Where to put baskets in an art gallery?

Announcing an upcoming panel session:

The place of collective craft in the modern museums and art galleries of the Global South

This panel session is part of the conference:

Museums and art galleries in the Global South are challenged by the existence of active traditional craft collectives.

Conventional Western approaches to art history focus on individual creativity. The individual artist is seen as the ultimate site for development of new art forms. While inspiration might be drawn from collective traditions, such as Picasso’s experience of African masks, the ultimate end of analysis is the product realised by an individual. This can be seen as part of a cultural economy that deals in a currency of genius, intellectual property and originality. The colonial process entails the extension of this economy into alternative systems where culture is more a matter of collective meaning and ancestral authority.

Such methodologies have a home in the trans-Atlantic North, where traditional cultures are rarely found outside of the modernist lens. In the Global South, however, there is sometimes a bifocal arrangement where modernity co-exists with collective systems.

Compared to visual arts, craft practice depends more on the reproduction of traditional skills than individual originality. In the North, much contemporary craft has been assimilated into modernity through the introduction of studio practice. In the South, craft is still practiced in communities where it is grounded in collective identities, such as village, tribe, caste or guild.

If art history in the Global South is to reflect the nature of its democracies, then methodologies need to be adopted that account for art that has been forged through collective agencies, where it would be inappropriate to single out an individual as the sole representative. This could be seen to apply to forms such as telephone wire-weaving in South Africa, ‘tjanpi’ sculptures in the Western Desert of Australia, tapa cloths from the Pacific, Pattamadai mat weavers in India, Relmu Witral weavers in Chile. How can these collective art forms be incorporated into a history of art in the Global South?

Some of the issues this raises include:

  • How can innovation be accounted for within a collective practice?
  • To what extent can Western institutions such as art galleries accommodate collective art forms such as village crafts?
  • Are there productive ways in which individual artists can collaborate with traditional communities?
  • How can what might be considered a traditional art form be given a diachronic reading through art history?
  • How might individuals that emerge from collective settings to be granted status as ‘living treasures’, ‘masters of their craft’, or ‘artists in their own right’?
  • How to traditional Indigenous crafts compared to hobby circles in the Global North?

This discussion is relevant to those working across the broader South, including African tribal arts, Asian programs for upliftment of traditional crafts, Oceanic models for dealing with traditional knowledge and Latin American forms of engagement with the so called ‘pre-Colombian’ cultures. This also extends to the representation of these in institutions situated in the Global North.

Issues at play here connect closely with existing forums such as Journal of Modern Craft, Craft & Design Enquiry and Southern Perspectives.

For further information about this panel, contact Kevin Murray (kevin(at)craftunbound.net)

Proposals for conference papers should be sent to the Chairperson of SAVAH, Dr Federico Freschi (federico.freschi(at)its.ac.za).

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