Tag Archives: fashion

The Unknown Craftsperson in Unexpected Pleasures

The Fine Line section of Unexpected Pleasures

The Fine Line section of Unexpected Pleasures

Unexpected Pleasures is an extraordinary achievement. Curator Susan Cohn has gathered together more than 200 key works reflecting the international scene of contemporary jewellery. This mass of work is surprisingly digestible. Rather than arrange them by country or historical movement, she has offered a taxonomic system that maps the creative energies at play in individual pieces.

These ‘idea clusters’ are quite different to the more reductive classifications that might otherwise be found in museums, based on materials or techniques. For instance, ‘Logical solutions’ attends to the creative dimension of componentry in jewellery works. The propositional nature of such groupings engages the visitor more actively than those based on academic criteria.

There’s much more that can be said about the exhibition as a whole, but I would like to respond to one of the specific challenges laid in the section titled A Fine Line. This closed installation at the centre of the gallery functions as the ‘navel’ of the exhibition, identifying the ‘origins of contemporary jewellery today’ in Art, Design, Fashion and Craft.

Practically, this is an opportunity to feature iconic works, such as Annie Alberts’ ‘Necklace’ made from paper clips that prefigures more experimental work to come. More generally, this contextualisation locates contemporary jewellery in a broader kinship system of creative arts.

This is by no means a neutral context. There is a clear value system at work in the way these origins are presented. While works by artists such as Alexander Calder are celebrated, Art as a framework for jewellery creates a remove between the artist and the work. Artists are seen to create jewellery as mostly a secondary concern, akin to merchandising. This distance from making applies to Design as well, though the designer is more comfortable the process of production:

A designer with the ability to create effective jewellery has the sensibility to understand industrial objects with a certain sophistication.

Fashion includes elements of art, design and craft, but it has the additional capacity to engage with sub-cultures in which individuals adapt clothing to create their own identities.

The final origin, Craft, is presented as ‘problematic’. The text argues that it is better to avoid the word in order to overcome ‘ultimately futile questions about the allegedly nostalgic connotations of craft.’ Parallel to fashion, this origin is presented as ‘vernacular self-expression in the anthropological sense.’ There’s a certain unresolved tension here between making and empowerment that prompts further consideration.

Unknown artist, Rirratjingu active 1990s, armband 1993, made from feathers

Unknown artist, Rirratjingu active 1990s, armband 1993, made from feathers

In the book accompanying the exhibition, craft is illustrated with a Bella Herdsman’s pendant from Birkina Faso (1976) and a photo of an ash-covered Dinka elder (1976) wearing a necklace of Dutch beads and smoking an elaborate silver pipe. In the exhibition itself, craft is represented by an armband from Arnhem Land (1993). We see craft through these works as something distant from Western culture.

While the craft section does state that making is relevant to contemporary jewellery, it is positioned in the exhibition as something performed by those ‘other’ to our culture. There are precedents for this. Primitivism has been a key influence in contemporary jewellery, particularly in our corner of the world with Peter Tully and Warwick Freeman. But this primitivism has been mediated by the artists themselves, rather presented as museum pieces.

So what’s happening in this return to ethnography in contemporary jewellery? Maybe it’s progressive. This return could be seen as part of a wider concern to give indigenous arts themselves a platform. Rather than have white artists represent non-Western cultures, it is better to give a voice to those who belong to those same cultures, as in the emergence of a new generation of Aboriginal and Maori jewellers. However, the works identified as ‘craft’ in Unexpected Pleasures are anonymous, so there is little opportunity to enfranchise non-Western artists.

The other side of this is the implied detachment of contemporary jewellery from craft. I think there are two currents at play here. The first is the exhibition’s resolutely cosmopolitan approach. While there are some references to place, such as the Dutch collar of Paul Derrez, contemporary jewellery is represented here as a relatively placeless activity. It is perhaps a sign of maturity that it, like other disciplines such as science or architecture, is presented as an autonomous profession which prizes originality above political correctness. The framework of Craft is at odds with this specialisation. It tends to be more location specific, reflecting traditional skills and local materials. Craft’s implied responsibility to place has potential to compromise creative freedom.

This is a different case for Craft than the one which Robert Baines would make in criticism of the exhibition. Baines champions the discipline of skill and tradition in contemporary jewellery. I would argue that skill does have a link to place. The logic of outsourcing in late capitalism has helped us overlook this.

The second current is the exhibition’s attempt to celebrate the wearer. This is critical to an exhibition which has the capacity, in an unparalleled way, to open up the closed circle of contemporary jewellery to the broader public. Unexpected Pleasures is cast initially to fit the National Gallery of Victoria, which has never before offered a survey exhibition of contemporary jewellery. Craft in this context provides a more internal framework of skill and mastery best understood by the makers themselves. It thus has potential to alienate the broader public.

At the other pole, the exhibition must satisfy the interests of the London Design Museum. A natural framework for Design is to consider contemporary jewellery in terms of its role in everyday life. How does jewellery affect the way people behave in the street? Certainly, the works in Unexpected Pleasures can be read in terms of user experience, such as the framing neckpieces of Gijs Bekker and Otto Künzli. But could this go further? The majority of works are still made primarily for exhibit rather than use. We don’t see work than has been subject to the additional discipline (or compromise) of the market.

Ironically, the one contemporary jeweller who seems to embrace this element of design most fully is Susan Cohn herself. The necessary absence of her work in Unexpected Pleasures is one of the few weak points.

Unexpected Pleasures is likely to prove a seminal moment in contemporary jewellery. It shifts the focus away from the subjective experience of the maker to the desires of the wearer. While this seems a necessary move, it leaves making itself in an uncertain place. Its association with indigenous culture is perhaps a holding position, acknowledging the presence of Craft while separating it from mainstream practice.

This lack of resolution opens the potential for a counter move. The alternative is more about treasures than pleasures—jewellery as a means to forge new and recovered collectivities.

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 Visible Hand: What Made in India means today

You are invited to a discussion about Australia-India partnerships in craft and design.

Thursday 21 July 6-7:30pm
Yasuko Hiraoka Myer Room, Sidney Myer Asia Centre, University of Melbourne

Speakers include Ritu Sethi (Director, Craft Revival Trust), Chris Godsell (architect with Peddel Thorp), Sara Thorn (fashion designer) and Soumitri Varadarajan (Industrial Design, RMIT)

This is a State of Design event presented by Sangam – the Australia India Design Platform, a program of the Ethical Design Laboratory at RMIT Centre for Design, in partnership with Australia India Institute, Australia Council, City of Melbourne, Asialink and Craft Victoria.

India is both one of the world’s leading economies and a treasury of cultural traditions. While in the past, many craftspeople and artists have travelled to India for creative inspiration, today new partnerships are emerging in design. Architects, fashion designers and industrial designers are finding new opportunities in the demand for skills both inside and outside India. In particular, India has an enormous capacity of craft skill that is lacking in the West. As India gears up for increased export activity, how will the ‘Made in India’ brand compare to ‘Made in China’? What are ways of local designers to add ethical value to their products through partnership with India? How can cultural differences between Australia and India be negotiated to enable productive partnerships?

Design can play an important role in building partnerships in our region. Globalisation is now extending beyond the large-scale factories of southern China to include smaller village workshops in south Asia. This offers many opportunities for designers to create product that carries symbolic meaning. But to design product that is made in villages requires an understanding of their needs and concerns.

This event is about design practice that moves between Australia and India. It is looking at how the stories of production can travel across the supply chain from village to urban boutique.

This seminar is part of Sangam – the Australia India Design Platform, a series of forums and workshops over three years in Australia and India with the aim of creating a shared understanding for creative partnerships in product development.

RSVP by 15 July to rsvp@sangamproject.net. Inquiries info@sangamproject.net.

Sangam – the Australia India Design Platform, is managed by the Ethical Design Laboratory, a research area of RMIT Centre for Design, including researchers from Australian Catholic University, University of Melbourne and University of New South Wales. It is supported by the Australia Council as a strategic initiative of the Visual Arts Board and the Australia India Institute. Partners in Australia include Australian Craft & Design Centres including Craft Australia, Arts Law and National Association of the Visual Arts. Partners in India include Craft Revival Trust, National Institute for Design, the National Institute of Fashion Technology and Jindal Global University. This platform is associated with the World Craft Council and the ICOGRADA through Indigo, the indigenous design network.

Photo of Kolkata flower market by Sandra Bowkett

Seamstresses unbound

The recent UNESCO World Forum on Culture and Creative Industries celebrated the link between fashion and craft practice. A consistent theme was the dependence of fashion designers on good artisans. But here lies the problem.



On the opening day, the Artistic Director for Linvin, Alber Elbaz confessed that he was worried that his specialised workers were getting old and there was no one to replace them. His otherwise enchanting talk left this question dangling: ‘Who would want to be a seamstress these days?’ Good question.

So how can these positions attract a new generation? One possibility is to make them less anonymous. They could be featured in the company’s website and perhaps even mentioned on the label. It was suggested that this might be in the form of ‘the credits at the end of the film’. Maybe, but what about at the beginning of the film, where we would normally find the names of leading actors after the director?

An alternative strategy suggested by Francoise Riviere at the end of the forum was to offer scholarships for craft practice. Both would be nice.

Elbaz also emphasised the importance of stories in design. This loomed as one of the principal challenges for craft today – to find ways of conveying its meaning in an engaging manner. This would a useful workshop, don’t you think – the narrative basis for craft?

Paula Moreno speaking at UNESCO World Forum

Paula Moreno speaking at UNESCO World Forum

In the end, the forum participants seemed particularly inspired by the Colombian Minister of Culture, Paula Moreno. Moreno argued for recognition for the South, not as an exotic attraction, but as equal. Her call that ‘culture is a history of the future’ was quoted many times by the end of the forum.

So, the forum represented a unique platform for crafts on the world stage. The challenge now is to use this momentum to launch programs that can address issues like anonymity, narrative and sustainable links to industry. We certainly recognise that our future needs the history of craft. Good design must be well-made. We need to acknowledge those whose skills make things possible.

A cultural future, made in Italy

The first UNESCO World Forum on Culture and Cultural Industries occurred at Monza, near Milan, 24-26 September. It brought together around 200 participants from areas of fashion, business, politics, design and craft. There were a broad diversity of nationalities, with strong representations from Italy, France, Uruguay, South Africa. As the only representative from the Pacific region, I felt a little isolated initially, but soon found strong connections particularly from other countries of the south.

The event was well-organised, strategic, relevant and in particular, provocative.

The premise of this Monza gathering was that cultural heritage can benefit from an association with business, and vice versa. According to the brief:

Cultural industries, notably in the areas of design and fashion, embody a continuum between traditional inspiration, the fruit of identity, and modernity. They would benefit from being more deeply rooted in traditional know-how. Cultural industries must be able to give life to and be nourished by know-how through adapting to a changing world. In so doing, they can embody a constant dynamic of renewal.

This move towards the private sector a shift from the focus that many associate with UNECSO, which would be to work with state institutions such as museums and universities to sustain traditions. Previously, the operations of the capitalist market would have been seen as a threat to cultural heritage. Not so today. This link between culture and business has become a familiar conversation in Australia, so how does it sound on the global stage?

Given the support of its hosts, it is understandable that the Italian perspective was strongly featured in the forum. The Italians have much to gain by associating their products with their cultural heritage. This gives them an obvious edge over countries like China, particularly in luxury brands.

It was surprising to see how strongly craft figured in this. In the opening session, Sandro Bondi the Italian Minister for Cultural Heritage and Activities spoke of the close link between the handmade and an aesthetic sensibility. Roberto Formigoni, the President of the Lombardy Region, saw craftsmanship as the essential basis for successful industrialisation.

Complementing this were some high-powered presentations from business consultants about ways of marketing craft. Tom Pigott, the CEO of BrandAid, spoke about their pilot project in Haiti, where they recruited Hollywood celebrities to support local metalsmiths. He made the emphatic point that ‘Poverty needs marketing’.

This was one point that warranted critical reflection. It’s a curious statement, when you break it down to its components. The implied aim is to improve the standard of living for artisans, so their craft can flourish. One way to do this is to sell their very impoverishment as something attractive, particularly to consumers whose only real lack is lack itself. Yet, the success of this will inevitably destroy the very quality on which its success depends – poverty. Hopefully, future forums will be able to work through this contradiction.

At the very theatrical conclusion of the forum, the Minister for Foreign Affairs Franco Frattini joined his Italian colleagues in offering the sumptuous building of Villa Real as the permanent site for the UNESCO forum, which would become an annual event.

The UNESCO World Forum on Culture and Cultural Industries faces the challenge of finding a place for itself amongst a number of similar global platforms, such as the recent World Summit on Arts and Culture in Johannesburg.

The forum touches a sensitive nerve in the status of world crafts. It resonates with the current consensus that heritage is a living process that must be able to respond to modernity. The support of rich consumers is a real alternative. I think there’s an argument for the benefits of such patronage in supporting excellence and diversity in crafts, especially in the land of the Medicis. But there are also real issues in the breadth and sustainability of those benefits.

So might this debate proceed? In my next post I’ll mention what to me were some of the productive threads of discussion that emerged at Monza.

Cathy Kata – a cat walk on the highlands



Cathy Kata lives in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, in Goroke. Like a number of other PNG makers, she has adapted traditional bilum weaving techniques to clothes and fashion. Her seamless skirts and tops are made with the same hand-looped, woven in the round techniques as bags.

Cathy decided to leave her career as the secretary of an academic department at the University of Goroka and focus on becoming a bilum designer, venturing into bilum fashion wear. Her husband, Joseph Kata, admires her creativity and said that the opportunity for Cathy to take up a Jolika Fellowship in San Francisco gave her valuable exposure to other artists and designers. She is now preparing for a fashion show in the UK, working with other women in her home village in the Eastern Highlands fashioning the garments.



High fashion garments are now proudly worn by beauty contestants in Miss PNG, Miss Melanesia and Miss Hiri Hanemano competitions, beauty contestants and in fashion parades like the annual Red Cross Miss PNG Ball, which attracting big media coverage.

Cathy’s work is remarkable in many ways. First, they have been able to translate powerful designs into beautifully shaped garments. Second, she is able to complete the transformation from craft to fashion herself. Cathy is part of an emerging generation of makers able to translate their own traditional culture into modern forms.

Cathy Kata is referred to in an article about bilum-wear for the After the Missionaries issue of Artlink. With luck, her work will also be part of the World of Small Things (still waiting for it to get through customs).

See also:

Children can be the link between craft and design



The Tradition for Modern Times was an intense workshop to complete the Selling Yarns conference. Participants brought a range of skills and experiences, particularly from Indigenous and artisan craft centres. In first considering the kinds of objects that have value in life, there was a great emphasis on some knowledge or connection to those who make them.

The scenario proved very lively. An Australian Indigenous Design Company was attempting to develop a ‘world craft’ product with traditional Aymara weavers based in the Andes. This was to be sold through a local gift shop to an Australian family. It all began well when a poncho design was developed that featured a hood which appeared very fashionable. But when this failed to sell in the shop, the artisans realised that they had forgotten to ensure payment. Trust broke down between artisans and designers and a stand-off ensued. In the end, it was the consumers who managed to regain trust by developing a ‘sister school’ relationship with the Andean village. This then paved the way for a cultural exchange between the designers and artisans. On the basis of this restored confidence, they were able to develop a more fitted product that was eventually successful.

The workshop revealed many dimensions to the business of cross-cultural product development. In particular, it showed that consumer participation can often be very productive in strengthening these cultural ties.

This exploration has many more possibilities to explore, but these exercises seem wonderful opportunities to share expertise and forge new methodologies. We are certainly entering a phase of ‘world craft’ when new possibilities are critical for its future.