All posts by Kevin Murray

Kevin Murray is an independent writer and curator. For the past eight years, he has been Director of Craft Victoria, where he initiated a number of programs, including the Melbourne Scarf Festival and the South Project, a four year program of cultural exchange across the south that involved international gatherings in Melbourne, Wellington, Santiago and Johannesburg. With a PhD in the field of narrative psychology, he has an ongoing interest in art as a way of telling stories. His curated exhibitions explore new dialogues such as between crafts and kindred trades (Symmetry), art under false pretences (How Say You), Australia if it had been colonised by someone else (Turn the Soil), Tasmania as a promised land (Haven), art from water (Water Medicine), art of the stars (Seven Sisters) and world craft (Common Goods). His books include Judgment of Paris: Recent French Thought in a Local Context (Allen & Unwin) and Craft Unbound: Make the Common Precious (Thames & Hudson). He is currently working on the issue of cultural exchange between first and third world cultures, exploring the ethics of collaboration and the artistic translation of skill and rhythm. Exhibitions, publications and blogs can be found at For an archive of exhibitions and texts, visit This also contains a platform for new ideas in craft, and a journey through the various Souths of the world,

India issue of Garland – New homes for old stories

From the editorial:

“Durvásas  was wandering over the earth, when he beheld, in the hands of a nymph of air, a garland of flowers culled from the trees of heaven, the fragrant odour of which spread throughout the forest, and enraptured all who dwelt beneath its shade.”

Vishnu Purana Book 9

As the story goes, Durvásas gave this garland to Indra, who placed it on the head of his elephant, Aiávata, which took it by the trunk and cast it on the earth.  Incensed at this disrespect, Durvásas cursed the deities and the earth they inhabited, leading to the withering of life.

The ancient story of Samudra manthan can be found in most of the Hindu scriptures, like a tale of original sin. It helps us understand the importance of the garland as a “dwelling of Fortune” (S’rí or Lakshmi). This myth is one of many that are woven into a platform on which cultures survive over millennia.

In a fast world, we have reason for concern that such classic stories get washed away in the daily torrent of information. Susan Sontag quotes the Latin phrase, Habent sua fata fabulae (“Tales have their own fate”): stories are continually disseminated, transcribed, misremembered and translated. Accordingly, this issue of Garland is based on the concept of “narrative materialism”. We face the challenge of housing our stories in objects, parallel to the architectural challenge of accommodating our bodies.

Where do stories live? We might think of them as scripts that we keep in our heads. But clearly they have a life beyond the vagaries of our memory, not to mention a life that exceeds our own. Since the Gutenberg revolution, we have taken to housing stories in bound paper, which in turn reside in libraries. But with ebooks, these objects are no longer necessary to store tales. There are also many stories that are not found in books, such as personal memories. We attach these to an object that witnessed the event, such as a keepsake. A key value for most of the handmade objects we treasure is the story they tell—who made it, where we found it, who gave it to us or the story it depicts.

India has a remarkable tradition of objects designed specifically to tell stories. These objects follow the form of a book, with hinged elements that open to reveal the narrative over time. As Ishan Khosla writes, the kaavad is a cabinet that unfolds the story though a series of doors. The patachitra has flaps that reveal the action. And patua scrolls unfurl scenes to accompany a song.

As Sunaina Suneja writes, there are still patua artisans active in India today. And projects like Medhavi Gandhi’s Handmade Tales seek to passed their traditions onto the next generation. But there’s also a new form of storytelling. India has seen particularly innovative platforms emerge for selling craft online. This is not just the sophistical algorithm and coding, but also the meaning that the website can convey. Like the unfolding of the traditional objects, the story of a product is told as the consumer clicks through the layers of information, often leading to details of the maker themselves.

India stories travel far across the ocean. Our Garland quarterly essay contains the inspiring story of a partnership between Australian ceramicist Sandra Bowkett and the Indian potter Banay Singh and his village. What drives a potter from a comfortable life in central Victoria to spend time in a potters’ colony in Delhi? A key part of the story is the intimate involvement of clay in traditional lifestyles, from the mutka water vessel to the chai cup.

Thanks to a partnership with Artisans Gallery, this issue has a particular focus on Mumbai as part of the broader western India region. To continue our Persian interest, Priyanka Kochar discovers the rare craft of Mumbai’s Parsis. Expert guide to India, Fiona Caulfield, shares with us her favourite sources of craft and lifestyle in Mumbai. And Australian designer Trent Jansen writes of his confrontation with the phenomenon of jugaad in the legendary “slum” of Dharavi.

There are two wonderful stories related to our friends art Art Ichol. Tanya Dutt tells a heartening story of a quest to find the spirit of Gandhi in today’s India. And Clare Kennedy shares with us her findings about the contemporary life of the brick.

Textiles prove to be a particularly rich source of stories. We consider craft classics, such as the kediyun (LOkesh Ghai), muslin (Gopika Nath), the sari (Malika Kashyap) and the dhurry rug (Liz Williamson). Ansie van der Velt joins us again to tells the story of Barbara Mullin, one of many Australians who has made Gujarati textiles a lifelong vocation.

We also go a little further west with some remarkable articles from Pakistan. Sahr Bashir tells us about the stunning new jewellery art coming from her country. And two architect designers tell us their thinking about dysfunctionality.

This issue coincides with a major glass event in the Asia Pacific, Ausglass 2017. We include beautiful works by Holly Grace that reveal a subtle use of photography in glass. And Mark Eliot backgrounds his use of glass to tell stories through animation.

We wrap this issue up with three important articles. The much respected Indrasen Vencatachellum tells us about his exciting new festival of natural dyes in Madagascar. While in Africa, we hear the stories of artisans who make Bolga baskets in Ghana. And finally, Anna Varendorff is a new voice who challenges the concept of craft today.

We like to think that Garland too is a suitable home for the stories that objects tell. We are fortunate in this issue to have some captivating tales of Indian crafts. We hope you take delight in this garland, but please keep it from disrespectful white elephants.

Craft in Parallels

Click to see full image

Click to see full image

After the Parallels conference at the National Gallery of Victoria, I was left thinking about the broader context for crafts in Australia. The conference was initially set up as part of the National Craft Initiative,  a strategy put in place after the de-funding of Craft Australia to review what is needed by the craft sector in Australia. But naturally the event took on the interests of the host, which by charter seeks to grow its collection of unique and valuable art works.

Parallels seemed to be focused on the opportunities afforded for craft by collaborations with designers, who sell their work at international design fairs, such as Design Miami and Milan Furniture Fair. Figures like Wava Carpenter offered entre into these worlds through diverse forms of curation. The suggested strategy was to nurture these ‘facilitators’ who would help develop those international connections.

There’s no doubt that such markets help stimulate some extraordinary works, as was evident in the presentations by allied designers. Craft naturally benefits from patronage, whether it’s from monarchs, government or rich collectors. But the focus on this 1% of the 1% as direction for the Australian craft sector did seem rather narrow.

This came out in the Craft – The Australian Story symposium held the following Saturday. We heard then particularly about the other end of the spectrum – makers. Marcus Westbury, host of the ABC series Bespoke, talked about a continuum between the maker movement and studio crafts. Ramona Barry, soon to launch Craft Companion with co-author Rebecca Jobson, showed page shots that juxtaposed craft exhibition works with domestic production.

This led me to think about the different contexts in which studio craft finds itself. So I had a go at a mind map, which you can see above. I’m sure there are elements missing, don’t you think?

Studio craft is an art form that emerged post-war, along with art photography, to join the pantheon of visual arts. From the 1970s, it stood as an equal in the original Australia Council alongside visual arts, literature, music and dance. But from the 1990s it has gradually been subsumed into visual arts. Is this inevitable, or a failure of political nous?

It’s common now to hear the statement that craft is no longer a meaningful term. ‘What matters is whether it looks good!’ ‘Aren’t we over the old art/craft debate?’

Is that it? As a rusty Marxist, I tend to see this as a symptom of a consumerist society, which has lost touch with how goods are produced. For me, craft opens up the bigger picture. We don’t just as, as we would an art object, ‘What does it mean?’ We also ask, ‘How was it made, and by whom?’ We engage with an appreciation of skill, tradition and understanding of material.

But it was clear by the end of the Saturday symposium, led by the rousing Susan Cohn, that many thought craft in Australia needed to find its voice again. While our craft organisations work tirelessly for the sector, the voice of the grass-roots needs to be heard. This is a voice that asks for respect – respect for the special contribution that craftspersons make to our broader culture.

Thanks to the NGV for allowing us to hold the symposium and listing it as part of the Parallels program. Let’s hope it’s a sign of willingness to consider craft in its broader context – not just as an exotic back story, but also as a space for popular empowerment in a post-industrial world.


Help make a Garland

With a wonderful team of writers and makers, I am embarking on a new venture which I hope will be of benefit to those who produce and enjoy beautiful craft.

Garland is a platform for thoughtful writing about objects that reflect tradition, skill, creativity and place. By subscribing now, you can help build a rich resource of narrative, history and analysis that reveals what we make of our world. Learn more here:

What we can learn from the JMGA-NSW conference

‘Tis the season of conferences and I’ve got four this month. Unfortunately, the Australian Ceramics Triennale and JMGA conferences clashed this time, so I had to dash from one to the other  (this may not have happened if Australia had a national craft organisation where this could have been noted early on).

I found the organisation of the JMGA-NSW jewellery conference in Sydney quite inspiring. Both the ceramics and jewellery conferences demonstrated the strong participation in studio craft. There were more than 400 at the ceramics conference and the auditorium in Sydney was full. But the jewellers certainly showed how to manage an event.

These were some highlights that raise the bar in conference organisation:

  • Clusters of exhibition openings scheduled on different evenings
  • Car pool stickers to help participants get to exhibition venues
  • Beaded conference tags subtly indicating registration stream
  • Delicious lunch alternatives with vegetarian options
  • Flower decorations
  • Billeting for interstate guests
  • Lawn diversions courtesy of Roseanne Bartley
  • Time for questions during each each session
  • Well-promoted hashtags: #edgesbordersgaps #jmgaconference2015
  • Offer of community announcements at conclusion

Of course, there’s always room for improvement. Some outside voices from allied domains could have opened up the conversation further. The odd cantankerous voice could also have added a little salt to the discussions.  There are some complex issues about the growth of post-object jewellery that could be teased out. And the issue of the global jewellery scene, prompted by the presence of Thai gallerist Atty Tantivit , could have been further explored.

To the challenge will now be continue this dialogue. Who will wear the JMGA crown next? Canberra, Melbourne, Auckland… They have a tough act to follow.

She’ll be jugalbandi – Australian-Indian ceramics collaboration

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

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

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

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

Let’s look at the offerings.

Adil Writer

Adil Writer, Saes, soda fired

Adil Writer, Saes, soda fired

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

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

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

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

Sharbani Das Gupta

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

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

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

Madhvi Subrahmanian

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

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

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

Gerry Wedd

Madhvi Subrahmanian version of Gerry Wedd's thong

Madhvi Subrahmanian version of Gerry Wedd's thong

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

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

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

Trevor Fry

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

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

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

Janet deBoos

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

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

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


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


After the boom is over: The case for a handmade recovery

Longer version of an article published in the Conversation

In his budget reply speech, Bill Shorten claimed that ‘Coding is the literacy of the 21st century.’ While offering a positive direction, we should question whether the only future is on the screens we see before us. We should not forget the material world in which we live and breathe. As the post-industrial West faces endemic unemployment, many are looking to craft for a positive future.

Last year, President Obama personally hosted the annual Maker Faire at the Whitehouse, reviving national pride in making things through local production, featuring neighbourhood labs that offer services such as 3D printing. Once the centre of the automotive industry, Detroit has now opened a Craft Manufacturing Complex to revive production in the handmade. The Craft in America Center in Los Angeles produces a national television series celebrating craft for PBS, which is already into its fifth season.

In the UK craft contributes $6.5b to the UK economy. The Crafts Council actively presents craft in the public eye, including a recent manifesto ‘Our Future is in the Making’ launched in the House of Commons to promote craft in education. Undaunted by the outsourcing of iconic English labels like Wedgewood, the local government in Stoke-on-Trent has recently invested $1.3m in the transformation of potteries to craft studios. Across the sea, the Crafts Council of Ireland receives annually $4.1m in government funding to support craft initiatives such as Future Makers to nurture the next generation (a per capita equivalent in Australia would be $20.5m for a national craft organisation).

University of South Australia Associate Professor Susan Luckman’s recent book Craft and the Creative Economy reflects on the growing interest in the handmade, prompted by increasing awareness of exploitation in global industrial production. She comments, ‘Craft, as both objects and process, appeals in this moment of increasing environmental and labour awareness as an ethical alternative to mass-production; craft also speaks to deep human connections to, and interest in, making and the handmade as offering something seemingly authentic in a seemingly inauthentic world.’

The rise of the maker movement and the hipster aesthetic places value in the handmade as an antidote to a market flooded with industrial products of dubious origin. This direct relation between buyer and producer has seen the leading e-commerce platforms exceed $2b in total transactions last year. The internet promises to extend the intimacy of the local market to a global audience, offering a sense of connection that is lacking elsewhere.

Closer to Australia, the economic tigers and dragons of Asia seem committed to the future of their craft heritage. In 2012, China assumed the Presidency of the World Crafts Council, spending $24m last year on a single international gathering to celebrate its 50 years. Its program involves the development of World Cities of Craft, the most recent being Dongyang as a centre of wood carving. South Korea vies for international leadership with a number of global craft events, including Cheongju International Craft Biennale opening this October, featuring the exhibition Beauty and Happiness curated by Alain Botton. Under its Living National Treasures program, Japan continues to provide 60 revered craftspersons with an annual salary. The continuing significance of craft in India is evident work of the Crafts Council of India, the Ministry of Textiles, and Nahendra Modi’s own personal commitment to continue Gandhi’s support for the khadi (handloom) cotton.

How does Australia feature in this craft world? Surprisingly, Australia was once a world leader in craft. The Crafts Council of Australia emerged in 1964 as a response to an invitation from the World Crafts Council to attend its inaugural event in New York. In 1973, the Crafts Board was established to represent the arts in the Australia Council alongside Visual Arts, Dance and Literature. In 1980, Australian ceramist Maria Gazzard was the first elected president of the World Crafts Council. Political leaders sought to identity with popular crafts, such as Don Dunstan opening the Adelaide’s JamFactory Craft Centre in 1973 and Rupert Hamer launching the Meat Market Crafts Centre in 1977.

Since then craft has largely disappeared from the national stage. In 1987 the Crafts Board of the Australia Council was incorporated into the Visual Arts/Crafts Board, which in the 1990s merged into the Visual Arts Board. Finally, the national link to craft was lost with the decision in 2011 to de-fund Craft Australia. Recent political leaders have failed to use Australian crafts to demonstrate their national pride – except for the personal commitment of John Madigan and Nick Xenophon to purchase Australian-make crockery for Parliament House. The now corporatised state-based crafts councils such as Craft Victoria and Adelaide’s dynamic JamFactory generate much local activity, but they are not supported by a national platform.

While other nations have attempted to re-focus on making things, the ‘lucky country’ has come to depend more on what can be extracted from the land than is produced on it. The ‘clever country’ imagined during the Hawke-Keating years made a virtue out of the loss of manufacturing, heralding a knowledge economy that focused on financial and education services. But with the end of the mining boom, we are looking at the impact that this loss of productive capacity has on our ability to sustain our future. What exactly will be the legacy of our good fortune apart from large holes in the ground?

A recent article in Progress in Human Geography  by Chantel Carr and Chris Gibson from University of Wollongong advocates for re-evaluation of ‘making’. They write about the ‘popular narrative arc’ that invokes images of rust belts and ‘despondent manufacturing workers filmed leaving their workplaces.’ The authors argue that this has led to a neglect of the continuing centrality of material production to human life.

Though Australian craft is rarely seen on our national stage, we have actually made many unique objects of enduring value. As a material art, craft expresses in a tangible appreciation of the land. Using Japanese techniques, Australian ceramicists give artistic expression to the rich soils, glazed with ash from our native timbers. As shown in this year’s Venice Biennale. Aboriginal communities from central Australia use the unique plants of the desert to tell sacred stories in fibre sculptures. Wood craftspersons are learning how to adapt European techniques to the challenges of our indigenous timbers. Jewellers have taken the egalitarian approach to materials and learnt how to make exquisite works out of rubbish. And Australia has built a specialisation in glass that is a leader in the Asia Pacific.

To a suit in Treasury, the direct contribution of craft to our economy is likely to be small, but its symbolic value should not be underestimated. Sport also has very little productive value, yet it celebrates a national vigour and striving that carries over into everyday life. At its core, our crafts represent a fundamental commitment to make something enduring out of what we are given.

This year is a critical time to review the role that craft plays in Australian culture. In September, Melbourne will host the inaugural Radiant Pavilion, an international jewellery festival, along with the state organisation’s Craft Cubed and national conference, Parallels: Journeys into Contemporary Making to be delivered by the National Gallery of Victoria. This conference culminates the National Craft Initiative (NCI), managed by the National Association of the Visual Arts (NAVA). The 2014 report Mapping the Australian Craft Sector called for an urgent review of its sustainability.

NAVA is expanding beyond the visual arts. According to NAVA Director Tamara Winikoff: ‘The extent of the Australian community’s engagement with craft and design (over 2 million participants) is a powerful affirmation of the deep seated satisfaction which people gain from the exercise of their imagination and skill. The ambition of the National Craft Initiative NCI is to stimulate engagement of the Australian craft and design sector with new ideas, ways of doing things, connections and opportunities.’

This year could be a turning point, or it could be more of the same. For the past two decades, the cult of the new prevented us from building on the unique traditions we have established. Arts talk today is infected with corporate phrases such as ‘disruptive technologies’, ‘breaking down barriers’, and ‘design thinking’. The obsession to break with the past weakens the social and community values that underpin meaning.  Understanding where we have come from offers a trajectory that can guide us into the future. According to Marian Hosking, President of the newly revived World Crafts Council – Australia, ‘Today’s craftsperson draws on both traditional craft practice and new technologies, with an understanding of historic and social precedence.’

The end of the mining boom is a chance to review the implicit direction of Australia as a nation. Is it enough just to be smart? What will happen as Asian countries inevitably raise their wages, develop first rate universities and create their own designs? Crafts help us answer that question. Crafts demonstrate that we know our place in the world and are committed to make something from it.

Swimming in the river of mud: The life and art of ceramics as process

Opening address for the Taiwan Ceramics Biennale, Yingge Ceramics Museum, 3 May 2014

I’ve come from the state of Victoria, in south-eastern Australia, where last month there was a very touching event. Two designers Ben Landau and Lucile Sciallano had been exploring the soil on a Victorian farm to prospect for a workable slip to make ceramics. The owners practiced organic farming, not only providing restaurants with their produce but also taking away the waste for their compost bins to plough back into their soil. As it turned out, the local couple were in the process of planning a wedding. Landau and Sciallano proposed to make crockery for their feast, direct from their soil, which afterwards would be smashed and left to merge back into the soil. And thus a marriage was consummated in a wonderful cycle of earth, reflecting the life cycle, of which marriage is arguably the traditional the peak of life between birth and death. It’s an inspiring example of the cradle to grave sensibility that is espoused by ethical design.

While this a touching exception to most consumption, which cannot account for its waste, there are places where the clay cycle is an everyday event. In India, potters produce small cups, or kullarhs, out of clay scooped from the river. These are dried in the sun and then half-baked on an open fire. Batches are sold to those selling spiced tea, or chai, on the street. Before filling the cup, the chai wallah taps it to dislodge the loose clay. In train stations, the cups are called pi ke puht—pi ke means ‘to drink’ and puht is the sound it makes when it hits the tracks, thrown away after use, dissolving back into the soil at the next rain.

There’s something about the linear orientation of modernity that finds this zero-sum process threatening. Melbourne designer Sian Pascale has produced chai cups that are embedded with flower and vegetable seeds. By contrast to most consumer items, their disposal is a positive act. Nonetheless, these are ironically prized as collector items and few find their true destiny on the ground.

Also from the Victorian countryside, ceramicist Sandra Bowkett has been collaborating with traditional potters in Delhi to make products using their methods and skills. Their shared concern is that mass-produced plastic items like buckets and cups will make redundant the handmade production of everyday ceramic items. But for her local market, Bowkett has resorted to high-firing the chai cups, so that they can be used multiple times.

As moderns, we are conditioned to both destroy traditions and preserve things. The German philosopher Walter Benjamin evoked the image of an angel of history, hurtling backwards to the future, witnessing the trail of destruction produced in its wake.[1] While we invested in science and technology to develop ever new modes of living, at the same time we also built museums to preserve what gets left behind. Now empires of the cloud such as Google and Facebook promise to hold memories beyond the limits of space as well as time.

As a modern movement, studio ceramics has celebrated the timeless masterpiece. In the raku technique, the vessel bears the traces of ash and salt from the kiln, frozen in time by the firing process. For an artist like Peter Voulkos, it is his highly gestured making process itself which is captured in the fired product.[2] Like the modern art of photography, studio ceramics has sought to hold back time—not so much the Cartier-Bresson encounter of lovers on the street, but the alchemical interaction of elements in the fire.

Time cannot be dammed up for ever. While, the challenge of digital technology seemed to be storing information, in the 21st century it is about channelling flows of data—the feeds, tweets, streams, instagrams, Facebook updates, chats and snapchats that burst on to our screens when we turn on our mobile devices. In what Zygmund Bauman called our ‘liquid modernity’ (Bauman 2000), we are beginning now to experience this flux in the very institutions once designed to contain it. Corporations become ever more mobile as they migrate operations for one side for the world to the other in search for bigger profit margins.

Ceramic Art captures the flux in dramatic ways. In 1995, Ai Weiwei captured on camera the act of dropping an antique Han dynasty vase. Artists like the Venice Biennale duo Fischli and Weiss are increasingly using unfired clay to depict a world that is provisional and changing. We no longer always expect that the ceramic work will be the same at the end as it was in the beginning of the exhibition. You can’t step into the same river twice.

What does ceramics as process mean for the tradition of studio work? Is it a dinosaur destined for extinction with the advent of our process-based lifestyles? How does the museum, once dedicated to conserving treasures for posterity, open its doors to the rivers of mud flowing through contemporary ceramics?

The Taiwan Ceramics Biennale provides a rare opportunity to experience the power of clay to express the cyclical nature of things. Some works do this in a thematic manner, addressing the downside of our gaze upward to economic growth. While much in media advertises the products and experience that promise happiness, it’s clear that our world is characterised by considerable loss. With development comes a decline in bio-diversity: an estimate of 10,000 species becomes extinct every year. But this is just one statistic among many that we learn every day. It takes a work like Ivette Guier Serrano’s Vestiges depicting dying birds to bring it home to us. When we confront this loss in the presence of a physical object, occupying the same space as our bodies, it connects with us more directly than an abstract statistic or flat photograph.

The destruction of cultures resulting from colonisation is an especially powerful theme. Gustavo Perez depicts ancient cities in ruins. Kukuli Velarde forges a unique Peruvian ceramics to represent repression of Indigenous cultures by Catholic Spanish colonisers. Bouke de Vries takes this to a universal scale by invoking a potential nuclear apocalypse.

These are powerful works that use the quality of fired clay to offer us a subtle form of repose from the world. But there are many artists in this show that make this melancholy part of the very medium itself. After all, clay is a quintessentially fragile medium. Its survival is testament to ongoing human care, but its destruction also bears witness to violence and decay.

In the West, the increasing concentration of manufacturing in the industrial centres of China and south-east Asia has decimated large-scale ceramic production. After financial misadventures, Wedgewood went into administration with Deloitte in 2009, which led to the transfer of production to Indonesia. The loss of this capacity is ironically the source of new work in ceramic art. Neil Brownsword has made an artistic career out of laying the tradition of English industrial ceramics to rest. Elsewhere the deserted factories have been eulogised in the haunting photography of Grzegorz Stadnik, depicting the ruins of the Książ Porcelain Factory in Walbrzych, Poland. We can even read Francesco Ardini’s remains of the banquet as an allegory of the end of aristocracy that founded the great porcelain workshops of Europe. But this mourning of the industrial is not restricted to the West. Yanze Janze’s work is about the moulds that are discarded in the industrial process. The Indonesian collective Tromarama have created exquisite installation reflecting on the destruction of Dutch heritage in Bandung. Finally, Shlomit Bauman reflects a planet that is straining its natural limits, invoking the potential disappearance of clay deposits.

We find elsewhere in the use of ceramics by artists much use of unfired clay. The 2013 work Shams (Sun) by Algerian Adel Abdessemed is a gallery wall covered entirely in a clay relief that depicts workers on a building site, hoisting sacks of materials up ladders. Its display in Qatar evokes the toiling immigrant workers who construct these new mega-cities from their labour, for which they receive around $100 a month. By the end of the installation, the clay has dried and elements have fallen to the ground. Also last year, the Swiss duo Fischli /Weiss exhibited Suddenly this Overview (1981-2006) at the Venice Biennale, including 200 unfired sculptures representing various kinds of human endeavour. By contrast to the monumentalisation of labour in the 20th century, these works reflect its evanescence, as hidden toil has replaced honourable craft. From Korea, we see the extraordinary dissolving architecture of Juree Kim in her Evanescent Scape (2011). Finally, the Argentinean Adrián Villar Rojas used unfired clay as a medium to produce a body of work about the tragic rock star Kurt Cobain, whose form cracks apart with time, even sprouting potatoes.

As an Australian, I’m particularly touched by the work of Pip McManus. Night Vessel uses the solubility of clay to evoke the evanescence of life as experienced by those who resort to taking leaky boats in order to seek asylum in countries like Australia.

It is easy to associate this breaking, cracking or dissolving of ceramics with a type of loss. But there are ways in which it can be precisely the opposite, almost a celebration. As we saw in the wedding, many social rituals express an explosion of joy in wilful collective destruction of material things. Besides the breaking of plates at Greek functions, there is the smashing of the glass at Jewish weddings, the breaking of the champagne bottle at the launch of a ship, the Russian tradition of tossing vodka glasses into the fire and so on.

Why is this the case? Isn’t it vandalism to celebrate the loss of things of utility and beauty? According to the French sociologist George Bataille, the condition of our sociality involves the production of surplus value, which provides material for sacrifice. This wilful destruction implies that the social bond is more important than mere things. In his book Accursed Share, he writes:

Light, or brilliance, manifests the intimacy of life, that which life deeply is, which is perceived by the subject as being true to itself and as the transparency of the universe… From the start, the introduction of labour into the world replaced intimacy, the depth of desire and its free outbreaks, with rational progression, where what matters is no longer the truth of the present moment, but, rather, the subsequent results of operations … It is this degradation that man has always tried to escape. In his strange myths, in his cruel rites, man is in search of a lost intimacy from the first. Religion is this long effort and this anguished quest: It is always a matter of detaching from the real order, from the poverty of things, and of restoring the divine order. (Bataille 1988, 7)

If there is indeed a hunger in us for the present moment, then many works in this exhibition seek to satisfy it. In the centrifugal moments photographed by Martin Klimas, we can celebrate the singular beauty of destruction. You could argue that, until prevented by health concerns, the act of walking over the pieces in Ai Wei Wei’s Sunflower Seeds at the Tate Modern is an act of collective defiance. But also evoking Ai Wei Wei’s wilful destruction, Rocky Lewycky makes a dramatic intervention on the mindless production of consumer items.

What this biennale introduces into ceramics as process is the inclusion of work whose essence is not material, but abstract. As I mentioned earlier, the drive for ceramics as process is partly coming from the changing nature of technology. Some pieces give us the chance to reflect on this. Francesco Ardini creates work between the real and the ever-expanding dimension of the screen. Twitter subjects to a heady flow of information without stop. Of the more the 300 billion tweets that have been sent so far, it is likely that around 100 million have been sent since I started talking. David Gallagher helps us materialise the abstract flows of information that forms the world of twitter.

Some use technology that augments ceramics with sound. In Nicola Boccini’s Evolution 14.0, the work is the space of potential between the ceramic panels and the voice and touch of the viewer. Pierlugi Pompei’s Whispers enable visitors to explore a world of sound in ceramics.

With the advent of 3D printing, we see the focus move from the object itself to the code that it embodies. The work of Brian Peters concerns not the individual ceramic object but its Lego-like potential as a building block for other things. For Unfold’s L’Artisan Electronique, the romantic idealisation of pottery as a direct manipulation of materials is replaced by a mediated process, in which the hand sends signals to 3D printing devices. Their Stratigraphic Manufactury extends this to a relational space allowing others to intervene in this process. By contrast with the fixed world of studio ceramics, these mediated works reflect an as yet unrealised potential.

We see in this biennale and other contemporary works an exploration of ceramics as process. The result is not a fixed object, but instead a sequence of events such as gathering, drying, firing and breaking, whose meaning is their connection with each other. This opens up powerful emotional experiences, with narratives of decline and loss. As gifts and heirlooms, things can connect us; but as subjects of avarice and greed, they can also keep us apart. Sometimes, their destruction is cause for celebration.

But where does this leave what has gone before us? It is tempting to see this new work, particularly that which employs state of the art technology, as superseding the previous focus on mute objects. It is quite significant, therefore, that the curator has selected more traditional works, particularly from southern Africa. The Zulu ceramicists including Nesta Nale and Clive Sithole continue the tradition of village ceramics that glow with burnishing. Of course, this has its own relational meaning, particularly as beer pots to be passed around. This tradition is inflected through a Western idiom by the South African Clementina van der Walt. But the objects themselves remain a testament to the survival of a culture—what the New Zealand Māori call taonga, or treasures. I’ve been particularly impressed with the work of Manos Nathan, a Māori ceramicist who, besides works of art, makes items for traditional use, such as his bowl of the burial of the placenta, Waka Taurahere Tangata, which ties the newborn to the land.

It could be argued that ceramics as process gains its energy from its contrast to what has preceded it—ceramics as production of timeless beauty. The value that is dammed up in this field has provided the stored energy which is released through this biennale today. The creative spirit of art has defined itself against the conservative discipline of craft. But this does not mean that ceramics as process has transcended its studio precursor. We can see this too as a cycle, like the rhythm of intake and exhalation in breathing. Eventually, this flow may be expended, and we seek solace again in the stillness.

This biennale offers us a chance not only to admire the combination of skill and materials that produces timeless works of beauty, but also to experience its evanescence. As Lao-Tzu says, ‘The wise man delights in water’.


[1] “This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.” (Benjamin 1970)

[2] The concept of sculpture as process involves the capacity of the final object to record its act of creation (see (Krauss 1981). However, this concept of process stops at the point of firing, when the object becomes a collectable item.



Bataille, Georges. 1988. The accursed share: an essay on general economy. New York: Zone Books.

Bauman, Zygmunt. 2000. Liquid Modernity. Cambridge, UK; Malden, MA: Polity Press ; Blackwell.

Benjamin, Walter. 1970. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” In Illuminations. Vol. 1. Schocken.

Krauss, Rosalind E. 1981. Passages in Modern Sculpture. MIT Press.


Thai crafts have an auspicious future

Thailand’s International Innovation Craft Fair represents a substantial commitment to the support of its crafts within a global context. The fair is organised by the Support Arts and Crafts International Centre of Thailand (SACIST). It includes an Innovative Craft Award, New Heritage Exhibition, Prototype Product Design Gallery, Craft Trend Exhibition, Mobile Gallery and more than 300 booths. Behind the scenes, it is the occasion for three significant MOUs involving the Intellectual Property Department, Thammasat University and National Discovery Museum.

The Thai crafts were quite impressive. Booths were organised in dense Bangkok style and filled with the latest products. I particularly liked the This Means That versions of Thai folk deities, Benjametha ceramics from the Muslim south, and the light fitting made in collaboration with birdcage craftspersons by Supachi Klawtanong.  Outside Thailand, the Lao textiles were outstanding, alongside the stylish textiles from Edric Ong’s studio, and impressive contributions from Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar. Beyond ASEAN, there were high quality products from India, Kygystan,  Taiwan, Syria, Iran and even Peru.

To complement the displays was a day-long seminar on ASEAN crafts, which featured wonderfully articulate and interesting designers and craftspersons from the breadth of South-East Asia. Pham Huyen Kieu from Vietnam’s Haki Craft was particularly impressive in his advocacy of co-crafting community as a way of attracting more young people. At the end, the speakers reflected on the common threads between their approaches. They all agreed that ASEAN designers shared a common commitment to supporting and using their local crafts.

Despite its scale, the Craft Fair still has room to evolve. The emphasis in craft innovation tends to be on home decoration. But there are only a limited number of light fittings or stools that can be sold, and there will always be stiff competition from cheaper industrial versions. Traditional crafts in Thailand are often tied to their rich array of cultural rituals. The challenge ahead is to find ways of adapting these rituals to modern lifestyles. Many rituals involve good luck. Today’s designers and makers have much to gain in adding auspiciousness to their products. Form, function and fortune would be a winning combination.

For more information about the fair, go to the Facebook page.


Indian craft is set in stone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Working with hand and machine tools.

Working with hand and machine tools.


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

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

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

Students at the sculpture school at Mamallapuram.

Students at the sculpture school at Mamallapuram.

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

The Shilpi Shastra book wtih all the correct proportions for statues

The Shilpi Shastra book wtih all the correct proportions for statues


So an eye is shaped like a fish?

So an eye is shaped like a fish?

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

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

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

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

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

Freshening up a statue with coconut oil

Freshening up a statue with coconut oil

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

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

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

Opening the eyes on a statue

Opening the eyes on a statue

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

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

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

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