputs arising from across the full spectrum of crafts practice today. This includes makers of individual works who place a premium on traditional processes, locales, skills and haptic qualities; designer-makers producing limited editions and batch-produced artifacts; and artist-craftspeople whose work might be more conceptually-based – perhaps consciously drawing upon cross-disciplinary and hybridized practices to critically reflect upon global dialogues and forms of exchange.

This inclusiveness of practice and trans-cultural perspective will in all instances be grounded in studies that evince convincing connections with ethical, environmental and sustainability concerns.


A new world President for a new world craft



The new World Craft Council President, Mrs Usha Krishna, bring presented with a killum from the Iranian delegate.

The World Craft Council is currently holding its general assembly in Hangzhou, China. While much of the work is conducted by its regional councils, they meet every four years to share their experiences.

This meeting featured a passionate dialogue about the relationship between contemporary and traditional crafts. It was a vigorous exchange of views that reflected a north-south divide, particularly between Asia and Europe. But it seemed a constructive airing of differences with some positive attempts at consensus.

Curiously, this was conducted entirely in English, though none of the active participants had English as their first language. But it was in this meeting that delegates from North America were welcomed back into the fold. Alas, as often happens, Australia had fallen off the map over the years, but there was great interest in the possibility that it would again play a part.

The meeting peaked in intensity with the election of the new President, Mrs Usha Krisha, who has been working tirelessly for crafts in the Indian Craft Council, and has strong connections politically in India and whose family is the very powerful billionaire TVG group.

The impact of Barack Obama’s election is sending ripples throughout the world. In the car in the way from Shanghai to Hangzhou, I asked my Chinese companions what they thought of the new President. One of them raised his eyes from his Blackberry for a moment and said, ‘Yeah, he’s very popular with young people.’ I asked him why and he thought for a moment, ‘He’s cool.’ Obviously, much is lost in translation, but it does sit well with the observation of some that Obama’s term(s) will be characterised by the inexorable shift of power from the US to China.

And the monumental scale and efficiency with which the Chinese have organised the general assembly is quite breathtaking. All foreign guests have their own personal liaisons to make sure everything goes smoothly. The technology runs like clockwork and there’s a mountain of specially designed merchandise especially for the occasion.

Participants here could not help associating the new WCC President with the excitement for change evoked by Obama. The commitment to traditional crafts strongly expressed by representatives from India and China is an important challenge for countries of the north. How we manage this dialogue between traditional and contemporary will be a small but perhaps critical element in the new global order. 

Jewellery rocks in Argentina



The Museo de Arte Popular Jose Hernandez resides in an proud colonial building nearby the design hub of Buenos Aires in Recoleta.

As you enter this museum, you are provided with a text panel that includes in point form the defining elements of artesanías (craft). Here they are roughly translated:

  • Be produced by manual workmanship with the use of tools of low technological complexity;
  • Show an appreciable degree of processing of the raw material based on a specific skill;
  • Have a recognizable functionality;
  • Display an aesthetic value, which is integrated in some way with the functionality;
  • Possess a recognizable cultural value in a particular socio-cultural and historical field

It seems a conservative list. The first criterion excludes craft involving digital technologies. Yet the fourth does acknowledge an aesthetic dimension. Surprisingly, in a Latin American context, nowhere in this list does it refer explicitly to craft as a traditional practice. This may be because of the profound discontinuities of Argentinean history that make ongoing traditions difficult to identify.

This discontinuity is evident in the displays. It seems a random assortment of objects, lacking the kind of narrative applied to modern art found in the nearby Museo de Bellas Artes. The objects vary dramatically in quality and are displayed in a lifeless fashion.

Yet, as often the case in Argentina, the lack of order in the official public realm enables something more spontaneous to emerge on the sideline. The temporary gallery is host to an extraordinary exhibition of contemporary jewellery inspired by Argentinean rock (not the stone, but the music!).

Unlike other ‘foreign’ imitations of Anglo rock’n roll, the Argentinean version is particularly home-grown, sung only in Spanish. It arrived in the 1970s with the emergence of ‘progressive rock’ with poetic lyrics and musical experimentation. During the 1980s, it weathered the dictatorship with the heavy nuevo rock Argentino.

To celebrate this tradition, the collective Huella Digital (Fingerprint including Juan Manuel Malm Green, Ignacio Arichuluaga and Oscar Linkovsky) created works for an exhibition Joyas del Rock (Jewels of Rock) featuring cabinets of jewellery inspired by different rock bands. Along with the jewellery, each display features graphics in the style of the music.



Here’s a translation of the text panel:

Difficult choices … Can there be a music jewellery?
Memories of childhood, memorable moments, some romance led us to choose it.
We found hearts, hands, eyes, tears, people, facts, things of Argentina.
Love stories and urban landscapes.
Social stories, and spiritual journeys.
Jewels of Rock is a tribute to our country and its culture.
An appreciation done with fire, air, water, earth and music.



The exhibition is interesting for a number of reasons. The link between jewellery and music is relatively rare (You might have thought that tango would have been their reference, but that is perhaps more for tourists). While there are graphic references to the album covers, the design of the jewellery seems to be more based on the feelings that the music evokes. As the text indicates, jewellery plays a role in paying homage to a more ephemeral medium such as music.

It’s also an interesting contrast to the Bone, Stone, Shell exhibition from New Zealand, which turned to the natural environment for a nationalist story. In Latin America, identity seems more anchored social history and cultural tradition, than an external element such as landscape. Despite this difference, both cases obviously share a privileged role for jewellery in acknowledging the historical value of their respective cultures.

Other relevant links in the Argentinean scene:

  • Be My Walking Gallery in which an artist creates jewellery so that her paintings can circulate
  • Juana de Arco fashion designer with outlet in Palermo that includes an excess of handmade items remixed from countries such as Paraguay
  • Materia Urbana San Telmo design shop with good range of works
  • Humawaca brand of accessories with distinctively Argentinean design

The Discovery of the New Mundito





It’s great to see the students at the University of Valparaiso continuing to embrace creative challenges that people like Professor Gunther throw at them.

I presented a workshop on the theme of El Mundo de las Cositas, in relation to the World of Small Things exhibition that is being developed for Craft Victoria next year. We talked about the alternative economy of small things, including the festival of Alasitas in Bolivia. The students invented a wide range of little objects with a special function to play in our lives, including this figure that is used in a complex drinking game.

Cositas are part of a growing interest among Chileans in what they call Abajismo, a fascination for developments like ‘poor craft’ that draw inspiration from the street. There’s a lot, lot more to say about this, which I hope to say at a later date.

As they say in Chile, ‘Chaoito!’