Tag Archives: traditional

Time to get horizontal in Asia


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hand/Eye coordination in world craft

I must say, I am a devoted follower of Hand/Eye. Their blog is an essential part of my reading diet, and I have just finished reading the Summer issue of the print magazine. The stories provide a powerful testament of the passions evoked by traditional craft practices. And the images offer an extraordinary feast of colour and texture. It is able to capture a broad range of craft development projects from across the world, even including countries from the minority world, like the USA.

It is sometimes uneasy reading. The situation with traditional craft is often quite fragile – see the article about what happened to embroidery during the Taliban regime, and how Kandahar Treasures is trying to restore it. Craft practice, like languages and biological species, seem under thread by a homogenising world. If nothing else, Hand/Eye demonstrates the richness that is being lost as we become more urbanised and digitised.

Generally, the magazine advocates for the preservation of craft tradition through product development – ‘design as a tool for development and income generation.’ This does leave many questions to be answered:

  • What happens when it is the artisans themselves who want to abandon their craft?
  • How does the commodification of craft for foreign markets affect the meaning of craft traditions?
  • If external designers are involved in product development, what are the terms of their collaboration?
  • How can traditional craft adapt to the changing patterns of consumption, particularly the move towards more virtual goods, such as apps and Facebook?

These are the kinds of questions that academics often like posing, as a critique of naive liberalism. I have great admiration for those who dedicate their lives to sustain and celebrate distinctive ways in which we make beauty from our world. But to extend the reach of this work, it seems important that we do find a safe place to ask the hard questions. The Sangam Project is one way of attempt to do this.

Edric Ong–a treasury of pandanus

Edric Ong

Edric Ong

Edric Ong combines the role of artist with designer, architect, curator, consultant and president. He works quite closely with UNESCO, advising on their Seal of Excellence for Crafts Program. He has convened the World Eco-Fiber and Textile (WEFT) forum since 1999. And has specialised particularly in the textile crafts of Malaysia, including Sarawak.

For Welcome Signs, he has designed a series of fibre-based jewellery drawing on the traditional craft of pandanus weaving. These draw on important elements of local material culture, such as wedding ceremonies and personal adornment.

Edric Ong, Pandanus pouch necklaces

Edric Ong, Pandanus pouch necklaces

Two string necklaces featuring blue glass beads and hand-crafted pouches made of dyed ‘pandanus’ leaves. These pouches are miniaturized from traditional dowry pouches made by the Malay women of Kota Samarahan , Sarawak, East Malaysia; and were presented during the ‘akad nikah’ or exchange of marriage vows ceremony.

Edric Ong, Pandanus open-plaited necklace and belt

Edric Ong, Pandanus open-plaited necklace and belt

Open plaited pandanus straps were made by the Orang Asli of Carey Island, Selangor, West Malaysia as part of their small pouches for keeping tobacco.

In the necklace and belt featured here, they have been made as components and strung into a cord (the necklace) or added to a rattan belt as accessories.

Artist Statement

This is a series of fashion accessories I developed as part of collection to introduce the use of more natural fibers such as tree-bark, rattan, and pandanus into my work. It started with using tree bark cloth as appliqué on cottons and silks; then using rattan straps as accessories, and then using the pliable pandanus as bustiers, capes and also as ornaments for necklaces and belts.

The pandanus components are made by two groups of craft artists: the Malay women of Kota Samarahan, Sarawak in East Malaysia; and the Orang Asli women of Carey Island, Selangor in West Malaysia.

I hope that these new designs and use of their traditional crafts will inspire them to create a new product line and so generate more income for them.

Original pandanus pouch

Original pandanus pouch

Noria Mabasa carves out a dream for herself

Bell-Roberts Gallery in Cape Town is hosting an exhibition by remarkable South African artist Noria Mabasa. More than 70 years old, Mabasa is one of several ceramicists from the northern province of Venda, bordering on Zimbabwe. For the past thirty years, she has been producing figures and pots with clay sourced from a local river.

Unlike other female artists, Mabasa also carves sculptures out of wood. She produces monumental installations drawing on traditional themes and the status of women. Like many Venda artists, she takes inspiration from personal visions and dreams.

While highly regarded within South Africa, art from Venda has little international profile. It would be wonderful if we could rustle up a touring show of Venda artists. If not, perhaps a residency would do. They are up for it.