Should we ‘uplift’ craft?

At the South Project gathering in Johannesburg last year, I organised a workshop on ways of exhibiting craft. The rationale emerged on a visit to the Johannesburg Art Gallery, and seeing the division between the shop and the gallery – black rural woman’s craft in the shop and white university educated video in the gallery. For a nation founded on the victory over Apartheid, this seems an anachronistic situation. Of course, it did parallel the situation in countries like Australia, where state collecting institutions have demoted crafts, though at least in Australia there seemed to be the theoretical possibility of exhibition craft in art galleries.

So, at risk of being a ‘contemporary craft’ missionary, it seemed worthwhile exploring the possible pathway between shop and gallery in South Africa. It wasn’t just a theoretical question. Besides extra display space, an object also acquired value in moving from the shelf to the plinth. This value then has the potential to raise the prices of related objects.

The workshop attracted great interest for a wide range of participants. There were craftspersons from townships along with visual artists, curators and government trainers. One issue raised early on was the lack of venues for exhibiting craft. This led to a spirited discussion about the need for self-sufficient solutions, and the possibility of starting a gallery oneself in a garage space.

As a one-off exercise, this seemed a positive beginning. To be effective, however, requires a more concerted effort. It would be good to pilot an exhibition and follow through the issues as they arise.

But there are questions in this exercise. The gallery system usually involved elevating one individual above the others. An example in Australia is the late batik artist Emily Kngwarreye, whose reputation (and prices) approaches Picasso.  As such, it is a threat to more communal social structures. In Aboriginal communities, the prices of paintings are usually shared widely, though crafts such as basket-making continue to be a more collective form of production.

As one of many in Australia with experience in navigating the entrance to galleries, it challenges us to consider what to do this with special knowledge. Should we uplift these communities by integrating them more closely into mainstream economy, enabling members to rise the ladder of success? Or should we ‘protect’ traditional communities by leaving their craft culture ‘undeveloped’?

Of course, once you ask these questions, it is obvious that the answer does not come from ourselves, but from the craft communities. Any workshop in this guise must include a ‘back door’ by while participants can decided that this isn’t the path to be taken. This should include a critical discussion about the problems associated with the visual art system.

This will not be the final answer. It is just as likely to lead to more questions. But as the Zapatistas say, ‘walking we ask questions.’

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