Category Archives: Texts

She’ll be jugalbandi – Australian-Indian ceramics collaboration

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

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

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

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

Let’s look at the offerings.

Adil Writer

Adil Writer, Saes, soda fired

Adil Writer, Saes, soda fired

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

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

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

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

Sharbani Das Gupta

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

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

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

Madhvi Subrahmanian

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

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

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

Gerry Wedd

Madhvi Subrahmanian version of Gerry Wedd's thong

Madhvi Subrahmanian version of Gerry Wedd's thong

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

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

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

Trevor Fry

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

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

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

Janet deBoos

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

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

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


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


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

Longer version of an article published in the Conversation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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



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

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

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

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


Indian craft is set in stone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Working with hand and machine tools.

Working with hand and machine tools.


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

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

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

Students at the sculpture school at Mamallapuram.

Students at the sculpture school at Mamallapuram.

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

The Shilpi Shastra book wtih all the correct proportions for statues

The Shilpi Shastra book wtih all the correct proportions for statues


So an eye is shaped like a fish?

So an eye is shaped like a fish?

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

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

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

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

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

Freshening up a statue with coconut oil

Freshening up a statue with coconut oil

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

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

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

Opening the eyes on a statue

Opening the eyes on a statue

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

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

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

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

Kindness of strangers at the World Crafts Council Golden Jubilee

Aileen Webb from American Craft Council, courtesy American Craft Council,

Vicki Mason attempts to distil her experience of attending (as an exhibitor) the World Crafts Council 50th Golden Jubilee Summit, held in Dongyang China, (1822 October, 2014)

I came across a striking image of American philanthropist Aileen Webb recently. In the image Aileen, who founded the World Craft Council (WCC) in 1964, is about to get astride a Norton motorbike, she looks pretty happy. It was not the sort of image I expected to come across given the more staid images my cursory Googling of her had revealed. I could only conclude that Aileen looks like she might well have enjoyed well-crafted vehicular transport as well the sort of craft I associated her with. Aileen’s legacy, through this organisation, lives on and I had the pleasure of being an exhibitor with the organisation as it celebrated its 50th anniversary in October, in Dongyang, China. Hosted by the Chinese, current presidents of this global organisation, about 400 folk attended and participated in the celebrations.

The agenda for the five day summit led to many rich experiences, new friends, craft feasts for the eyes and mind, and many laughs. The opening event had it all: music, symbolic keys, the wearing, raising and waving of flags, speeches full of wise words and balloons. The gala dinner had even more. That night we experienced a fashion show, delegates wearing national costumes, toasts and demonstrations of knife skills and noodle making by highly skilled culinary wizards. Sitting at big tables with strangers meant they weren’t strangers for long after these sorts of displays and antics. Craft was the uniting force at all the events and a curiosity to know more about one another and how craft played out in everyones story led to fascinatingly rich conversations as we made our way around Dongyang.

Vicki Mason with her volunteer helpers

As an exhibitor in the newly minted exhibition building, (which was being finished as we all arrived for set up) and just one of the many shows taking place, I was very taken with the kindness and friendliness of my neighbours from Malaysia who set the tone for the whole event. As a representative of the South Pacific I was in with those from the Asia Pacific subregion and it was the gorgeous Sarawakians who welcomed me for lunch on day one so I didn’t have to eat alone. This welcoming friendliness subsequently led to them helping me with a sale, lending me their power outlet, sharing their deep knowledge about the glorious crafts they had bought to show and sell, and I was even gifted with a piece of jewellery that I will treasure. There are so many warm memories from exhibiting. I loved trying the Chinese sweets and snacks my 21 year old volunteers/translators offered up then winning them over so they could gain confidence in practising their English on me. At the end of the show I realised I had been getting daily visits from a Chinese man. He seemed to just want to hang out, pore over every jewel, try and have bit of a chat and then flick through a sumptuous new book about contemporary jewellery from Australia and New Zealand.

Kevin Murray addressing the WCC Craft Summit

Lectures, meetings, parades, awards, competitions and workshop tours were just some of the activities programmed. While I, like everyone else,  didn’t get to everything due to the con-current nature of running these sorts of large multi stream events, each activity was shared over breakfast or dinner as we all came together. It was so great to find like-minded, warm, generous folk from all around the world who were and are equally as mad about craft in its myriad of forms as I am.

What became apparent to me as I gained a sense of this wonderful international not for profit organisation, is that there is such a rich international craft vein to tap into. All of us were welcomed, whether working with more contemporary approaches to craft or traditionally it’s an all-inclusive group and the richer for it. This WCC summit bottled for a few days the vitality that is craft today. Feeling part of a larger family that I hope I can contribute to in some small way into the future left me inspired. Craft in Dongyang seemed to act as a cultural diplomat of sorts, promoting tolerance, respect and mutual understanding for our common humanity. It pervaded this melting pot event, confirming Aileen’s initial intentions fifty years ago that the crafts can lead us forward perhaps towards a more peaceful future.

Vicki Mason is a contemporary jeweller working from Melbourne in Australia. Vicki would like to thank the WCC Chinese presidency for being such welcoming hosts.

Primitivism without the primitive

Anna Davern, Absent, 2007, reworked tin placemat and biscuit tin, 250 x 200 x 5 mm, Private Collection, Photo: Terence Bogue
The book by Damian Skinner and I, Place and Adornment, was recently reviewed by Grace Cochrane for Art Jewelry Forum. Cochrane is an authoritative craft historian, and her The Crafts Movement in Australia: A History (New South Wales University Press, 1992) is a bible for researchers like myself.

While mostly positive, the review did criticise our use of the word ‘primitivism’. Here’s the relevant section from our book:

Primitivism is one of the main ways that contemporary jewellers in both Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand worked out their relationship to place, in part by making explicit references to indigenous adornment practices. This, as we will show, was less common in Australia than Aotearoa New Zealand, partly because of differences in colonial history, but it was also discarded in Australia because of the ways in which the Australian contemporary jewellers chose to position themselves in terms of place – not by embracing it, and playing up primitivism as happened in Aotearoa New Zealand, but by arguing against the relevance of place to the creative process. Interestingly, some Australasian contemporary jewellery at the beginning of the twenty-first century seems to return to primitivism, but conditionally, as if seeking to create a primitivism without reference to the ‘primitive’.

Primitivism is not the exclusive focus of our history, but it is one of the key threads we found to connect together practices in Australia and New Zealand.

Cochrane offers a concise and lucid review of primitivism in early 20th century Australasia, particularly its implication in the appropriation of indigenous cultures . This criticism helps identify a key issue in our book that warrants further elaboration.

Cochrane states:

the term “primitivism” has not been used to describe contemporary crafts (and I checked with colleagues), not because of our ignorance of the issue, but because many of the so-called “primitivist” influences are in fact continuing characteristics of cultural groups living firmly in the present, and whom we respect.

True, few jewellers used the actual term ‘primitivism’, but nonetheless their statements and creative energy reflect a desire to draw from non-Western cultures. For instance, we quote Ray Norman who critiques the intellectualist bias in Western society: “‘Our society is hung up on words, isn’t it? And all the words keep going on while other “languages” are virtually ignored.’ By contrast, the ‘aboriginal man’ still knows how to feel things intuitively.” (p.90)

The underlying assumption that can be identified as ‘primitivist’ is that the development of Western civilisation entailed an alienation from nature. This has a long legacy in Western thought, stretching at least as far back as Montaigne. His essay on Cannibals in 1577 creates this distinction between natural indigenous and corrupt European:

They are savages in the same way that we say fruits are wild, which nature produces of herself and by her ordinary course; whereas, in truth, we ought rather to call those wild whose natures we have changed by our artifice and diverted from the common order. In the former, the genuine, most useful, and natural virtues and properties are vigorous and active, which we have degenerated in the latter, and we have only adapted them to the pleasure of our corrupted palate.

This concept of the ‘noble savage’ underpinned an Enlightenment quest to think beyond existing traditions and hierarchies. While this seems bold and revolutionary in the North, where the ‘primitive’ culture exists in an exotic and distant location, it is a different story in the South, where those assigned this role actually live.

The situation in countries like the Australia and New Zealand is different. Here post-colonial critique involves a speaking part for these symbols of a more wholesome otherness. Now we hear the other side of the story as indigenous voices speak beyond these Western preconceptions. This argument bites particularly in Australia, with the Marcia Langton debate about the right of Aboriginal peoples to seek mining rights and aspire to the very middle class lifestyles that urban romantics see as inauthentic.

So where is the link today with the primitivism of our naive settler forbears?

Peter Tully Australian fetish 1977, coloured acrylic, coloured oil paint, wood (gumnuts), metal length 37.0 h cm, Crafts Board of the Australia Council Collection 1980, Courtesy of copyright owner, Merlene Gibson (sister)
In writing this book, we were wary of the lure of ‘contemporary’ as a state where past prejudices have been magically transcended. In tracing contemporary practices back to the settler experience we wanted to revalue the primitivist strategy to consider its positive creative potential. The idea of a ‘primitivism without the primitive’ involves taking on its radical energies without using indigenous cultures as an alibi to mask one’s own experience. Whitefellas should be able to  seek a space beyond their inherited European perspectives that doesn’t involve ‘black face’ or other appropriations of indigenous culture. We see a version of that in Peter Tully’s ‘Australian Fetish’, which draws on a colonial concept yet identifies it with Australian popular cultures. His Urban Tribalism uses the space opened up by primitivism to represent city lifestyles, particularly in Gay and Lesbian communities.

The story we seek to tell is the transformation of primitivism from its origins in the patronising colonial mindset to the drive for jewellery to come from its place on the ‘other’ side of the world. This primitivism aligns with the critical force of modernism in contemporary jewellery, particularly in the critique of preciousness. According to this perspective, the meaning of jewellery has been corrupted by the capitalist system that reduces all value to the economic. One alternative lies in a return to the symbolic uses of adornment that preceded modernity. This is one of the unique perspectives that Australasian jewellery contributes to this global movement.

Alice Whish, Touch pins, 2006, 925 silver red and yellow ochre and natural resin, 22mm across and 8mm deep Photo by Orlando Luminere
The issue, then, seems one of terminology. We seek a broader definition of primitivism than that usually ascribed to exotic fascination, such as the inspiration that Picasso drew from masks of the Ivory Coast. In the case of contemporary jewellery, this reflects an interest in the pre-capitalist use of adornment, where it signified social identity rather than personal wealth. This is one of the most powerful references in the critique of preciousness. In this, the Pacific cultures provide important models for non-Indigenous Australasian jewellers. The challenge is to now go beyond appropriation behind the scenes and to engage in direct dialogue, as Alice Whish has done in her collaborations with Rose Mamuniny from Elcho Island.

We also wanted primitivism to include non-indigenous cultures, such as the life of the street that contemporary jewellers have turned to in this century. This turn often presupposes that the energies of the street are more spontaneous and less contrived than the isolated context of the art gallery. Fashion, popular trends, tribal identities and personal narratives can be seen to give ‘life’ to jewellery, in a way parallel to the social function of adornment in traditional communities. This is a concept of primitivism that is embraced by even a resolutely modernist jeweller as Susan Cohn.

Would ‘post-primitive’ better reflect its ironic use in Australia? Maybe. But for every playful Peter Tully, there’s also a serious Ray Norman or Alice Whish. And recently, contemporary Indigenous jewellers like Areta Wilkinson and Maree Clarke seek to recover lost elements of their culture through ornament.

So maybe primitivism can be redeemed as a positive creative energy, once we stop speaking on behalf of others. As the Spanish architect Gaudi said, ‘originality consists in returning to the origin.’

Thanks for starting the argument Grace. To be continued…

New Things: Koskela lights made in Elcho Island

This is a story of new things.

Three and a half years ago Sasha Titchkosky was browsing the Internet when she came across a site displaying weavings from Elcho Island. She recalls being struck by their beauty. Sasha contacted ANKAA in Darwin for more information. A helpful person then put her in contact with the new arts centre manager at Elcho Island. From him she learnt about the Selling Yarns conference in Darwin, where she was able to discover more about indigenous craft in the top end.

Ten years ago Sasha and her husband Russel left their corporate jobs to start a design company called Koskela, specialising in Australian-made furniture and fittings. Sasha felt there was potential to present work made from Elcho Island to Koskela clients, but she had to think of a suitable product. Most homeware products were unsuitable, because there was direct competition from mass manufacturers. With this question in mind, she returned to the second Selling Yarns in Canberra, where a light bulb clicked, literally. Sasha thought that her clients might be willing to spend a little more on a beautiful light as a piece of sculpture than something purely utilitarian.

Sasha’s challenge was to develop a means of production that was sympathetic to the lifestyle on Elcho Island. It would be difficult to expect production on an industrial scale. So a frame design was developed around which fibre could be woven, allowing the application of traditional basket-making techniques. She took this idea to the Darwin Art Fair where she met art centre manager Dion Teasdale and Mavis Ganambarr, leading artist from Elcho. Mavis thought it was a good idea. Last year Sasha visited Elcho Island to confirm the arrangement and conversations continued when Mavis and Dion came down to Sydney.

Product development was a two-way process. As the lights began to be produced, some modification was required. Mavis didn’t like working with white-coloured frames as the colour showed through the weaving. So they stuck to black.

The arrangement is quite novel for Koskela. They normally work closely with manufacturers in developing products. The process maintains an industrial discipline in order to maximise consistency of output. In this manner, they had previously developed a series of lights with Mud Ceramics, which were quite tangible yet standardised in appearance.

The method developed by Koskela is rather designed to maximise variation. This is not solely to provide a more diverse product for the consumer, but also to be able to sustain the interest of the artists. Here the approach is more like an artistic commission, which depends on the enjoyment of the producer. The women weavers are more than technicians—a set of skilled hands. They also have a sensibility that is expressed freely.

Ten women were involved in their production. They were evenly divided between those living on the island community of Galiwin’ku and those who belong to Arnhem Weavers, a collective living in the Mapuru Homeland. There were some problems at first in adapting basket-making to the new task, but Mavis organised the women into groups so she could work through the process with them. After this, they seemed quite happy to go back to working on their own.

Earlier this year, Koskela exhibited their work as Yuta Badaya at Object Galleries in Sydney. The title means ‘In a new light’, with reference to the opportunity of showing traditional weaving techniques in a fresh context. According to the artist statement by Mavis, ‘I thought it would be interesting to take our traditional Yolngu materials and use them on Balanda objects. We all thought this would be a good way to show a new audience what can be done by Yolngu artists with materials from the bush.

There are two quite striking features about the lights. First, despite common methods, the results

are quite diverse. The women all employed similar traditional techniques: fibre gathering, use of natural dyes and string making. But the weaving styles were quite different and sometimes alternative materials were incorporated. Margaret Gudumurrkuwuy, for instance, includes shells and feathers in her lights. The range demonstrates a strong degree of artistic expression in the process.

Second, these pieces express a compelling tension between modernist design and handmade textures. We are used to traditional baskets that have a relatively loose organic form, which suits well their use as objects carried near the body. Seeing them stretched on a three-dimensional metal frame brings into contrast their handmade quality. It’s an interesting step towards a range of Indigenous products designed for urban use. And it’s a refreshing contrast to the dominant method today, where Aboriginal designs are licensed to manufacturers, detaching the form from the process of production.

The fourteen initial lights sell from between $890 and $2,000. The artists are paid an up-front fee, negotiated through the Art Centre, who is also paid a commission. Sasha sees it as important to support the Art Centre. The first buyers were individual clients who responded to an article in Vogue Magazine. They are now getting inquiries from interior designers, including a restaurant.

Koskela also sell Tjanpi baskets from the Western Desert. They have been keen to have some lights made by Tjanpi weavers and are now finding some women interested in this.

This is interesting not just for the beautiful objects that are produced, but also for the cultural politics. There are some who might be concerned at the intervention into traditional weaving. What results are not the baskets and bags associated with life around Elcho Island, but products specifically designed for city living. Electric lights on the island consist of bare fluorescent tubes. So we might be concerned about the experience of alienation in this process, as products are being made for an application that is quite foreign to the lives of those who produce it. While this might be taken for granted in an industrial context, we tend to subscribe to a sense of authenticity in what emerges from remote Aboriginal communities. We like to see images of works like grass sculptures in situ, at home with the community. These lights don’t seem to fit into life at Elcho.

This thinking can take us in circles. We want a product that the artists want to make, but they are making something that they think we like to have. Sometimes, the only way to get out these kinds of circles is to talk to someone directly.

Indeed, when I asked one of the weavers who came to Sydney for the opening how she enjoyed the weaving process, she did say that she found it awkward at first to be working with metal. She was used to making baskets free-form. It’s difficult to know how to take comments like this. It could well just be a teething process—indeed, she seemed to enjoy the attention the results were receiving.

Later, I asked Mavis how the women initially reacted to the task of weaving around wire frames. She said they were quite interested because it was yuta djama, a new thing. While this phrase is very familiar to us, it does seem important in this context. As would be expected, some are uncomfortable at first with new ways of doing things. But this seems outweighed in the end by a desire from the women to expand beyond a fixed traditional repertoire.

Taking a step back, this issue does raise the problem of how contingent the value of these works is on the perceived attitude of the producers. Would it matter to us if the person who assembled our iPhone resented the drudgery of the assembly line? I doubt anyone gives this a thought. But it is different in a cultural context. Scandals about carpetbaggers holding desert painters hostage to produce art works make us sensitive to this issue.

There is a sense that in purchasing one of these lights, we are acquiring some of the good will from the community. There’s an important social dimension to this, which shouldn’t be overlooked. This importance of this good will goes beyond our own personal satisfaction. Things carry stories. The lights naturally lend themselves to conversation. If a client enters the meeting room which is lit by one of these lights, there are likely to be curious about where it comes from. The resulting story will reinforce positive values in the company—allegiance to Australian culture, ethical vision, etc. With

companies eager to subscribe to values like Corporate Social Responsibility, there is a growing market for objects that reinforce this message.

But given the sophistication of marketing, such designs always need to be one step ahead of the manufacturers. We see this obviously in the tourist industry with boomerangs made in China. Once these flood the market, we become more wary of the value of the boomerang as a cultural artefact. One day, a company in China might indeed employ local artisans to produce almost identical looking lights to those designed by Koskela. While difficult to distinguish, they would lack the essential ingredient—the story.

Koskela have raised the bar. Critically, they have proven that there are alternatives to industrial manufacture in design. But we need to develop systems that ensure the value we give to them as cultural artefacts is true to the experience of those who produced them. We need to keep the story alive.

I asked Mavis what she’d like the Balanda to think about when they look at their lampshades. She said that she hopes that they can appreciate this ‘yuta djama and see that we in Elcho Island can made different things.’

It’s curious to put innovation into an indigenous context. We tend to think of Indigenous culture itself as a fixed entity: change emerges through contact with Western modernism. But we need to remember that today’s tradition is yesterday’s innovation. As the Jewish proverb advises, ‘Make your days new as of old’. Australian craft and design has a new thing. The story continues…

Originally published by Craft Australia in 2010

The Ba Experience – jewellery workshop in Fiji

Ilse-Marie Erl with her team in Fiji

Ilse-Marie Erl with her team in Fiji

Currently I am working as a private consultant for The Value Chain Analytical Group PARDI-ACIAR of the University of Adelaide. In short I am on a research project in Ba, a little town far off the tourist trail in the north of Viti Levu, the main island of Fiji, for all together 7 weeks. I am up skilling a group of 10 women and one man in the handling of mother of pearl to produce souvenir and jewellery items using the side product of the famous Hunter Pearls from Savusavu, Vanua Levu. The group is part of the Ba Women’s Forum, an umbrella for some of the many women’s clubs operating in every village here and calls itself WoW (women of work/ worth). The ladies are mature women who are trying to gain skills and knowledge that might help them setting up a sustainable cottage industry with the prestigious ‘Fiji made’ accreditation.

My assignment is to set up a professional shell working workshop with wonderful top of the range equipment (without going green with envy) that has been funded by the Universities of Adelaide and Suva. Further I am translating mass produced neck pieces from Bali into local designs. Little do we tourists know that most of the souvenir items sold in shops or by locals at the beaches are actually made in Southeast Asia. Part of the outcome of this exercise is intended for Robert Kennedy, a fashion designer from Sigatoka who will present his fashion range and our neck wear end of May at the Fiji Fashion Show in Suva. In addition I have to design a production line to be sold at the ubiquitous Tappoo department stores. The ideal is to leave the group with the skills required to keep designing, producing and promoting their authentic and indigenous mop jewellery.

Quality control, quality control, quality control, quality control, quality control…

Quality control, quality control, quality control, quality control, quality control…

My challenges are many and remember I am NOT sitting at a beach sipping nice drinks. Ever heard of Fiji time? Fun when on holiday, not so fun when working within a very tight time frame. Ever contemplated the complexities of aid projects? Extremely complicated and at times very frustrating. However, it is a fantastic experience, the wonderful people, the multicultural aspects of Fiji, the awesome food (think spicy Indian), and walking home tired from a days hard work (yes, hard work) up the hill past a lush green tropical scenery to my charming Filipino guest family, hearing a muezzin calling from a mosque, some Hindu chanting in a temple and gospel singing in a church, all within a few hundred meters. Sounds like heaven to me. And it is warm, always.

Clay beads and vau have arrived from Natunuku village.

Clay Beads from Natunuku Village

Just outside the village of Natunuku in the province of Ba, is the special place to collect black clay for making beads. The clay gets sifted through to remove all stones and grit. Water in which cassava (an edible starchy tuberous root) has been boiled and some sand are mixed thoroughly into the matter to make the soft clay firmer. White sand from the beach is used first but to make sure the clay retains its black colour sand from the muddy black mangrove area of the sea is added later on. This mixing in of sand and cassava water is continued till the clay has the right consistency. To check a roll of clay is formed and wrapped around a finger. If the roll does not break the clay is ready to be used. It now has a smooth and almost oily consistency. The beads need to dry in the sun for 1-2 days. Then they are put on the ground and a fire is build over them using mangrove wood. For black coloured beads the firing time is 2 hours and for brown coloured ones it is 4-6 hours. After firing the beads are lightly varnished.

During the time it takes to make these beads the women are not allowed to have sex. Women who are menstruating are not allowed to make beads. These restrictions are called tabu and are still in place today.


Voivoi cord made by Kini

Voivoi is the fibre of the long, sharp blade-like leaves of the pandanus plant. First these leaves are boiled and then laid out to dry in the sun. Once dry the wrinkled leaves need to be smoothed out by pulling them back and forth over a metal rod or file. Now they are ready to be cut into thin strips to be used for weaving. Voivoi is sold in rolls at the markets in its natural colour and in black. Black voivoi is made by boiling the material in a leaf from a little shrub. Almost every Fijian home features hand woven voivoi mats. Kini from our group is using the fibre to weave the cords for our neckpieces.

Urmilla is modelling a Paddle sample of the production line

Urmilla is modelling a Paddle sample of the production line

Naz is modelling a sample of the Triangle range

Naz is modelling a sample of the Triangle range

Sai is modelling a sample of the Banana Boat range

Sai is modelling a sample of the Banana Boat range

Sisi is modelling a sample of the Vula (moon) range

Sisi is modelling a sample of the Vula (moon) range

Bula, WoW Ba proudly presents a sneak preview of some of our pieces for the Robert Kennedy range for Fiji Fashion Week in Suva end of May. These are our ingredients plus mother of pearl and a lot of work and patience:

Samples of the Robert Kennedy range and our work at the Fiji Fashion Show in Suva

Samples of the Robert Kennedy range and our work at the Fiji Fashion Show in Suva

Samples of the Robert Kennedy range and our work at the Fiji Fashion Show in Suva

Samples of the Robert Kennedy range and our work at the Fiji Fashion Show in Suva

What do we make of Australia?



At the same time that the long-awaited NAVA National Craft Initiative report was released, the US Whitehouse hosted its first Maker Faire. It makes an interesting comparison.

With the de-funding of Craft Australia, the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council directed the money saved to NAVA, who were charged with writing a report on the craft sector and organising a conference. The report is finally out now and looks an impressive document. It’s especially good at covering the broad spectrum of craft and design organisations. As to be expected, it argues that craft practice is diversifying and needs greater promotion. Hopefully, the document will be useful in arguing the case for continuing support for craft practice, but it should be especially useful as a springboard for discussion in the conference planned for 2015.

It’s worth at the same time listening to Barack Obama’s speech to inaugural the first Maker Faire to be hosted by the Whitehouse. With a great comedic sense of timing – ‘I’m just saying…’ — Obama lists the numerous innovations on display that demonstrate US entrepreneurship. What’s especially impressive is the easeful way he invokes the many individuals involved, as though they are all his buddies. It’s a far cry from the anonymous acronyms and corporations that normally represent technological development. The personalised account matches this form of economic development with a democratic ideology. We are all familiar with this narrative of opportunity and dream – Obama plays it to perfection.

The coincidence of these national celebrations of craft leads us to question what the metanarrative of craft in Australia is, or more broadly what kind of story is leading our creative energy. There’s little in the report about the place of craft in society, and in particular the tension with an extractivist economy that locates value below ground rather than what we can make above it. What does Australia have that matches the English sense of tradition, Italian luxury, Germany technique, Scandinavian simplicity, Indian workmanship, Chinese industry or Latin American folk culture?

While DIY has become official ideology in the USA, it is possible for Australia to make a virtue of its capacity to work in partnership with its neighbours. Australia has the capital that enables it to take risks, offering spaces for innovation. Our neighbours like India and Indonesia have great craft capacity that is currently under-valued. We have an ability to strike a deal between capital and labour that embodies mutual respect rather than race to the bottom. This could be what distinguishes Australia.

I’d argue for Australia’s virtue as a good friend in our region – dare I say a ‘mate’. It’s our capacity to work with others that distinguishes us from other more established cultures. For all the seeming contradictions in this picture, at least it would get the argument started. What do you make of Australia?

Looking through the blind spot

My interdisciplinary arts practice aims to investigate the ‘blind spot’ between nature and existence. Exploring the tension between perception and visibility, my work brings into focus the unseen, overlooked and unforeseeable.

My latest installation project, Blind Spot, Linden Innovators 1: +16 May – +22 June 2014, has been a daring attempt to map out a large three dimensional hole in space. A complex and multifaceted anti-form that is as optically impossible to describe as the space inside an atom. Blind Spot describes one of the most significant environmental discoveries of our age- the Ozone Hole. Like an iceberg looming in space, it is a dark wonder of the natural world, a landmark that cannot be found on any atlas or world map. Its appearance in our atmosphere every spring is a haunting reminder of how we close we come to pushing our environment beyond the point of regeneration. Finding a means to visually and conceptually fathom otherwise unperceivable aspects of nature, the work aims to delineate the blind spot in perception that fails to make the connection between existence and the systems within nature that support it.

Within my arts practice I reinterpret traditional craft based materials and techniques, working with new technologies to find innovative ways to respond to the themes the work addresses. Observing nature filtered through imagery from NASA’s Earth Observing Satellite Data Centre, Earth’s life support systems become visible. This expanded perspective offers a techno-romantic glimpse into the ‘blind spot’ between nature and existence.

Blind Spot is a continuation of my ongoing research. Its trajectory can be seen from my previous series, Life Support Systems, funded by the City of Melbourne Arts Project Grants. Life Support Systems uses NASA’s space suit helmet glass to create a series of three atmospheric weather maps charting shifting weather conditions in the atmosphere over Antarctica that have global implications. The maps are hung sequentially and read from left to right. The unfolding narrative of shifting weather is described in short texts below each work that evolve from history of monitoring Earth’s atmosphere to +today’s attitudes towards Climate Change: the forecast for +tomorrow. The aim of the series was to examine how the forecast for +tomorrow’s weather is reliant on our perception of our environment +today. The work does this by being fabricated from a material that was originally used as a part of the life support system of a space suit and drawing a parallel with its natural counterpart, the Ozone Layer.

Visually we first became aware of the role the Ozone Layer plays in sustaining our environment in the 1950’s Space Race’s iconographic images of the Earth. In these dazzling images Astronauts floated above the Earth tethered to spaceships, the only thing keeping them alive was the fragile life support system of their space suit. One of the most prominent features of the space suit was the luminescent dichroic glass visor that aesthetically resembled a giant mirror or ‘all seeing eye’. This lens reflected thefirst view of the Earth as a tiny fragment in an ecosystem of universal proportions from which no part is immune from the changes of its counterparts. This ignited global research to strive for an expanded awareness of our environment. From this research the Ozone Hole was discovered and +today’s current ecological conundrum revealed.

Today there is a tenuous relationship between the fragility of our environment and its ability to regenerate. The success or failure of this lies in learning how to make the concerns of these invisible aspects of our life support system on Earth visible so that the unforeseeable consequences never eventuate.

Blind spot has been funded by the Australia Council for the Arts and will be exhibited in Melbourne 2014 and Sydney 2015. It is at Linden Gallery until 22 June 2014. See