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,

Tennis versus the World





The Australian Open tennis tournament is in full swing this week. Melbourne’s The Age newspaper leads with inevitable photographs of tennis stars stretching their mouths open in victory roars and clenching their fists in defiance of all comers. While a useful reminder of our primate ancestry, these photos reinforce a world of extreme enjoyment at odds with the rest of the world.

As anyone who gets a crook neck watching it knows, tennis is a hard slog. Thanks to years of arduous training, the courts reverberate with rocketing serves and cannon-like volleys.

So why do we see so few images of the craft of tennis? Why instead of racket hitting ball do we mostly see these stereotyped expressions of triumph? Certainly it helps channel the aggression in watching crowd – we know how violent Australian Open spectators can be. But for a newspaper that should informing its readers about the game, it says nothing about the skills and techniques that actually determine victory.

With the year of the Ox now upon us, we should be celebrating the hard work that leads to these victories. We’ll certainly need lots of slog to get through 2009.

Australia looks at tapa



Australia’s Pacific heritage continues to grow. The exhibition Talking Tapa: Pasifika Bark Cloth in Queensland has been developed partly to reflect the large number of Pacific Islanders who have settled in Australia. The catalogue makes reference to the prevalence of Fijian weddings in Brisbane.



The exhibition contains Fijian wedding outfits, Papuan New Guinean ceremonial skirts and cloaks, large Tongan pieces, loincloths and headdresses from the Solomon Islands, bark cloth lengths from Erromongo and unusual tapa clothing from Wallis and Futuna.

According to the catalogue:

While most tapa is made from the inner bark (bast) of the paper mulberry tree, fig and breadfruit are also represented in this exhibition. The oldest bark cloth in the show is from Futuna Island and dates from the 1860s, whilst the latest was acquired in the Solomons in September 2008. Tapa decoration draws on clan and family patterning, the spirit world, the plant, bird, animal and fish kingdoms, abstract and geometric designs, as well as historical events and representations.



And here’s the itinerary:


  • USQ (Springfield, Ipswich) 12 Feb –19 March
  • Artspace Mackay 27 Mar – 10 May
  • Gladstone Regional Art Gallery 5 June – 11 July
  • Museum of Brisbane  24 July – 11 Oct
  • Perc Tucker Regional Gallery, 23 Oct – 6 Dec
  • Cairns Regional Gallery 11 Dec – 31 Jan 10


  • Monash Gallery of Art 10 Feb – 11 April
  • Ballarat Fine Art Gallery 17 April – 30 May
  • Mosman Art Gallery 5 June – 18 July
  • Manning Regional Gallery 23 July – 5 Sept
  • Taree
  • Bathurst Regional Gallery 15 Oct – 28 Nov


Turtle design solofua paper mulberry bast, candlenut soot 388 x 87cm (rolled to 160 x 87cm) On loan from the collection of University of Queensland Anthropology Museum

Fiji – I Sulu ni Vakamau Traditional woman’s wedding set; Three pieces made by Nainasa Kacimaiwai, Nayau Village, Lau Province, 2006; acquired from the makers at the Melanesian Arts and Culture Festival Fiji, 2006; Model Jimaima Taoi Le Grand dressed by Jiowana Dau Miles; Courtesy of Dr. Susan Cochrane and Jiowana Dau Miles

Wallis and Futuna Tepi mens skirt c 1995 made by Valelia Likuvalu from Nuku Village, Sigave, Futuna; decorated bark cloth, natural fibres and dyes 112 x 205cm, acquired from the maker at the Wallis and Futuna Annual Fair, Noumea, New Caledonia, August 1996; On loan from the collection of Susan Cochrane

A third hand between craft and trade

Christine Nicholls celebrates an exhibition that brings people of craft and trades to work together.



‘Trades’, an innovative project conceived and sponsored by Craftsouth, Australia’s premier contemporary craft and design association, was that organization’s big ticket offering for 2008. In some respects Craftsouth operates along the lines of the artists’ and artisans’ guilds of yesteryear, offering a range of services to its membership, including the provision of professional accreditation and artist insurance. Craftsouth also plays an important advocacy role for its members. This includes mounting at least one major exhibition of members’ artwork, annually.

The Trades project was conceived towards the end of 2006 and unfolded over an extended period of time. This process-driven venture culminated in a splendid, well-received exhibition of the same name at Adelaide’s prestigious JamFactory late in 2008.

Eight practising visual artists working across a range of different disciplines were selected to work cooperatively with eight qualified tradespersons. Each artist was paired or ‘matched’ with a tradesperson. This pairing was not arbitrary but based on participating parties’ professional and creative aspirations. Each participating artist elected to collaborate with someone with a specific trade and skill set, for the purpose of skills exchange. Hence the relationships were underpinned by mutual respect and recognition of the professionalism of the contributing parties. The idea was to give the participating artists the freedom and opportunity to explore, as Craftsouth’s Niki Vouis has written, “specific skills and industry knowledgenot normally available to them in their day to day work practices” and also to provide “the tradespeople [with] the opportunity to experience…artists’ working methods, while at the same time demonstrating their own expertise and creativity”.

While the project was by no means narrowly ‘product’ or outcome-orientated, there is absolutely no doubt that several of these creative fusions produced marvellous results. This became evident in the 2008 Trades exhibition. One reason leading to this success was the fact that the individual ‘track records’ of both participating artists and tradespersons were carefully scrutinized prior to the commencement of the Trades project. Commitment from each party was sought and obtained. Whilst in progress the project was also monitored and quite closely documented.





Collaboration between furniture maker Adrian Potter and tattooist Amy Duncan

A number of extremely successful, albeit left-of-field, collaborations took place. One such partnership occurred between Adrian Potter, a qualified engineer who has worked as a professional furniture designer and maker for more than a decade, and Amy Duncan, a tattooist. The collaborative work made by this artistic ‘odd couple’ and exhibited in the 2008 exhibition drew widespread admiration.

Potter drew upon his woodworking skills in his expert carving of two beautiful hollow conch shells from Huon Pine, a very large, relatively soft-wooded tree native to Australia’s Tasmania. Part of its aura derives from the fact that it is believed to be the longest-living species of tree in Australasia: it has been ascertained that in the Tasmanian rainforests there are Huon Pines in excess of 1,000 years of age. Huon Pine wood is also renowned, in Australia and beyond, for its aesthetic qualities.

Having incorporated a number of ideas inspired by Amy Duncan’s craft into his carvings, Potter passed on the larger of the two carved objects to Duncan, who subsequently designed and applied the remainder of the surface decoration. This involved the youthful tattooist working with her customary tools of trade – drawing inks, gouache infills and inlays – to decorate the conch shell carved by Adrian Potter. Duncan’s ability to execute designs and drawings on to three dimensional, curved body surfaces ‘translated’ very well to this new medium.

The artworks created by Duncan and Potter working together on this project exceed anything that either party could have created solo, as Adrian Potter freely acknowledges: “I’ve always thought that ‘collaboration’ is a fancy name for teamwork – I’ve got the skills, you’ve got the skills. We [were] working together to come up with something that you can’t do individually”.

The creative synergy forged by this pair of artists – one of whom mostly works in the relatively mainstream activity of furniture making, while the other is habitually employed in the more socially marginal pursuit of tattooing – opened up a genuinely ‘transitional space’ for both parties. In a sense, the compelling carved and decorated objects co-created by Duncan and Potter and displayed in the Trades exhibition bore the artistic ‘signatures’ of both – while at the same time giving rise to a third, unique artistic inscription that could not be said to belong exclusively to either party. A major reason for favourable critical attention enjoyed by the Potter and Duncan’s co-created artworks in the Trades exhibition was their subtlety and their integrity as artworks – their ‘seamless’ quality. With respect to their Spring Blossom Tattoo, for instance, it was not at all apparent that two persons from entirely different disciplines and backgrounds had had a hand in the work’s creation.

[See Adrian Potter’s comment below about the nature of the collaboration]



Collaboration between glass artist Gabriella Bisetto and scientific lamp worker Monte Clements

Another extremely productive working relationship was forged between Monte Clements, a scientific lamp worker, and Gabriella Bisetto, an established glass artist. Clements has worked in his highly specialized field for three decades, and runs a thriving Adelaide-based business. Unfortunately, to some extent his is an endangered, if not dying art. As the Trades catalogue states, scientific lamp workers “…blow Pyrex glass to produce precision instruments for various industrial sectors, from scientific laboratories to wineries. This is an extremely rare trade in Australia, with only one current apprentice nationwide”.

Glass blower Gabriella Bisetto deliberately chose Clements as her mentor because she had for some time nurtured an aspiration to learn scientific lamp work. Part way through the project Bisetto observed that:

I’d wanted to do scientific lamp work for a long time but I wasn’t sure what the material could offer or what was available in pre-fabricated glass. And while I might blow glass for several hours a week and successfully produce several objects in that week, in lamp working I can work for hours and only produce one thing, and then it breaks. And that’s because I don’t know how to do it. I haven’t been doing it for thirty years. But working with my mentor, it’s made me want to show him that I really appreciate the time he puts in, but also to feel confident that I will get to my end result over a period of time.

And indeed, working together they did eventually arrive at that desired “end result”. The co-created Bisetto and Clements artworks in Trades are stunning. For example, their compelling work entitled Anatomy Study # 1-3 and Growth – Cluster cells # 1-3, is elegant, refined and beautifully made. The Bisetto/Clements glass works displayed in the Trades exhibition were not mere curiosities but ethereal, poetic artworks in their own right.

Under Clements’ tutelage, Bisetto worked on creating miniature glass bacteria, tiny glass moulds and fragile cluster cells, and small, delicate intestines and glass lungs. “Conceptually it allowed me to move in a different direction,” says Bisetto, “on a scale and with outcomes I couldn’t achieve with hot glass. I’m making tiny work now!” Prior to embarking on the Trades project, Bisetto was already well regarded in Australia as a ‘fine art’ glassmaker, and the working relationship with Clements seems to have enabled her to take her work to a new level. Open-ended dialogue, the sharing of ideas, mutual respect and the acceptance of the occasional wrong-turn or even mistake seem to hold the key to this successful artistic partnership.

Bisetto and Clements’s successful partnership, involving the meeting place between science and art, reflects and confirms the findings of Melbourne-based Charles Green in his canonical study of collaborative practice in contemporary art. In his monograph entitled The Third Hand, (2001) Green, who over the years has collaborated extensively with his artist wife Lyndell Green, theorizes post-1960s artistic collaboration and teamwork as akin to the development of a “third hand”. This, Green posits, is tantamount to the emergence of a new, single, transcendent artistic persona that virtually obliterates the separate artistic identities or the previous artistic ‘signatures’ of individual team members. Clearly Green’s concept of “the third hand” also has implications for other participants in the Trades project, as well. Green’s notion also mirrors broader contemporary social understandings with respect to the changing nature of artistic authorship.



Collaboration between sculptor David Archer and plumber Rod Archer

Brothers Rod Archer (a plumber) and David Archer (a sculptor) opted to work together, coming up with what was incontestably the hit of the Trades exhibition – at least with respect to mass audience appreciation. The Archer Bros’ work, entitled Pearls Before Swine, is a water powered mechanical pig fashioned from polystyrene, metal, plastic, and recycled bicycle parts. Pearls Before Swine wouldn’t have seemed out of place in the Penny Arcades of earlier eras. On the Trades exhibition’s opening night the crowd gathering around this exhibit made it difficult for many people to get close enough to view this wondrous mechanical pig. Some pig!

The pig swallows large pearls that enter its mouth in a continual loop. The plumber brother cleverly created a revolving internal trajectory powered by water energy. In turn, the pearls that the pig is constantly consuming are ‘excreted’ or converted into a continual succession of big, joined sausages. A string of enormous sausage-excreta continuously pop out of the pig’s rear end. No doubt this repetitive cycle to some extent alludes to some of the less pleasant aspects of plumbers’ daily working lives, and maybe in the lives of sculptors and craft persons too. Shit happens.

David Archer’s sculptural works have been influenced by his interest in clay and in mechanical things. The appeal of the mechanical was reinforced by a coincidence in Archer’s life, when he was offered the opportunity “to restore and repair a genuine coin-operated amusement machine, a Bolland Brothers ‘Haunted House’…[and as a result] I was inspired to make large coin-operated cabinets, and made my own version of a haunted house”. This in turn stimulated David Archer to research the history of automata, which he has traced back as early as the ancient Egyptians. The fact that he chose to work with his plumber brother is therefore a logical extension of this long-term interest.

From the perspective of Rod–the-Plumber Archer, it seems that he is the kind of ‘decent Aussie bloke’ who simply enjoys assisting other people in realizing of their visions and aspirations. Having worked as a plumber for 25 years, in a variety of settings including construction, domestic, and high-rise locations, Rod Archer regards both functional and aesthetic elements as significant. Brother David describes Rod Archer as a ‘thinking plumber’. (Trades catalogue, 2008, page 8).

The Archer brothers’ scatological, mechanical pig sculpture wallowed in immense popularity for the entire lifespan of the Trades exhibition. Pearls Before Swine succeeded in attracting numerous punters beyond the art world’s ‘usual suspects’ and opening-night-attendees. No doubt in part the swine’s widespread appeal was in part a function of the work’s popular culture connections with fairgrounds and amusement parlours. Groups of mesmerized schoolchildren also gathered around the pig, possibly relishing its propinquity to, or commensurability with, playground ‘poo’ jokes.

In fact, Pearls Before Swine, along with the works co-created by the tattooist and the furniture maker, brought many people to this exhibition who had, almost certainly, never before entered an art gallery. Such audience development was an immense ‘plus’ for the Trades exhibition. It is no crime to make art accessible and certainly not a sin to be popular. The fact that a number of these co-authored works attracted different demographics and age groups should be seen as a real strength of this exhibition and therefore applauded. It happened because these works straddled various artistic disciplines and trades, and also, because a number of the works embraced or crossed over into popular culture. Attracting audiences beyond the ‘same old, same old’ Adelaide visual art aficionadi is not easy, and to do so without resorting to Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons-like populism, not to mention without the financial backing that underpins the success of such artworld luminaries, is rare. While the success of the Trades exhibition was on a more modest scale than that of such ‘big names’, in terms of its budget and scope audience responses to Trades were more than encouraging.



Collaboration between ceramicist Irianna Kanellopoulou and pastry chef Kirsten Tibballs

Ceramicist Irianna Kanellopoulou worked with pastry chef and chocolatier Kirsten Tibballs to create a delectable, although non-caloric sculptural installation of vividly coloured bunnies. Entitled Hopping Bertie and his friends, this artwork was fashioned largely from chocolate and vegetable dyes that seemed to have a similar consistency to Estapol. This (perhaps misleadingly) ‘edible art’ was another real audience sweetener.



Collaboration between textile artist Annabelle Collett and electrician Jethro Adams

The artworks created by electrician Jethro Adams in partnership with textile artist Annabelle Collett were – well, electrifying. This team created two major works, the first a bright orange hammock, finger-knitted from plastic coated electrical wire, top-and-tailed by four light globes exuding a dazzlingly intense light. Electric Hammock also has a symbolic dimension, alluding to the chronic inability of members of our strung-out, high-powered society to relax in any truly meaningful way.



Collaboration between textile artist Annabelle Collett and electrician Jethro Adams

Collett professes a longstanding interest in what she describes as ‘crossover’ work and this was evident in the lighthearted, playful, electronic textiles on display in Trades. The Collett/Adams creative team’s edgy, wittily named installation, Mrs Tesla’s Dress, comprising white, knitted electrical cord, electrical components and globes, hanging from the ceiling of the exhibition space, simulated the ball gown of a glamorous lady. Ballooning out on the gallery floor into a full, although diaphanous skirt, its ‘hem’ was bedecked with generous-sized, rather hazardous-looking light globes. While perhaps a little dangerous as a form of daily apparel, Mrs T’s dress created quite a buzz and made a significant contribution to the Trades exhibition. (For the uninitiated, please note that a ‘tesla’, symbolized by the letter ‘T’, constitutes a standard measurement unit of magnetic flux density).



Collaboration between ceramicist Maria Parmenter and arborist Andrew Willsmore

Maria Parmenter, a respected Adelaide-based ceramicist, worked collaboratively with arborist Andrew Willsmore to create an installation of small, rather abstracted tree-shaped ceramic forms, entitled Utopia Avenue. This diverse row of miniature ceramic trees, not conforming to any single shape or colour, made for a fetching work. (DSC0022) In a second conceptual work, entitled Keep Safes, Parmenter made protective coverings for tree stumps. The latter work articulates with Parmenter’s previous work as a physiotherapist. Drawing an analogy between the missing limbs of humans and the arbitrary chopping down of trees, Parmenter remarked, “I’ve trained as a physio and I’ve worked with amputees. [In Australian society] we keep on lopping things off trees…and exposing stumps everywhere…I want to cover them up and [so] I’ve been making little caps for the stumps. Things to keep them warm.



Collaboration between ceramicist Maria Parmenter and arborist Andrew Willsmore

For Parmenter, the Trades project and exhibition also presented a unique opportunity – that of extending the interior world in which she habitually works as a ceramic artist – to embrace the exterior world that Andrew Willsmore inhabits on a daily basis.



Collaboration between glass artist  Deb Jones and panel beater Hugh Gooden

Finally, panel beater Hugh Gooden worked with JamFactory glass artist Deb Jones to make contrastingly shiny, highly polished crumpled metal panels, exhibiting these alongside stripped, rusty panels, whilst installation artist Annalise Rees teamed up with carpenter Jonathan Bowles to create a large scale work using timber house frames covered by stretched organza, stitched with cotton thread.

To conclude, all of the participants in the Trades project and exhibition brought into being fresh, unique creations or artifacts wherein the sum was demonstrably greater than the contributing parts. Particularly in the creative partnerships between the Brothers Archer, and the Potter/Duncan, Adams/Collett and Clements/Bisetto teams, the emergence and materialization of a seemingly autonomous third ‘authorial’ hand, as signalled by Charles Green in his publication The Third Hand, became readily apparent. Where that “third hand” clearly emerged, spectators became genuinely excited about the artworks. It seems that perhaps a necessary pre-condition for this to occur is either for the participants to share a history of working together on a collaborative basis, or to have a pre-existing interest in each other’s line of trade.

Not all of the participants in Trades developed the same synergies or seamless merging of their differing skills and approaches, however. This is not necessarily a criticism of the quality of the work that any of the participants produced: it is simply a statement of fact that in some of these partnerships the approach of one party or the other emerged as the dominant one and this is reflected in the work. In others, the hands of both contributing parties were clearly evident. This too impeded the emergence of that third, transcendent hand.

Craftsouth, especially their Project Manager Niki Vouis, supported by the Director, Anne Robertson, are to be commended for envisioning, overseeing and administering this experimental project linking trades people with craft, design and visual arts practitioners. Equally, JamFactory Craft and Design should be acknowledged for its support for the project from its inception, through to the developmental stage and finally, for their successful hosting of the Trades exhibition, which was accompanied by a very professional catalogue with essays written by Kevin Murray and Mark Thomson as well as information about participants. Bold experimentation and fertile, co-operative partnerships of this kind are indispensable for the continuing health of Australian visual arts. The artistic future lies in this direction.


Green, Charles, 2001, The Third Hand: Collaboration in Art from Conceptualism to Postmodernism, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, U.S.A.

This is a feature article for World Sculpture News Hong Kong, Winter 2009

See also Symmetry: Crafts Meet Kindred Trades and Professions

A day for the makers




Barack Obama marks the inauguration of his Presidency with a homage to labour and ‘the makers of things’:

Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted — for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things — some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labour, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.

Does this signal a move away from the spectacle of wealth and celebrity?

Beyond Fortress Ceramica: A knight’s tale

‘So long as beauty abides in only a few articles created by a few geniuses, the Kingdom of Beauty is nowhere near realisation.’

Bernard Leach 1

‘Fortress Ceramica’. I’m grateful to Garth Clark for so eloquently evoking the image of an institution that seems isolated from the world and resistant to the opportunities that lie in the outside work. The image of this secluded castle evokes in our minds phrases like ‘silo mentality’ that reflect old vertical hierarchies that are out of step with the flat networks of our time. For Clark, Fortress Ceramica is a bastion of the Anglo-Oriental Company, an imperial institution for the appropriation of other cultures into a self-righteous ceramic tradition. This company is besieged by the modern world, unable to adapt to the new values of our time.

The image of a beleaguered Fortress Ceramica conjures up the scene of a roundtable with knights sitting in frantic discussion as the Normans are about to scale the ramparts. What will these noble gentlemen do? Will they join the Normans, in the hope one day that they can present themselves at the glorious court of Paris? Or will they stay true to their faith, despite the great hardships they will face. We have already heard from Garth Clark of wonderful prospects for those like Grayson Perry or Jeff Koons who leave the isolation of the fortress behind for the bright lights of celebrity. Let’s look to the other path. Let’s follow one stubborn knight, Sir Bernard, who prefers to go underground for a while, in the hope that the ideals represented by Fortress Ceramica might be restored.

What are these ideals? Sir Bernard takes as his guiding principal the immortal words of John Ruskin that ‘the beauty which is indeed to be a joy for ever, must be a joy for all.’ 2 This knight’s tale considers how ceramics as a field might fare beyond its familiar craft setting, in some of the new developments in the art world.

Following the theme of medieval romance, our journey will take us to a region called ‘the green world’, 3 in reference to the forests, such as Arden and Sherwood, when heroes disappear into a mysterious other world of camaraderie and magic. In the green world, heroes leave beyond the royal power struggles for the utopian world of common folk. It is a space of transformation in narrative, appropriate to this period of change we now face in ceramics.

Having swam the moat and escaped the invading Normans, Sir Bernard seeks refuge in the mysterious forest. Across his path he encounters a strange object, which portends what lies ahead.

This portends strange


What’s in my bag, by Kinki (2005)

It’s a handbag, or rather a handbag’s contents displayed for the entire world to see. For Sir Bernard, this is his first glimpse of life outside Fortress Ceramica. There’s a wallet, a digital camera, some tissues, candy, the inevitable iPod, keys, chewing gum, pocket PC and sundry other items. It’s hard to imagine ceramics in this sea of disposable items and gadgets. But what surprise the knight are not so much the contents themselves as that they are on public display.

This particular handbag comes from a photo-sharing site, Flickr. ‘What’s in my bag’ is a common theme for users of Flickr. This is a rather modest example of the great ‘opening out’ of inner experience that seems to have occurred in our times. Through reality television programs like Big Brother and the Internet explosion of blogs, the boundaries of public and private seem to be erased. The ‘society of spectacle’ has turned endoscopic.

The ‘network age’, as some call it, reflects an increasing interconnectness between people, particularly in the affluent west. We see it in the street, with the rise of café society and the hegemony of the latte. The talking head of current affairs has been replaced by the panel format, as non-experts trade gossip and chat about recent events. A glimpse at any train or bus will find commuters busy texting and talking on their mobile phones. I link therefore I am. And to be offline is to be nowhere.

So how goes our noble knight of clay? Rather perplexed, one might say. For Sir Bernard, ceramics is a matter of individual conscience: clay speaks from the heart.4 To see ceramics as an individual pursuit best acknowledges the investment of time and labour that has gone into the development of skills, as embodied in the hands of the potter. Long hours of solitary labour are required to test the limits of the clay and experiment with glazes. The product of this quest thrives best in the gaze of the connoisseur, who holds up the vessel and appreciates its rare colour and form, and covets private ownership. Such connoisseurs would be suspicious of an artist too connected with the world, fearing the object was produced in a moment of fashion consciousness rather than solitary inspiration.

Sir Bernard steels himself before entering the forest, realising he is straying into alien territory. This apprehension is confirmed when he comes across a strange and irreverent gathering of people-a group of merry men, no less.

Art for everyone

In visual arts, the paradigm that many have adopted to respond to the convergences of our time is relational aesthetics. Defined in the writings of Nicholas Bourriaud, relational aesthetics moves the focus in art from the lone object to the relations between people that art is seen to enable. This art creates fluid communities, which assert democratic values in resistance to the consumerism that hijacks social relations for brand identification and market penetration. As Bourriaud defines it, ‘ relational art [is] an art taking as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space).’ 7 Here is art for the age of the mobile phone and service economy.

To the conventional gaze, relational art hardly seems like art at all. For instance, for a work in the 1996 Sydney Biennale, the artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres filled a gallery with candies wrapped in gold cellophane. Visitors were free to help themselves to this bounty. The meaning of the work was not in the installation at all, but in the position that we find ourselves as a viewer when we weigh up individual desire against the collective responsibility in order to preserve an art work for public enjoyment.6 Relational art is not a mirror to life, it creates possibilities for community.

In our tale, Nicholas Bourriaud plays the role of Robin Hood, leading a creative group of artists in redistributing the spoils of artistic value from the lone studio genius to the emerging republic of ‘extras’. Both Robin Hood and Sir Bernard would seem to share a common enemy in the Normans-or global consumerism in our time. But they have radically different approaches. Bourriaud imbues relational aesthetics with a puritan disdain for art as a form of idol worship. He rails against the ‘dead object crushed by contemplation.’ It may seem there is little prospect for an object-centric art in this movement, but there are new works which honour craft in ways that do not focus on the individually made object.

In order to gather fellow travellers in his quest, Sir Bernard ventures forth, searching for a relational ceramics that champions the ideal of art for everyone.

A soft beginning

Though most relational art is performance based and ephemeral, there are some craft-based processes, such as the Buddy System by Cook Island artist Ani O’Neill. Inspired by her Raratongan grandmother, O’Neill has devised a touring art work that recruits visitors to learn crochet and make a simple flower design. The crocheted flowers are placed on the gallery walls in an ever-growing installation. At the end of the ‘exhibition’, these flowers are sent to a person nominated by the maker. Buddy System has been quite successful for O’Neill, featuring in many cultural festivals, including the first Auckland Triennial.

Textile art would seem a natural medium for gregarious uses as it lends itself to the social group. In Melbourne, we have witnessed the knitting revolution develop as younger people sought meaningful ways of coming together outside of the commodified spaces of entertainment. While commonplace as domestic craft in the previous century, such practices as crochet today are modestly effective forms of resistance to the hyper-consumerism focused on brands and technology. As the society of spectacle renders experience ever more vicarious, through obsessions such as celebrity gossip, the very involvement of visitors in the production of the work provides opportunity for a personal stand against consumption.

Might there also be merry men of clay?

The oriental path

The field of ceramics lends itself to greater specialisation than textiles and thus seems more difficult to realise as a collective endeavour. However, in the realm of sculpture, all paths lead to one man-an Englishman who has gathered an enormous crowd of followers during his pilgrimages to distant lands, Anthony Gormley.

Anthony Gormley’s Asian Field is one of the most promoted works in the current 2006 Sydney Biennale. Asian Field is part of a series of work the British sculptor produced by recruiting people from communities to produce figurines with local clays. Previous works have come from Bristol, Mexico, Brazil and Sweden.

Asian Field was produced by 347 inhabitants of the Chinese city of Xiangshan, aged between 7 and 70 years. Their brief was to produce clay figures that were the palm-sized, could stand upright, and have two holes for eyes. Gormley had planned to include 100,000 figures, but total ended up being 192,000, made over a five day period.



Anthony Gormley Asian Field installation shot from Sydney Biennale Pier 2/3, photograph by Kevin Murray

Sir Bernard is deeply impressed by the expansiveness of Asian Field . As one individual, he feels the gaze of nearly half a million eyes, an experience of both omnipotence and humility. There are also subtle variations in the clay evident across the installation, as the figures reflect the different qualities of clay distributed across the land. Asian Field certainly warrants the ‘long look’.

Intrigued, our knight approaches one of these figures. When he examines it closely, he finds to his surprise a quite crudely fashioned object, nothing like what he expected from the Chinese with their venerable traditions. Why would a great artist include works that a child could have made?

For Gormley, the series has two motives. The first is to honour the primordial mission of sculpture, as witnessed in the first human interventions into landscape which lifted horizontal rocks into vertical forms, reflecting the ascent of man from a four to a two legged beast. Thus Gormley transforms the resting nature of earth into the animated works of art.

Gormley’s second interest is to reverse the power relations in traditional art. As he says, ‘I want to democratise the space of art.’ Gormley gives over the privilege of making to the people. He is no longer the sole artist who creates the work. Rather, the work is produced as many others seek to express themselves. This reversal is parallel to the physical transformation of the gallery, from the crowd visiting the unique object to the multiple objects looking at the unique visitor. For Gormley, ‘you become the subject of art’s gaze rather than the other way round.’

All seems well and good. Gormley has been careful to acknowledge each individual participant. The installation is accompanied by photographs showing the face of the Chinese makers next to an example of their work. The combination of faces and figurines betray a rough idiosyncrasy, filled with humour and hope.

Our intrepid knight of clay finds much to admire in this egalitarianism. Sir Bernard holds dear the ideal of the ‘unknown craftsman’-the natural desire to make that is best expressed in the amateur spirit. This was an ideal he shared with his oriental brothers, who gave this anonymous production a revered Zen-like status.

His curiosity piqued, the knight inquires further. What can we learn from the objects in Asian Field about the lives of their creators? How are they different from others that have been produced in alternative cultures of the world? While eloquent about the vision of the artist, the objects themselves are surprisingly mute about their creators.

Our bold knight delves further into the world behind Asian Field .

New Chinese empire


Xiangshan factory photo by Andrea Tam

In Chinese history, Xiangshan is the revered home town of the nation’s father, Sun Yat Sen. Today, it is one of Guangdong’s ‘four little tigers’, specialising in hardware, appliances, casual wear and mahogany furniture industries. Many of us are probably wearing clothes made in Xiangshan, or use their devices in our kitchens. It’s part of the revolution in consumerism that has made inflation history and has given us all access to low-cost goods.

But as enlightened consumers, we know that this prosperity can come at a cost. In a famous case, workers in a Xiangshan factory were found working for as little as $22 a month making handbags for Wal-Mart. They were forced to hand over identity documents under pain of arrest, denied overtime pay and fined if spent too long in the bathroom.

How is Gormley’s installation situated in the context of contemporary China? There is nothing in Gormley’s work or statements that relates specifically to China. Asian Field was part of a British Council campaign called Think UK; it was first exhibited in the Imperial Palace next to Tiananmen Square. If we forget, for a moment, the boundary between the worlds of art and commerce, Gormley can be seen to be following a similar path to that other Western visitor, Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch aimed to introduce STAR TV into the Chinese market, which he considered the fastest growing into the world. As Murdoch said to the Asia Society: ‘Today, hundreds of millions of Chinese not only dare to dream but have confidence that their dreams will become reality.’

Like Murdoch, Gormley is presenting China as a sea of individuals, each with their own unique aspirations. But alas, there is nothing in what they produce that connects with the traditions that inform Chinese history, from the ceramics of the Ming Dynasty to the communist ideologies of the post-imperial era. These are placeless Chinese, ready to enlist in the Hollywood dreams of Foxtel.

There’s nothing new in this. The West’s great hunger for Chinese goods has always faced the difficulty of finding something to offer in exchange. In response to the British attempt to trade for tea and porcelain, Emperor Qianlong famously pronounced to King George III, ‘We possess all things. I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country’s manufactures.’ In response, the British cultivated a Chinese addiction to opium, which they could supply from their farms in India.

The west’s trade deficit with China is ballooning out. 7 What do we have to offer the Chinese that they can’t produce more cheaply and efficiently themselves? Not so much a thing, as a state of mind-individualism. The aspirational fantasies of western entertainment ( Titanic was one of Murdoch’s success stories in China) have the capacity to liberate the collective Juggernaught of China culture and unleash a sea of individual desires. They can become just like us.8

For Sir Bernard, the forest beyond Fortress Ceramica reveals itself as a place of mystery and disguise. While dressing himself up as Robin Hood, Anthony Gormley turns out to be a secret Norman, seeking to convert good people of honour into seekers of individual fortune. Next, our knight finds a Chinaman who comes dressed as a Norman. Is this another disguise?

A noble warrior reveals himself

So is this the end for Chinese ceramics in the west? Fortunately not. Also in the Sydney Biennale is the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. His signature piece is Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995), which is a photographic documentation of the artist wilfully destroying a precious Chinese artefact. Ai Weiwei comments bluntly: ‘China is a factory of the world. So boring porcelain stay same 2,000 years: break.’ Naturally, our first response is to recoil with horror. Here is modernism at its most brutal-the destruction of tradition for sensational effect.

But in a way, there is something refreshing about this honesty. Ai Weiwei is performing openly what Gormley achieves by default. Weiwei’s recent work Ghost Valley Coming Down the Mountain (Museum für Moderne Kunst) featured 96 vases from the Yuan period reproduced from the original workshop. These filter ceramic tradition through a modernist lens, reducing the singular masterpiece into a grid of reproductions. While destroying the integrity of the original, Weiwei’s work honours ceramics tradition by disseminating it through a modern gaze. Like Asian Field , it replaces the one with the many, but it leaves the viewer with a means to connect with Chinese culture.

Tradition with a human face

In Australia, we have some notable examples of dialogue with China. Prominent recently in Australian galleries is Ah Xian, a refugee from Tiananmen Square. Recently collected by the National Gallery of Australia, Human Human is a life-sized figure finely ornamented by the traditional craftsmen at the Jingdong Cloisonné Factory in Hebei Province, east of Beijing. Its principle motif is the lotus, the traditional sign of hope on the journey to enlightenment. While incorporating a very traditional form of Chinese ornament, Ah Xian has made quite a radical shift in substituting the body for the vessel. For Ah Xian, this places the human body at the source of life, rather than nature.

Ah Xian can be compared to Gormley as someone who brings a humanism to China. But this humanism is not a force that forgets Chinese identity. For Ah Xian, this westernisation enables the tradition to flower in new and engaging ways.

Tradition with a western body


Ceramic collaboration by Robin Best and Huang Xiuqian for Writing a Painting, curated by Vivonne Thwaites

Such a path is also followed by Robin Best, in work for the beautiful exhibition curated by Vivonne Thwaites, Writing a Painting , which was presented at the University of South Australia School Of Art gallery at this year’s Adelaide Festival. The exhibition featured works by Robin Best in collaboration with the Chinese ceramic painter Huang Xiuqian and the Ernabella artist Nyukala Baker.

Best’s methodology is similar to Ah Xian’s, though she herself creates the forms that are then ornamented by foreign specialist artists. Her own work is known particularly for its subtle textures that often reflect the surfaces of the landscape that inspire her. For these works, she has given the surface over as an act of collaboration.

Like Ah Xian and Ai Weiwei, Best introduces a modernist aesthetic that abstracts traditional form. But hers is a more aesthetic interest in the formal beauty of spaces created by these shapes. In flattening the traditional vase, she has heightened the painterly quality of their decoration. As cultural dialogue, it may be relatively formal, but her collaborative method does entail mutual respect.

Relational ceramics seems more a matter of collaboration than popularisation. Collaboration retains the exercise of skills which embody the traditions that individual makers represent. Popularisation seems to reduce ceramics to a clay version of ‘finger painting’ that is too crude for the expression of identity.

Collaboration, not collation


Chandragupta Thenuwara and David Ray in collaboration

While there is good reason for choosing China as the partner for cultural exchange in ceramics, clay provides a language for dialogue with other countries. The Commonwealth Games project, Common Goods: Cultures Meet Through Craft , was devised to enable a reciprocal exchange between the skilled visitors from distant lands and the welcoming hosts at home. Common Goods fell under the umbrella of the South Project, which looks to possible exchanges between artists from across the south. There are many untapped connections for Australian ceramicists with the traditions of our southern cousins in Africa and Latin America. The South Project has uncovered a newly emerging field of ‘world craft’. Common Goods was just a taste of what this new genre might bring.

There were nine pairings. One of these brought together local ceramicist David Ray and Sri Lankan artist Chandragupta Thenuwara. It was an unlikely but productive partnership.

Coming from the far flung Melbourne suburb of Ringwood, David Ray has an interest in the emancipatory potential of clay. For his Open Bench residency at Craft Victoria, David created a ceramic BBQ. At the performance that culminated this, David invited audience to make pinch pots that finished the installation. While his work remained the centrepiece, the audience could experience for themselves the plasticity of the materials.

His partner Chandragupta Thenuwara has invented his own genre of art-barrelism. Barrelism is the appropriation of the military paraphernalia of Colombo as art rather than sedimented violence. The bright combination of brown, green and yellow works in Colombo to achieve precisely the opposite purpose of camouflage. This decoration enables the barrels to stand out so they prevent the flow of traffic. Thenuwara cleverly subverts this by appropriating the barrel as a work of art and celebrating it in drawing, prints, installations and ceramics.

Chandragupta took advantage of the residency with David to explore camouflage as a three-dimensional form. He hand built ceramic tiles with wave shaped protrusions in camouflage colours. In response, David pursued the militaristic theme by forming a gun made of clay, which he was able to deconstruct into building-like forms. Together with the camouflage forms, the combined work had the appearance of a city grid, resting ambivalently as war rendered into peace or the hidden violence behind prosperity.



Chandragupta Thenuwara and David Ray collaborative work for Common Goods

It was a remarkable achievement given they had only three weeks, and innumerable cultural obstacles to traverse in this time. While we have had to learn to live with terror in the twenty-first century, it is a largely internalised fear. There is little evidence of threat in cities like Melbourne. The dialogue through clay with Sri Lanka offers us an opportunity to start giving form to these invisible fears.

To return to our lone craft crusader, the fall of Fortress Ceramica has not signalled the death of its ideals. There is in the area of cultural exchange a new appreciation of the capacity of clay to enable dialogue between those of different backgrounds, particularly between the consumerist west and the ‘productionist’ east. Such exchanges need to be reciprocal in order to sustain these differences while maintaining mutual understanding.

But cultural exchange is not the only adventure awaiting Sir Bernard in today’s forest, there are a number of other craft movements that take its egalitarian spirit out into the world. Let’s glimpse other paths leading out of the fortress.

Beyond the fortress 2 – a commoner’s tale



Honor Freeman with porcelain powerpoint

Reflecting the knitting revolution in textiles, the recent genre of ‘poor craft’ is an attempt to renew the spirit of craft with the use of common materials. In ceramics, Nicole Lister has employed her skills in porcelain to ennoble the humble packaging that normally accompanies ceramics. Beyond the object, Honor Freeman places porcelain in the public domain in the production of fake power points. Poor craft is a definite guerrilla movement of the Fortress Ceramica, determined to maintain the ideals of object making in a world dominated by hyper-consumption.10

Beyond the fortress 3 – a worker’s tale



Christian Capurro Another Misspent Portrait of Etienne de Silhouette

An alternative path is to focus on the way the object embodies the time spent in making it.

A work by Christian Capurro has some quite interesting relevance to ceramics. There are reports of a shortage of kaolin affecting porcelain production. One of the largest demands on kaolin is the production of glossy magazines. Capurro is one of a new generation of artists that turn labour into art. His work Another Misspent Portrait of Etienne de Silhouette commissioned a number of people to erase a page each from the male fashion magazine Vogue Hommes . They were asked to record how many hours it took to rub out the page, and what their normal hourly rate was. The work was thus calculated at $11,349.18.

While this kind of perverse conceptualism seems far from the ideals of the craft movement, it does suggest other paths for ceramicists, who might make a feature of their labour. Rather than selling a pot, one might sell the equivalent labour.11

Beyond the fortress 4 – a blogger’s tale

Finally, a new realm of underground action has developed recently in the production of blogs, daily web diaries. Blogs not only enable individuals to upload images and writing about their day’s concerns, but importantly it is a means of connecting people together based on shared interests. The blog becomes an informal project that solicits a mobile audience. The Danish ceramicist Karinne Erikson reflects not only on her challenges in the studio but also her involvement in a choir and occasional purchases. She adopts a popular method of dividing the week up into colours, so Red Friday includes images of Galerie La Fayette and an English stove. Part of new network includes Queensland ceramicist Shannon Garson, who used a bird theme for one week and encouraged visitors to submit works accordingly.


The attack on Fortress Ceramica symbolises the need to open up ceramics beyond interminable technical issues to external creative challenges. It offered as an alternative the rich opportunities available through the savvy commercial art world. Such opportunities often involve a disavowal of making and the celebration of cleverness. Trade in authenticity for relevance.

It is important to acknowledge that there are other paths leading out of Fortress Ceramica. While the field of relational aesthetics casts itself against craft as a process of commodification, there are strong affinities with its collective ideals. However, as a medium of skill, ceramics is more at home in reciprocal forms of collaboration rather than group work between strangers. Craft is for players, not bystanders.

Having lost the fellowship and security of the fortress, our gallant knight finds a spirit in the forest beyond that re-kindles his heartfelt beliefs. The tale is just beginning to unfold.


This is a version of a keynote paper delivered at the Verge:11th National Ceramics Conference in Brisbane 13 July 2006. It was written in response to the growing importance of relational aesthetics in the South Project, and the sense that contemporary craft needs to engage with this field of work if it is to sit alongside visual art. The paper is dedicated to Jane Sawyer, who first gave me a taste for clay when she generously took me on as a trial apprentice many years ago.

1. Bernard Leach, quoting Soetsu Yanagi, leader of Japanese craft movement, in A Potter’s Book London: Faber, 1940, p. 7

2. John Ruskin Arata Pentelici: Seven Lectures on the Elements of Sculpture London: George Allen, 1890, p. 23

3. ‘The green world has analogies, not only to the fertile world of ritual, but to the dream world that we create out of our own desires. This dream world collides with the stumbling and blinded follies of the world of experience, of Theseus’ Athens with its idiotic marriage law, of Duke Frederick and his melancholy tyranny, of Leontes and his mad jealously, of the Court Party with their plots and intrigues, and yet proves strong enough to impose the form of desire on it. Thus Shakespearean comedy illustrates, as clearly as any mythos we have, the archetypal functions of literature in visualizing the world of desire, not as an escape from ‘reality’, but as the genuine form of the world that human life tries to imitate.’

Northrop Frye Anatomy of Criticism New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1957, p. 183

4. ‘I think it is the precise quality of the machine, the nonhuman quality, that is driving hundreds of thousands of people back to clay. They want to enjoy themselves. They want to use and stretch their imaginations. They want to give expression to their feelings about life. They find clay to be a silent language, and in that language they are comparatively free to speak from the heart.’ Bernard Leach A Potter’s Challenge , p. 19

5. Nicholas Bourriaud Relational Aesthetics Paris: Les presses du réel, 2002 (orig. 1998), p. 14

6. Relational art might involve an artist cooking a dinner for a number of people. In 1993, the French artist Georgina Starr handed out sheets in a restaurant to customers dining alone, which spoke to them about the anxiety of solitary eating-anything to bring people together in unorthodox combinations.

7. ‘From virtually nothing in the 1980s, our trade deficit with China jumped to $103 billion last year. We exported just $22 billion worth of goods to China while importing $125 billion. By contrast, our trade deficit with Japan last year was 30 percent lower than that with China.’

8. But as well as a monument to neo-colonialism, Asian Field is problematic for its message about clay. As the product of ‘unskilled’ labour, Gormley’s installation is a warning sign of the growing infantalisation of ceramics, where clay is seen as a form of spontaneous expression innocent of skill and virtuosity. A museum in Melbourne is developing a touring exhibition of ceramic horses made by children. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that, but it would be a shame if audiences forgot the power of clay as a form of artistic expression.

9. Ceramics as a means of cementing relationships achieved its most literal expression in a recent series of events staged by Karen Casey, titled Let’s Shake . These reconciliation events involved indigenous and non-indigenous people shaking hands as the dental filling placed between the two hands slowly forms a solid impression. The clay-like substance compels two strangers to get to know each other. The length of time it takes for the material to dry dictates the duration of the relationship. The resulting negative shape of the handshake is then the material testament to the conversation. While celebrating the humanism of clay, this event highlights the seeming opposition between specialised skill and shared meaning.

10. For examples at Kevin Murray Make the Common Precious Melbourne: Craftsman House, 2005, or Craft Unbound

11. Examples of the ‘new labour movement’ were featured in an issue of Artlink in March 2005

Magicians of the South

A paper presented to the Craft in the 21st Century conference in Edinburgh (2002)



It seems these days we are blessed, or cursed, by long-term incumbent governments. Yet despite their seeming inexorable hold on power, we know that eventually, as night follows day, the UK will eventually be Tory and Australia will be Labor.

For Hegel, the popular understanding of the dialectic is expressed in the phrase, ‘Live and let live… each should have its turn…’  While Hegel’s logic is most commonly applied to the relationships of social class, dialectics can be useful in understanding other hierarchies, such as the one we all live in-the world. History has conspired to divide the world up into quarters-north and south, east and west. The uneasy relationship between these parts has provided the engine of much that we know of as world history. Today, the process of globalisation is seen to realise the dominance of one quarter over another-the west over the east, and the north over the south.

The role of craft in this world dialectic is particularly interesting. The crafts movement has defined itself by reference to the creative energies of the northern peoples. We can see today, though, a new destiny for craft in the post-colonial predicament of the south. The purpose of this paper is to outline what this destiny might entail.

To find our way south, in the space of a few minutes, we need to begin at the start of our journey—the west.


The Greek world view was defined by contrast with the barbarians beyond its borders. The Persians by Aeschylus is the earliest known Greek play, taking as its theme the invasion from the east. After the defeat of Xerxes’ Persian armies in 490 BC, the chorus laments:

Now All Asia’s lands
Moan in emptiness

For post-colonialist Edward Said, this play sets the stage for the dialectic of orientalism that dominates the West’s imagining of the east in centuries to follow: to Asia is a lost glorious past that only the West can recover. I’m sure that we are all familiar with this position and it doesn’t bear rehearsing here.

Orientalism was clearly important in the development of Western decorative arts. Styles such as Chinoiserie helped the rigid Europeans break out of their rigid conventions and embrace the arabesque.


But such exoticism is vulnerable to the inevitable criticism of decadence. In the late nineteenth century, the Arts & Craft movement proposed an alternative polarity that replaced the lost civilisation of the East with one more directly related to Europeans—the noble world of the north. The spiritual centre of William Morris’s craft revolution was Iceland, which he described a ‘holy land’, evoking the romance of the Norse sagas. On a parallel path, John Ruskin praised the ‘magnificent enthusiasm’ of the Gothic.

Along the vertical moral axis of the Arts & Craft movement, the vigorous character of the north is contrasted with stultifying hierarchies of the Latinate south. There were ample precedents for such a hierarchy. Germania, written by Tacitus in the first century, marvelled at the rude energies of the northern races. In the mid-eighteenth century, Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws laid the philosophical foundation of the European state with a climatic analysis of politics, contrasting the sincere north with the passionate south.

This movement certainly had its timeliness.

This North-ism is an occidentalist alternative to the decadent fascination with an exotic orient. It turns the gaze back on the orientalist to question his own lost origins. But the dialectic never rests: North-ism leads to its own alternative (with an interest) in the spontaneous creative energy that lies in the south.

‘Each should have its turn.’


In the early twentieth-century, many French artists looked south to refresh their jaded imaginations. In 1930, Henri Matisse travelled to Tahiti ‘to find simpler ways which won’t stifle the spirit’. One of the distinctive crafts in that part of Polynesia is tivaevae, appliqué quilts in bright colours. This flat decorative style re-emerges in Matisse’s later works using the cut-out technique, such as the Jazz series. As far as we know, Matisse established no enduring relationship with Tahitian crafts practitioners. His debt to their tradition is never acknowledged.

Closer to our time, this primitivist idealisation is often directed to the indigenous races of the south. The 1989 exhibition Magicien de la Terre invited third world artisans who had for so long been an inspiration to French artists. They were taken out of their ethnographic cabinet to sit alongside the individual western artists in a contemporary art setting. Magicien de la Terre was widely criticised for its Benetton-like global context. These artisans were the exotic guests in a modernist palace.

At this point, I should acknowledge the hospitality of Edinburgh College of Art in allowing ten Australasian jewellers to present their work in conjunction with this conference. Guild Unlimited works its way into this argument as a neoclassical regeneration from the antipodes: the intensely hierarchical structures of guild from the old north are here opened up to a pluralistic imagination of the new colonies.

Returning to south-ism, there have been attempts in Australian decorative arts by those originally from the north to incorporate indigenous motifs. The Australian printmaker Margaret Preston called for a new school of decorative arts influenced by Aboriginal designs. In 1925, she called for a national theme based on indigenous crafts:

. I have studied the aboriginal’s art and have applied their designs to the simple things in life, hoping that the craftsman will succeed where, until now, the artist has certainly failed.

Though artists like Preston seemed to celebrate indigenous culture, they were largely oblivious to the need for Aboriginal participation in this process.

This brings us to the post-colonial phase of the world dialectic, when the subaltern eventually asks to take the lead. In their recent book Empire, Hardt and Negri draw on Sartre’s concept of the ‘the moment of the boomerang’ to describe this phase. Here the exotic other begins to speak back, and so Aboriginal Australians began to increasingly assert their independence. In Australia, every important occasion is now preceded by an acknowledgment of traditional owners.

Thus we have seen a flowering of Aboriginal crafts in Australia. Just to take one example, Tiwi Island ceramics, originally established by Michael Cardew, was recently revived and exhibited as Yikwani, containing sculptural works of great invention.

Craft has become so associated with Aboriginal culture that in a recent government report (Inquiry into the Contemporary Visual Arts and Crafts by Rupert Myer), the generic term ‘Art and Craft Centres’ was used to describe Aboriginal places for making art. It was assumed that an ‘Art and Craft Centre’ would not be something that non-indigenous Australians would use.

We might feel a sense of completion with such an arrangement, as though we were at the natural end of the dialectic, when the passive object of colonial fascination is finally the active agent in the construction of their own culture. Yet, as Soviet Marxists found to their dismay, the dialectic is never finished. What is the sound of one hand clapping?

The indigenous flowering of craft occurs surrounded by a non-indigenous audience. They are the writers, curators, gallery visitors, administrators, bureaucrats, art advisors and connoisseurs. They are the silent participants, enjoying the other’s enjoyment.

As the identity of place is increasingly deferred to the original people, the moral tenure of northerners gone south becomes problematic. The question is raised: what can they give in exchange for the exotic delights they receive from the southern peoples?

And here we come to the present crisis in south-ism.  In recent years, this has become especially evident with the defeat of apartheid in South Africa, and the increasing recognition of first peoples in Australia and New Zealand.

Politically, bi-polar dialogue seems stymied with fears of land claims. Sport is often seen as the level playing field for Western and traditional, but there is little evolution of understanding. However, quietly working away in their studios, craft practitioners are stitching, soldering and dove-tailing together two otherwise incompatible cultures.

I’d like to mention briefly some developments in what used to be called the ‘southern dominions’.


To begin in Australia, textiles tend to be the preferred medium for craft exchange between indigenous and non-indigenous cultures. In Western Australia, the fibre artist Nalda Searles has developed a strong collaborative method with Aboriginal artists—Noongar in the south and Ngaanyatjarra in the Western desert.

In her art, Nalda Searles has been exploring ways of combining natural and man-made fibres. This includes embroidery of flora on found fabric, such as blankets and clothes. Her work reflects on the tenuous place of white people in this land. Searle’s signature piece is White Boy Blazer, a school uniform on which have been sewn the brachia of Xanthorrhea, known colloquially as Black Boy. Each of these brachia has been painted white, showing the uneasy tension between settlement and the wild bush beyond.

As a result of her long involvement with Ngaanyatjarra people, Nalda Searles is known by the word Kabbarli, which means ‘grandmother’. This term had been applied most famously to another woman living in the Nullarbor Plain a century earlier—Daisy Bates. Searles is currently developing a series of works that explore the confrontation between European dress and the more natural indigenous ornament. Bates’ morning toilet is a fascinating ordeal of Western decorum sustained in dramatic isolation. She writes,

I made my toilet to a chorus of impatient twittering. It was a fastidious toilet, for throughout my life I have adhered to the simple but exact dictates of fashion as I left it, when Victoria was queen—a neat white blouse, stuff collar and ribbon tie, a dark skirt and coast, stout and serviceable, trim shows and neat black stockings, a sailor hat and a fly-veil, and, for my excursions to the camps, always a dust-coat and a sunshade. Not until I was in meticulous order would I emerge from my tent, dressed for the day. My first greeting was for the birds.

This encounter between Western dress and southern wild nature provides the perfect scene for Searles’ craft process. Initi gloves combines the white gloves that Daisy Bates wore all the time during her dealings with the Aborigines and the initi seeds that they wore in their hair.

Searles’ combines both modern and traditional elements in a way that exposes their separation.

New Zealand

The dialogue mellows as we cross the Tasman Sea. There has been a more consistent history of reciprocal dealings between the Maori’s and their British guests. In the spirit of bi-culturalism, those of European descent refer to themselves as Maori term, Pakeha, meaning ‘those who arrive on ships with tall white sails’.

In the twentieth-century, there was much interest by Pakeha in the Maori ornamental traditions. This culminated in the Stone, Bone & Shell exhibition which toured Australia in 1988. It included jewellers and sculptors who drew from the Maori carving traditions, especially using Pounamu, or greenstone.

In 1998, the school was criticised for its appropriation of Maori culture. The jeweller Warwick Freeman was singled out as a ‘plunderer of the Pacific’. At a conference in Hobart in 1998, Freeman defended his practice as a form of dialogue between cultures.

Bi-culturalism calls for active exchange between the cultures—art is a fundamental participant in this engagement—it functions well in the so called ‘negotiated space’ – the space between two cultures

More recently in New Zealand, there have been a number of Polynesian artists, especially from Samoa, who have begun to exploit this irony. Niki Hastings-McFall is of Samoan descent and combines in her work reference to traditional islander forms and modern symbols, such as the conjunction of Solomon Island breastplates and modern symbols such as mag wheels. Her series ‘Flock’ uses the techniques of traditional breastplates but incorporates alternative materials, pearl shell and silver. Included in the radial design are aeroplane symbols which reflect an ironic continuity of traditional and modern.

For all the inevitable conflicts and misunderstandings, New Zealand craft appears to play on a relatively reciprocal exchange between Western and traditional cultures.

South Africa

The parallel path of relations between first and subsequent peoples has taken a dramatic turn in South Africa. Under the Dutch Reform Church, Afrikaners saw themselves as the chosen people and their Great Trek was a journey to the Promised Land. Now, in the Rainbow Nation, they must take their place amongst the heathens not as masters but as equals.

Apartheid had extended to the arts as much as politics. There had been little appropriation of African crafts by settler artists. The curios that could be purchased during holiday treks to the Transvaal were largely imported from countries like Congo and Nigeria.

It’s different now.

New crafts have emerged as hybrids of traditional technique and modern lifestyle. Telephone wire weaving was developed initially by city nightwatchmen, who sought to fill their time by weaving as they would in their village home. Without natural grasses, they were forced to gather whatever was to hand. Odd pieces of telephone wire provided particularly colourful materials for weaving.

Today, telephone wire weaving has become the main source of income for villages like the township of Umlassi in Durban. It has reached the stage now where the main telecommunications company Telkom distribute the wire for free—for the practical reason that otherwise people would steal wires off the poles and so disrupt the telephone system.

While these crafts provide important sources of income, they have not as yet been able to establish themselves as individual artists with reputations in their own right.

Among visual artists gaining reputation in the new South Africa are Zulu men who aspire to the status as healers. These are often charismatic figures whose work is informed by visions.

Lange Magwa looks particularly to objects that are held as sacred to both Western and traditional cultures. ‘Made in China’ is a large gramophone horn woven from cow hide, inside which is a speaker broadcasting in different languages represented in Durban radio. It rests on a springbok hide which is laid over an Indian fabric. For Magwa, his work aims to operate magically to heal the rift between the three main races of Durban. In Zulu ritual, the horn is used as a symbol of magical protection: it can be ground up as healing powder, used as a container of medicine or added to other objects, like a house, to protect it from evil spirit. By finding a link with the European white magic of the gramophone, Magwa is extending the power of the horn into the new South Africa.

So where does this leave white Africans? Many white artists have moved now from their own work to facilitating others. One such artist is Andries Botha. He has established a philanthropic project, Amazini Abisifazane (Voices of Women). This is a cooperative venture presenting embroideries by women about their traumatic experiences. While such projects are important to the economic development of the new South Africa, they do risk entrenching a victimary identity on the previously disadvantaged.

Botha’s own sculptural installations move towards greater self-understanding. In his monumental series What is a Home (1995), a three-metre high steel-plated man with Afrikaner hat is clutching a straw woman in Zulu headdress performing a dance known in Afrikaans as binne boet (‘inside the arse’). In his own work, Andreas is attempting to uncover the folk tradition of Afrikaner culture to find something that is more complementary to the Zulu values.

Contemporary sculptors in the new South Africa are drawing on their own craft traditions to weave together the black and white cultures that have been kept strictly separate during most of their lives. There’s a long way to make up.

Magicians of the south

And here we get to the bottom of things. The bottom of the world is emerging as a forum whereby the European self and its exotic other can finally meet and engage in reciprocal dialogue. This ‘south’ offers a backstage where the exotic actors can exchange masks with their ordinary audience.

In this setting, craft provides an important common language whereby exchange can develop between traditional artisans and Western artists. Old techniques can combine with introduced materials. Alien symbols emerge out of traditional patterns. Using the charismatic authority of magicians, prophets, healers and artists, these individuals can realise new similarities and differences between the two worlds that find each other in the south.

The wrongs of the past certainly demand reparation. Someone needs to say sorry. But the process of empowerment still bears the legacy of colonial paternalism. ‘Live and let live’ carries an onerous responsibility—not only to allow others to fulfil their lives, but live one’s own as well. While global culture offers a nowhere-land of vicarious experience, the local cultures of the south provide a way of re-orienting ourselves where we are, if we can listen.


G.W.F. Hegel Logic (trans. W. Wallace) Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975 (orig. 1830)

Edward Said Orientalism New York: Pantheon, 1978, p. 57

Fiona MacCarthy William Morris: A Life for Our Times London: Faber, 1994, p. 309

John Ruskin Stones of Venice New York: Da Capo Press, 1960 (orig. 1853), p. 176

Thomas McEvilley Art & otherness: crisis in cultural identity Kingston, NY: Documentext/McPherson, 1992,  pp. 69-70

Margaret Preston ‘The indigenous art of Australia’ Art in Australia 1925, , pp. 3-11

Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri Empire Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001, p. 130

Daisy Bates The Passing Of The Aborigines: A Lifetime Spent Among The Natives Of Australia London: Murray, 1938, p. 198