From a hard to a soft place – national identity in metal and fibre

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It’s always enlivening when Damian Skinner comes to town. We gave at talk together at RMIT in the unusual setting of Hoyts Cinema 7 in Melbourne Central. It was disconcerting to see the students and jewellers lying back in their comfy seats as though waiting for a blockbuster.

Damian began with his reading of the ‘Provincial Problem’ – how antipodean jewellers reconcile their desire for recognition in Europe with their artistic drive for independent identity. Damian tries to turn this around by deconstructing the relationship of original and copy, claiming that the original needs the copy to assert its originality. It would be interesting to have a European response to Damian’s argument, or is the absence of north-south dialogue about this part of the very issue?

I chose to use Damian’s visit to consider what Australian jewellery is not. You would think if Australia followed the New Zealand path of Bone, Stone and Shell that it would have made much more of its national stone – the opal. Damian and I spent the rest of the day testing this out with the multitude of opal stores around town. We eventually found an underground jewellery scene (featuring Marcus Davidson and Dan Scurry) that had an entire project taking an Opal-Scope to Lightning Ridge. There’s always an underground if you dig deep enough!

I should reassure you that I didn’t just talk about the absence in Australian jewellery, but also spoke of jewellery with a social conscience as something marking our scene as distinct in the mid-1980s, and the issue of how national identity aligns with Melbourne’s Euro-centrism. But that’s to come in the book.

From a hard to a soft place, I spent the rest of the week in the Selling Yarns conference. This began with a burst of enthusiasm from Alison Page, who promoted the idea of a National Indigenous Design School. Her provocation provided the basis for many conversations to follow, as papers looked at community development and codes of practice. The participants included a strong mix of makers and shakers from all parts of Indigenous Australia. The mood on day one was extremely buoyant and affirming. On day two, that had turned towards potential threats, particularly from shady operators bringing in overseas fakes.

In a way, the conference seemed to offer two paths. One was to commercialise Indigenous craft and design so that it can compete directly with mainstream businesses. The other was to open up communities to cultural tourism – with much consultation.

Selling Yarns 2 managed to meet a great demand for discussion and support of Indigenous craft and design ventures. There was already talk of Selling Yarns 3. Why not? In a way, it seems to fill a space for fibre and textile arts which has lacked the regular conferences of ceramicists, glass artists and jewellers. Though a future challenge is to find a way of broadening the focus to include other media and opportunities for Indigenous men.

Reflecting back on the initial dialogue, it seems that in Australia the non-Indigenous response to Indigenous identity is largely bureaucratic, rather than creative. Perhaps we can think again about the staid image of bureaucracy and see it instead as an adventure in national identity.

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