This essay was written for Crafted Vancouver, which has been postponed to 2021.
Canada and Australia share much in common. Most of our population is distributed along the periphery of a large hinterland. Our nations were forged through British colonisation, which dispossessed the Indigenous populations on whom we forced assimilation. After the Second World War, we drew on the talents and energies of other cultures as migrants sought refuge from conflict and poverty. And today we face similar challenges with reconciliation, cultural tolerance and our global carbon footprint.
Craft plays an important role in facing our challenges. It is respectful towards traditional Indigenous techniques that might otherwise be seen as “backward” from a modernist Western perspective. The exchange of skills and stories demonstrates the richness of nations containing many cultures. And it offers a path towards slowness that counters the drive to economic growth as the dominant goal.
Over the last five years, Garland magazine has been gathering stories from the Indo-Pacific about what we make of our world. We have gathered a rich harvest of articles reflecting a rebirth of interest in the handmade as a way of giving the world meaning which connects us to the past. The phrase “craft renaissance” comes to mind.
“Craft renaissance” is often used to describe a revival of traditional techniques. At the elite end, it characterised the language around the recently minted Loewe Craft Prize when it was awarded by Helen Mirren in 2018. And popularly, it is used to promote artisanal products such as Mexican pulque.
It’s not new. “Craft renaissance” was first used in 1907 to describe the English Arts & Crafts Movement. But it has particular resonance in our time thanks to two factors. First, increased sensibility about climate change encourages the use of handmade locally-produced organic products, such as taking a fibre basket to the supermarket rather than grabbing a single-use plastic bag at the check-out. Second, heightened nationalism across the globe has led many countries to revive their ancient traditions, including heritage craft techniques. I’ve witnessed this myself at the meetings of the new China Lacquer Alliance in Jingzhou, China, which engage the crafts in the national project, “socialism with Chinese characteristics”.
While we might identify with the environmental connotations of “craft renaissance”, many may be wary of its nostalgia. We witness the rise of tribal values that echo in the calls to “Make my country great again”. Is there a way to express pride in one’s culture that is not xenophobic?
Let’s consider how we got here. Modernity called us to break with tradition. In parallel with this value of artistic originality was economic “disruption” that broke up government facilities into private businesses. Meanwhile, much academic work in the humanities consisted in “deconstructing” inherited meanings. The past has been set up as largely antithetical to our understanding of creativity today.
Destruction is certainly an essential component of creativity, but there is also room for the alternative modality of care. Many Garland stories feature artists who have taken lonely museum artefacts and revived the skill of their production in order to bring the object to life again. This is particularly common among Indigenous artists. Lisa Hilli painstakingly wove the elaborate shell necklace of her Tolai people in Papua New Guinea to put it back into circulation and honour elders.
To an extent, the destroy/create divide is present in the crafts. While many woodworking techniques involve carving, textiles are more often characterised by processes for binding together, especially in weaving.
It seems appropriate that so many myths of the world’s creation involve weaving. According to the Navajo myth, shared in our North American issue, our world was constructed by Spider-Woman, who observed how a spider wove its web: using a loom built by her husband, she applied that process to weaving the pattern of the universe, inspiring the Navajo today to bring hozho (beauty) into the world.
This exhibition is thus framed by a dilemma. How can the spirit of renewal in contemporary nationalism be directed to a constructive end? Make the World Again features Australian textile art that rebuilds the connections between us that go beyond the selfish agenda of the nation-state.
Nature is a key reference. Valerie Kirk’s Floating fossil uses the slow process of weaving to reflect the time of nature. Susie Vickery’s epic dramatisation of the botanist offers a romantic view of European science, as is reflected in wonder at the “new world”. Vicki Mason interprets the Australian national emblem of the wattle (like Canada’s maple leaf) in a contemporary context of domestic gardens challenged by record-breaking drought. Ilka White creates a map of mind and world with knotted thread. Sharon Peoples embroideries interweave human bodies with the gardens they inhabit. And Sera Waters draws on the tradition of the sampler to reflect on the place of environmental concerns during the lock-down brought on by Coronavirus.
Revival is a strong theme of Australian Aboriginal artists, many of whom share with their Canadian cousins a recovery of cloaks made of animal skin. Lee Darroch is a renowned Aboriginal artist who has revived the use of possum skin cloaks. For his exhibition, she has made some traditional baskets that have combined with Western fabric during her residency at the Australian Tapestry Workshop. Australian-Mexican weaving Yunuen Perez has focused on her Pueblo Mexican ancestry with the creation of a hummingbird, Colibri. And reflecting the rich settler culture of Australia, Eva Abbinga has reconstructed the fabled Rajah Quilt, made originally by convict women on the boat to Tasmania. But with local Aboriginal participation, she has used dyes from local plants to colour the fabric, assisted by her Ukrainian community.
More than half the Australian population has at least one parent born overseas. This enriches our textile crafts. Mu Naw Poe and Shuklay Tahpo are from the Karen ethnic group in Myanmar. Since migrating to Australia they have developed their weaving skills with the assistance of Sara Lindsay and the Australian Tapestry Workshop. Sara’s own work re-weaves a flag from the universal textile of gingham. From a background in traditional designs, they have now been able to produce individual artworks using a vibrant range of colours and eccentric weft technique. Other artists in this exhibition use textiles to sustain a connection between Australia and their home country. Another ATW graduate Cresside Collette has produced tapestries that lovingly reproduce landscapes from her homeland, Sri Lanka. Abdullah Syed has used Pakistani weaving to produce works from the universal material of US dollars.
Being located in the Eastern hemisphere has provided Australian artists with access to remarkable skills. Liz Williamson has been travelling between Australia and India for decades, teaching and learning skills of weaving and dyeing. Her Weaving Eucalyptus is a collaborative work made especially for this exhibition, woven from natural dye workshops in India. The photographer Siri Hayes has a similar work that was part of a project in Kanazawa to blend together Australian eucalypt and Japanese indigo dyes. The gold leaf in the portrait evokes the famous ice-cream served on Kanazawa streets. Eloise Rapp’s work recreates the Pang Jai, a quintessential fabric of Hong Kong’s urban puzzle. And Julia Raath has worked extensively with block printers in India to produce works that reflect the duality of truth.
Finally, the intimacy of textiles in our lives has provided a basis for Mary Burgess’ practice which uses a textile associated with a deceased loved one to produce mementos that are part of the healing process.
As a guest of Crafted Vancouver, we hope that Make the World Again will resonate with a Canadian audience. We look forward to sharing our stories, our techniques and our world with you.
Kevin Murray is editor of Garland magazine.