Category Archives: Opinion

Time to get horizontal in Asia


Sandra Bowkett is an Australian potter who has been able to establish deep connections with Indian culture through respect for their craft traditions. You can read her story here and listen to the recent ABC Radio National program about her here.

Last night, I attended the launch of a paper by Carillo Ganter and Alison Carroll, Finding a Place on the Asian Stage. This was an Asialink event, designed to advocate for a great focus on the region. In a daring move, they invited the ex-Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd to official launch the paper.

After outlining his own history of involvement with Asia, Rudd made some forceful points about what Australia should do. He emphasised that Asia contained some of the oldest continuous civilisations in the world. For Rudd, it was critical that Australia show respect for these cultures. Rudd argued that this respect was manifest in the commitment to learn the languages of the region. He reflected sadly on the recent decline of Asian literacy in Australia. 

In terms of continuous civilisations, Australia certainly does have an indigenous culture, which it proudly presents on the world stage. But as a postcolonial nation, it tends to overlook its own cultural traditions. Art forms that are revered in Asia, such as calligraphy, ceramics and puppetry, tend to be dismissed in Australia as hobbies. Australia’s modernist outlook has professionalised the arts and privileges originality above mastery. While this has enriched its theatre stages and art galleries, it has led to the neglect of traditional arts. It seems important for dialogue in the region that Western countries like Australia more clearly identify their own traditions.

What’s to be done? There are three steps that I believe could made a difference:

  1. National representation for traditional arts such as crafts as points of contact for corresponding bodies in the Asian region
  2. Greater involvement in bodies such as UNESCO and the World Crafts Council which Asian nations look to as keepers of heritage
  3. Support for creative collaborations between contemporary and traditional art forms

Above all, it is important to avoid the arrogance that sees traditional arts as a sign of backwardness. Cultural practices such as fibre arts are celebrated in Australian indigenous culture. They should also be respected in the region.

This situation has bitten me recently with the visit to Australia of the largest ever craft delegation from China. This includes 28 leaders in the crafts, organised by the China Arts & Crafts Association, the official crafts body in China representing 3 million members. Having recently defunded Craft Australia, there was no equivalent national body to welcome this delegation. Many state organisations will open their doors to the delegation, but there is no Australian body through which to follow up the opportunities that are created.

In its heyday, Craft Australia was funded to both host and send delegations in the Asian region. If Australia is serious about engagement with Asia, then it needs to ensure that it covers all the cultural bases. There needs to a horizontal re-alignment across art forms. While this does offer the promise of deeper connection with Asia, it also has potential to enrich Australian culture too, re-connecting it with its own past.

What comes after Craft Australia?

The Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council recently announced its decision to de-fund Craft Australia. There are a few factors behind this. Some are quite fundamental. The very name ‘Craft Australia’ doesn’t reflect increasing interest in representing design. Others were circumstantial. It was seen to have a low public profile and depend exclusively on Federal funding.

The roots for this predicament lie partly in history. Craft Australia was actually disbanded about a decade ago when it was seen to clash with moves by organisations such as Object (previously Crafts Council of New South Wales) to represent the sector nationally (in the context of the 2000 Sydney Olympics). In 2003, Craft Australia was moved from Sydney to Canberra, and re-born as a lighter organisation that would focus on lobbying, research and promoting the sector.

As a result, Craft Australia was left without an exhibition program which it could brand as a unique product. However, it sourced good writing and managed to produce much useful online information. Other organisations have cut back their publishing. Object magazine moved from a print to an iPad format (now including Android and online), but remains largely a promotional vehicle. Without argument, we lapse into just telling ourselves the things we like to hear. Craft Australia remained as a lone source of serious national dialogue around the business of craft and design. In the broader scheme of things, it invested more in content than marketing.

This incarnation of Craft Australia will be remembered for many achievements. The series of Selling Yarns conferences were quite seminal in developing a reconciliation dialogue around the flourishing scene of Indigenous crafts. The peer-reviewed Craft & Design Enquiry created a very important platform for academic research, which helps bolster the broader ecology for the field.

So what happens now? Will another organisation take up Craft & Design Enquiry? What will be Australia’s connection with the World Craft Council, a key cultural network in our region. Where has the money gone? Funding for Object has been increased, but what will they contribute to common story of Australian craft and design? There will be a fund set aside for strategic initiatives in craft, but which organisation will come forward to fill the gap in our national platform?

What happens to the archives? Where does the 40 year old story of Australian craft go?

In the broader context, the demise of Craft Australia reflects some disturbing trends. According to the creative industry model, the unit of value becomes the ‘job’ – the individual practitioner as a small business. In this scenario, culture is reflected back as a series of economic measures. Our cultural organisations work more within a corporate mentality, putting their brand value before higher ideals. There is no longer a common story that artists can contribute to. There is little motivation to create the astounding work of art that changes the way people might think or feel about the world. The market comes first. Creative industry provides a language for the arts that is readily understood by outside political interests, but we need to maintain an internal set of critical dialogues for acknowledging artistic value.

I hope I’m wrong. Craft as a practice does depend on collective institutions. From guilds to craft councils, they provide a memory that nurtures skills across generations. Without these, we no longer have craftspersons, only ‘makers’. We no longer have those who dedicate their lives to a specialist material, learning the intricate language of clay, glass or silver. We have makers who do show invention and spirit, but few aspire to reach beyond the local scene to tell a collective story.

Think about what’s happened on our political stage. Our last two Prime Ministers have eschewed any reference to Australian history in their speeches. The passionate contest over the Australian story that divided Howard and Keating has been replaced by calls for ‘working families’ and ‘stop the boats’. Without an ongoing narrative, public leaders end up consumed by personality politics, which rushes in to fill the vacuum.

This doesn’t mean that craft needs to be preserved in a fixed form. The loss of Craft Australia comes just as design is moving towards craft as a social value. As it always has, craft is presently re-configuring itself for changed times, responding to new developments such as ethical consumerism and social networks.

The people who made the decision to de-fund Craft Australia were no doubt seriously considering what’s best for the sector. But we do need to think carefully about where it might lead. We need to shift momentum away from atomised self-interest to our common story. No one is saying that it needs to be a single story, but it’s the argument about what this story is that keeps us in the game.

Disclaimer: I was on the interim board that re-constituted Craft Australia in 2003 and I am currently serving on the research committee that oversees Craft & Design Enquiry.

Diamonds are for everyone

How contemporary jewellery breaks the alliance of risk and management.

Risk management

Like other media around the nation, The Age newspaper heralded the recent carbon tax as ‘Julia’s Gamble’. It’s an odd take. How could such a bureaucratic exercise as an emissions levy be viewed as a game of chance? The immense business of re-aligning flows of capital across the nation comes down to a fragile human drama—how one politician manages to hold herself together as she walks the gauntlet of media and public. Good policy isn’t quite enough. We still need to toss the coin.

We are awash with statistics of Australia’s impecunity. Complementing our astronomical greenhouse emissions are regular reports of our addiction to gambling. Last year, the gambling turnover in Australia was $153 billion. An Economist special issue had Australia as a world leader in the amount of gambling spent per capita—each Australian loses on average $1,300 a year, or $22 billion. The Australian Gaming Council is understandably optimistic, expecting a four-fold increase in TAB and on-course gambling.

It is not just the amount of gambling that we notice, but its increasing reach into daily life. Gambling odds are now seen as incisive augers of the fortunes of political parties leading up to an election—‘money doesn’t lie’. Gambling is presented as a way of supporting your favourite team. The website for the online betting business 888 Australia talks up gambling as a form of participation: ‘Instead of screaming from the MCG side lines, why not bet on the game… nothing says confidence and support like a placed bet.’ Gambling ‘products’ go beyond the final outcome to continuous odds and idiosyncrasies, such as the first goal. The ‘one day in the year’ when Australians used to ‘flutter’ has come become every second.

The current flood of gambling reflects a familiar metaphor for the Australian condition. The ‘lucky country’ has been able to ride out the GFC thanks to the good fortune of its mineral deposits. Thus an exhaustively planned policy to introduce a carbon tax is viewed as a toss of the coin.

Given this, one could be forgiven for seeing gambling as a source of grand evil in Australia. But is playing with luck always a lost cause? Why go a half measure in mandatory limits for poker machines? Why not ban gambling completely?

The prospect of a world where chance is over-regulated evokes the other blight on Australian society—managerialism. Those working in universities decry the way teaching and research is reduced to quantitative accounting, leading inevitably to the bottom line. What Frank Furedi in the Times Higher Education calls ‘the formalisation of university life’ entails the removal of context and judgement from academic practices. The aim of ranking schemes like ERA is to serve a dashboard hierarchy in which the complexity of research can be reduced to a series of dials sitting on the desks of managers.

Similarly, we decry how managerialism has infected politics. ALP ‘machine men’ put public polling before ideology. The expanding ad-scapes in public transport are evidence of the public-private partnerships that seek to capitalise on common needs.

Risk and its management seem to be our Scylla and Charybdis. On the one hand we have a blatant disregard for money in compulsive gambling, and on the other an over-valuing of it in managerialism. Are they symptoms of the same cause or potential antidotes of each other?

The spirit of risk has become industrialised in clubs like sweatshops milking the unmet human need for chance. Capitalism has become hyper-efficient in gathering huge fortunes, but unable to build anything enduring with it. With Crown Casino, the Packer empire has blossomed as both a player and consumer of the lucky dollar. The bulimic alliance of capital and its purging needs to be broken.

The key is in the lock, we just need to turn it. Gambling is a natural antidote to managerialism. In its traditional context, gambling can be effective in countering the sacred quality of money. The ‘lucky dollar’ is usually taken out of circulation and used as a charm. The ‘luck economy’ reveals the fetish element of commodification. In Singapore, shops selling charms quote prices with lucky associations, such as $388. Rather than the atomised scene of pokie venues, traditional gambling is intensely social. Balinese cock fights or two-up in Melbourne lanes were scenes of vibrant local culture.

The alternative currency of contemporary jewellery

Melbourne has recently been the site of radical jewellery practice that seeks to question conventions of value, particularly in monetary form. This group sits within the marginal but globally diverse realm of contemporary jewellery.

The ‘movement’ of contemporary jewellery began in post-war Europe as a critique of preciousness. The aim was to liberate ornament from a purely monetary value. Rather than use only diamonds and gold, artists celebrated the preciousness of alternative materials, such as aluminium and plastic. While this was initially a way of giving value to labour, particularly creative innovation, recent jewellers have been more radical in questioning the basis of monetary value itself.

This occurs today in various parts of the world. At the annual festival of ornament in Munich, Schmuck, the jeweller Stefan Heuser presented a work titled ‘The Difference Between Us’. It consisted of one hundred identical cast sterling rings. The only difference between them was price, which ranged from $1 to $100 in dollar increments. Monetary value was the only element separating the rings. While most rushed to buy the cheapest rings, a few chose prices for aesthetic reasons. Would you prefer a ring costing $49 or $88?

Ethical Metalsmiths from the USA promotes jewellery production that doesn’t involve environmentally damaging mining. In their Radical Jewelry Makeover events, participants bring their unloved jewellery to be recycled into new original pieces. They receive a credit for their contribution which goes toward purchasing a new piece. Money doesn’t have to change hands, just the bracelets.

Jewellery provides a way of deconstructing money as a material substance. In a recent survey of Latin American jewellery, Argentinean Elisa Gulminelli created a small sculpture that juxtaposed a mountain of pesos from the past with a tiny coin representing their current equivalent. What’s today’s currency is tomorrow’s trash.

In New Zealand, Matthew Wilson has applied his Maori heritage to the fine weaving of metal. Alongside this, he has developed a striking technique of extracting the motifs of coins from their background. Out of mass manufactured articles, he has created individual works of art. There is something magical in the way he has liberated coinage from its heavy duty of exchange. His work brings into stark relief the enduring national symbols.

In Melbourne, a particular school of urban jewellery has evolved that seeks to make value out of nothing. This can involve collecting aged plastic from gutters, as Roseanne Bartley does in her Seeding the Cloud project, where she her Coburg neighbourhood to create an elegant necklace out of what the streets provide. Bartley is a New Zealand ex-pat who was originally taught bone-carving by a Maori in Auckland. She has specialised in using leftover materials, such as her series Homage to Qwerty that made handsome jewels out of typewriter keys and strikers. She has been particularly interested in the sociology of jewellery as a way of connecting people together, even constructing human necklaces for a performance work. Seeding the Cloud employs the jeweller’s craft to create poetic expressions of place out of its detritus.

Her colleague Caz Guiney has evoked great controversy in questioning notions of preciousness. Her City Rings project in 2003 placed gold ornament in secret locations around Melbourne CBD, such as a gold brooch on a rubbish bin. This quickly became the topic of the day for talk radio, as government funding was seen to be thrown away on trash. In an almost atavistic ‘gold fever’, prospector scaling city buildings to find Guiney’s jewels. Guiney eventually had to call her project off to prevent law suits from those injured in the process. Since then, Guiney has continued in a more modest way to plant jewellery in public urban spaces, short-circuiting the relationship between preciousness and private property.

More recently, the collective Part B has sprung up to realise jewellery ‘flash mob’ style events in the city. Last year, their exhibition titled ‘Steal This’ invited the public to come and steal works on display in a Melbourne lane. Another collective, Public Assembly, is located in the Camberwell Market and produces jewellery from curious vintage objects that visitors find in the nearby stalls. The resulting pieces can then be paid for by donation. For these collective jewellers, the worth is not in the materials themselves but the stories that people bring with them.

Of particular note is the project by Vicki Mason, Broaching Change Project, which is designed to introduce the idea of an Australian Republic into everyday life by person to person contact. She has produced three beautifully made brooches based on the wattle, oregano and rose, as currencies of communal gardening. Despite their obvious value, she distributes these for free. The only proviso is that when someone notes how attractive these are, you are obliged to give them over, as long as they agree to do the same when it comes to them. Since the project started early 2010, various hosts of these brooches have been contributing their comments about a garden-led republicanism.

Such jewellery re-connects with the origins of ornament as a form of protection. By contrast with the pearls and diamonds that find a resting place on the bodies of the status-conscious wealthy—with little resale value—the power of amulets increases through circulation. We need to put Pandora back in the box and put on the heirloom charm bracelets.

Gambling can be a source of social connection by demystifying the power of money. But this has become industrialised in our time. Far from opening our lives to chance, it furthers our atomisation. Risk or management, which is it to be? Heads or tails?

A version of this article was published in Arena Magazine, #113, 2011. It was written as part of New Work grant supported by the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council.

Is contemporary jewellery alive or dead?–the prognosis

Jewellery on the street, courtesy of flickr and gurms

Jewellery on the street, courtesy of flickr and gurms

The enterprising students at RMIT Gold & Silversmithing last week organised a forum-style debate about the state of health in the field of contemporary jewellery. This event had been prompted by Susan Cohn’s comments in a forum last year that the ‘contemporary jewellery movement was dead’. There seemed much hanging on the presence or absence of the word ‘movement’ in this statement, with some interpreting it as a judgement on the field as a whole.  Cohn’s original intention was to talk about a crisis in the original terms of the contemporary jewellery movement, as a studio-based practice that contested conventions of adornment.

The forum featured brief statements on this question from Susan Cohn, professor Robert Baines, visiting French jeweller and writer Benjamin Lignel, and visiting New Zealand art historian Damian Skinner.

The main action of the evening was an argument between Cohn and Baines. Baines’ position was that jewellery as an art form took its reference from those traditions that preceded it. It was up to the jeweller as an individual to find their unique contribution to these traditions. By contrast, Cohn argued that what mattered most in contemporary jewellery was the wearer. To present her case, she proposed that one of the main reasons for the existence of contemporary jewellery was to deal with the way older women are rendered invisible in our culture.

It was a good argument that reflected two strongly held positions, but neither were likely to give ground. This intransigence does challenge us to think about contemporary jewellery as a heterogeneous practice. For Baines, the ultimate scene is at the bench, where the lone artist faces their own demons and angels in the task of bearing testament to the millennia of metalsmithing traditions. While for Cohn, the main arena is the street, where jewellery provides a currency for purchasing identities and pleasures. The position of each seems appropriate to their own domain.

So which is more legitimate, the bench or the street? Is the bench today an indulgence, focusing on a purely personal narrative disconnected from the surrounding world? On the other hand, is the street merely a scene of spectacle, that encourages short-term visibility rather than more profound and enduring meaning?

It’s likely that contemporary jewellery reflects a complex interconnection of its various spaces. This heterogeneity provides its energy and creative edge. Stepping back from the argument does let us regard the broader ecology of contemporary jewellery. But it also reveals an imbalance.

It can be argued that the bench has been the dominant space of contemporary jewellery, supported by dedicated artists, generous collectors and visionary gallerists. But today it is the street which provides a source of experimental possibilities, certainly in the Melbourne scene. Of course, this does not deny the importance of craft skill, which is necessary to give to the street a more enduring meaning than it currently supports.

I hope the argument between the bench and the street continues. It has much more territory to cover. But there is a further challenge beyond the specific scene of jewellery practice.

The heatedness of the argument regarding contemporary jewellery is a welcome sign of health in the scene. But the call for the field to expand can only achieve a limited success while the conversation is limited to other contemporary jewellers. This conversation is yet to be opened up to others – to not only to architects and sculptors, but also to philosophers, politicians and plumbers. The world needs contemporary jewellery.

The politician and the speech writer, designer and maker

Australian politics is currently on a knife edge, as we are still yet to determine which of the two major parties will form government after a tie in the general election. The inability of the ALP to win its second term, after great success in dealing with the GFC, is partly due to the leadership change, when elected PM Kevin Rudd was replaced by current PM Julia Gillard. The ALP election campaign was dogged by questions about this, such as which of Rudd or Gillard had been responsible for unpopular decisions in the past. To an extent, the relationship between Rudd and Gillard is parallel to a previous partnership between Labor Prime Ministers Paul Keating and Bob Hawke – reformers versus the populists. There is still debate about which of Keating and Hawke was responsible for their major reform, the Accord, on which Australia’s prosperity was built in the 1980s.

Both Keating and Rudd took great pride in championing Indigenous issues. While Rudd’s greatest public moment was in issuing an apology to the Stolen Generation, for many Keating’s finest performance was in the speech delivered in the Sydney inner suburb Redfern, where he acknowledged the ills of colonisation.

Recently, Keating’s Redfern speech was selected for a special honour by the National Sound and Film Archive as a Sound of Australia. While delivered by Keating, the speech was written by Don Watson, who later reflected on it in his book Recollections of a Bleeding Heart. Recently, Keating accused Watson of breaking the speech writer’s code of ethics in claiming authorship of his speech. Keating argues that he had given Watson the core ‘sentiments’ of the speech. While acknowledging Watson’s talents as a writer, Keating concludes ‘the vector force of the power and what to do with it could only come from me.’

In response to this, rhetorician Denis Glover subjects the Redfern speech to analysis and conclude that it is in classic Cicero middle style, ‘a technical masterpiece’ reflecting Watson’s craft as a writer. Glover thinks Watson should share the credit with Keating. Fellow speech writer Joel Dean disagrees, arguing that ‘the words you write are not yours, they belong to the speechmaker.’

The issue reflects more broadly the tension in the partnership between creator and maker. Keating commissioned the speech and took responsibility for its outcome. Watson applied his unique skills in helping Keating his aim. In the same way, a designer might commission the making of a product from a skilled artisan. It’s the designer who usually takes the initiative and risk in this process, and in most cases the credit. But is there a place to acknowledge the contribution of the maker as an enabling force, particularly where a rare skill is involved? We would certainly consider this with a successful film, giving credit to actors as well as the director. So why not speechwriters, engineers, printers, weavers and pattern makers?

Bali carves up the Glick International Foundation

Made Leno works on a sculpture of Rodney Glick

Made Leno works on a sculpture of Rodney Glick

You come up with a brilliant idea. You find someone with the skills to realise that idea perfectly. You work out a fair price. While the person is completing the job, others discover your idea and start copying it. Should you try to stop them, or risk your singular idea now just being one of many? This is the problem that Rodney Glick found having his art made in Bali.

I think Rodney Glick is one of Australia’s most interesting artists. I’m usually left cold by conceptual work, but Glick’s installations always leave me with a strong sense of non-being – others might call it spiritual. His public art at Subiaco Station using close circuit cameras created something transcendent from an everyday commute.

But more than just an individual artist, Glick also creates spaces for others to create in. He first came to prominence in the eastern states with the Glick International Collection, a purely fabricated international collection along with fictional artists and writers. Following that, he established a colleague Marco Marcon a residency program in a small wheat town in the middle of nowhere – Kellerberin. I guess while so many artists on the west coast (and east coast) of Australia are striving to be somewhere (i.e., Venice or New York), Glick is attracted to the nowhere places. There it’s possible to construct something new.

I’ve never connected Rodney with craft before, but his most recent series has strong relevance to new practices involving collaboration with traditional artisans.

Rodney Glick is one of an increasing number of artists working with Indonesian artisans, particularly wood carvers. For a recent Perth exhibition, Rodney commissioned a Balinese wood carver Made Leno from Kemenuh south of Ubud. He asked Made Leno to carve a life-size version of the multi-armed Hindu god, but based on likeness of Western figures, including himself. This involved quite a technical leap, as traditionally these statues had been made only of iconic divine figures. There was quite prolonged and open negotiation about price and cultural sensitivity, and with time a beautiful carved figure began to emerge.

Glick was concerned that these works would be seen as disrespectful. However, when he inquired about this, he was surprised to see how warmly they were received: ‘While the sculptures do show Western people in poses that suggest Hindu gods, or in one case Buddha, they have been generally seen in Bali not as suggesting that their gods have been belittled, but rather as suggesting a divine presence that is in everyone and that links all humanity.’

Made Leno negotiates with Chris Hill about the carving job

Made Leno negotiates with Chris Hill about the carving job

Second time around, Made Leno works with a written contract - much better

Second time around, Made Leno works with a written contract - much better

But there was one problem – though it was more a result of the work’s positive reception, than any complaint. A nearby stone carver started also to make likenesses. Local Balinese soon started to inquire whether they could have statues made of their family in this manner. Rodney became concerned about this. According to his collaborator Chris Hill, ‘We have talked to the carver about this and he accepts our point of view that Rodney should retain some control over works done according to his idea, not because he wanted some financial reward but to protect the integrity of the concept.’ They cited the uncontrolled production of Australian Aboriginal artefacts in Bali as a sign of how copying can get out of hand.

Rodney is not dogmatic about this control. He has become involved in many other projects in Bali. As well as showing the work locally, he has helped start up valuable agricultural projects.

But this case does reveal a contradiction between the Balinese and Western creative economies. Artists like Rodney are attracted to Indonesia partly because of the ease with which it is possible to get things done. Artisanship there doesn’t come with legal strings attached: no contracts are necessary – it’s a personal thing . Yet taken to its limit, such a system can undermine the Western creative economy that artists like Rodney depend on. If the market is flooded with imitations of his work, then the one-off art works are in danger of losing value.

These figures formed a series called 'Everyone' that were included in the God-Favoured exhibition at Lawrence Wilson Gallery.

These figures formed a series called 'Everyone' that were included in the God-Favoured exhibition at Lawrence Wilson Gallery.

Rodney has to survive as an artist too. He’s one of Australia’s most creative and interesting artists, but he’s certainly not wealthy.

So what’s the ethical course of action here? Does Rodney have the right to prevent unauthorised use of his idea? In China, manufacturers can offer discount rates to produce branded goods because they get tooled up then to produce cheap imitations free of royalties. This proves unsustainable – in the end, everyone loses.

In addition, where do we place Glick’s work in agricultural development? Is that just a side effect resulting from his human response to the world he discovered. While Glick would most likely dismiss this as just his own personal intervention, is it possible to see this contribution as integral to his work, in the same way that we might see the Fair Trade label as part of the experience of eating the chocolate inside its wrapping?

I guess that we ask all these questions is part of the value of Rodney’s work. It’s an open dialogue at the moment. Lena Mado has been commissioned for a new series of works. Something’s working.

True to self or play the market? – the South African challenge



Erica Elk

In response to the recent South African election, the director of Cape Craft & Design, Erica Elk, penned these thoughts as part of their newsletter’s editorial. While focused on the South African situation, they could apply more broadly to all ventures that attempt to bring the market to play in assisting cultural development.

She reflects on the speech that opened the recent DAC Craft Awards:

Minister of Arts & Culture, Pallo Jordan, gave an interesting and thought provoking speech. The comment that stuck in my mind, which I paraphrase, was that we must be careful not to bend too easily to the dictates of product developers and trend forecasters who tell us how to adjust our products so they are more ‘palatable’ to international markets.  The danger is that one day we may land up having sold our cultural heritage down the river, producing homogenised products that look like everything else in the world – which is basically what’s happened in the high streets of all the major cities around the globe.

Right now, one of the reasons why our products are so popular is because they are so different and innovative and creative and clever and capture the spirit of the people of South Africa. And we mustn’t lose this.  The Minister has a very good point. We should guard our heritage and indigenous knowledge. But that doesn’t mean we should not be sharp enough to play the market at its own game – or get trapped into thinking that culture and knowledge is static. Because both those approaches could be dead-end roads. So how do we manage this contradiction between staying true to self and playing to market forces? I think part of the solution is the critical interface between education, culture and trade and the respective roles played by the departments of economic development, trade & industry, arts & culture, recreation, and education at all tiers of government.

They need to work together – which doesn’t mean doing the same thing.  It should mean doing different things together – in synergy – towards a common goal. Arts & Culture programmes need to nurture creativity, heritage, language and identity.  They should promote, preserve and protect to create the foundation for challenge, growth, innovation, experimentation, exploration and play.  They must help us explore who we are, where we’ve come from, and where we are going to – individually and collectively. They must set standards of excellence and not settle for mediocrity.  And they must do so without being prescribed to by the markets.

Economic and trade programmes need to engage with supply and demand issues – the provision and purchasing of products and services.  They need to nurture entrepreneurs, create an enabling environment, deal with infrastructure and logistical blockages, they must also market and promote and create opportunities and make connections. And simultaneously our education system needs to work to develop the skills, knowledge and confidence of the youth – so that they can express their real selves and not an imposed idea of self.

Without all of the above our products will become homogenised, as our minds and aesthetic judgment are ‘colonised’ by the barrage of images and products from the rest of the world. We’ve lived for so long in a country where things have literally been reduced to black or white – good or bad – that we lose sight of the nuances and complexities of our various realities and experiences.

Instead of it having to be a question of EITHER/OR … what about if it could be BOTH/AND…? While sometimes we do have to make choices – thankfully only every five years and this one’s over! – for the remaining 365×5 days we need to live with opposites and contradictions and different ideas and opposing opinions and views. How we manage to live and thrive in this space will ultimately impact on our success. Right now, I’m really hoping that our newly elected government gets this message.

Reproduced with permission. Innovative South African craft will be represented in the upcoming World of Small Things exhibition with new work by Hlengiwe Dube.