Telling stories through craft

This is a keynote talk given at a forum on 29 June 2018 to mark the aspiration of Qingdao to host the International Centre of World Craft. 

In 1964, Aileen Osborn Webb remarked, “It is the things of the spirit, the arts of the country, which has always let mankind forward.” Her vision in founding the World Crafts Council is a story that we commemorate today, as we start a new chapter.

Of course, we are drawn to China’s own story of world transformation, which continues the history of the Silk Road to the modern vision of One Belt One Road. So we come to Qingdao, from many countries, to share our stories.

Stories are a basic human need. For my PhD in narrative psychology, I learnt how stories define us as humans. They give the endless stream of time a beginning, middle and end, thus filling our world with purpose.

Stories need a place to live, otherwise they are lost, forgotten. The modern era is defined by the invention of a universal home for our stories: the book, housed in libraries.

While books can be distributed widely, they have limited access to different voices. To tell a story through a book requires a number of hurdles, including editors, publishing companies and media. But now we have a new home for stories that is accessible to anyone: the smartphone.

As we know, the smartphone is a miraculous portal through which we can witness the world as an endless feed of images, video and text. It’s easy to be swept away by this river of information. For this reason, most sharing platforms now have a feature usually called “stories”, which tries to hold time briefly and mark a moment as special.

I’ll return to the smartphone at the end of this talk. Now let’s examine the role of craft in telling stories.

To help us focus on the way craft can tell stories, let’s take an example of the beautiful work by Australian jeweller Zoe Veness. Veness “heat colours” brass, copper and silver with a blowtorch creating a range of colours including pink, gold and purple. She offers these works as a homage to the mountain that overlooks the southern city of Hobart, Mount Wellington. The patterns imprinted on the surface are based on the weathered texture of dolerite rocks. The rose petals reflect the settler gardens that are common in the area. Through her understanding and creative approach to metal, she tells a story of this impressive mountain.

While the mountain remains fixed in place, Zoe’s work enables us to carry its story with us. When someone remarks about the pin we are wearing, we can explain what inspired it. This love of nature is a story we find often in Australian craft.

In a way, a jewel much better than a book. We can live and travel with this story. However, the handmade object lacks a key facility. Without our explanation, someone looking at the object is unlikely to know the story. For this reason, it is very important that we provide platforms for objects that can carry these stories.

Let’s consider the platforms that we have for craft.

The traditional platform is the street market. Like the Expo we experience here In Qingdao in Qingdao, the market enables a user to learn the story directly from the maker. From this exchange, a relationship can develop: the user can return to the market and report on what’s happened with the object since.

In the industrial era, this face-to-face market was mostly replaced by the shop. Here a wide range of products are stocked and sold by someone with only an indirect relationship to their makers. Of course, a good shop assistant will be able to inform the buyer about the idea behind the product, but in my experience such a person is very rare. Instead, we rely on packaging, especially the tag, at least to tell us which country the object is from.

To complement the shop, a new space emerged which offered extensive means of conveying the object’s story. The period after the Second World War saw considerable development of craft as an art form, to the point where it became possible to see objects in art galleries and museums. Works often have a label which includes the title, offering a tangible key to its meaning. The exhibition will often have a framing narrative, like the Tree of Life curated by Edric Ong and Manjara Nirula. This is supported sometimes by a small publication with an extended catalogue essay. But we must admit. compared to the visual arts, we rarely see craft objects in this space.

In our century, we have seen a new platform emerge in the form of e-commerce. The stella growth of companies like Alibaba is testament to the way they have become integrated into our lives. At first glance, the e-commerce platform can seem to be merely a digital version of the shop. However, we find now new websites emerging that offer innovative ways of revealing the story behind the object. This involves clicking through images and text to explore its meaning. India is a particularly creative scene for this work at the moment.

But for the average young craftsperson today, the key platform for their work is social media. With the device in their hands, they can develop followings and take orders directly over the phone. China is famous now for its social media celebrities, who can make millions by linking their following to online sales of featured products.

Social media adds a new dimension to storytelling: collaboration. Through the hashtag, it is possible for many people to participate in the same story. This is used by major products who seek to create a meme which goes “viral”.

At World Crafts Council – Australia, we have sought to create a platform that uses this technology to make sure that the next generation can access craft stories on their phone. Garland features stories about craft that use not only text but also audio and video. Quarterly essays are longform articles that take the reader on a journey to the world of the handmade object and its maker. We are constantly testing our new formats that tell the story of craft. Currently in development are video essays, which are one-minute films of craft process with text as a trailer to the longer story.

While we can focus on narrative tools, this needs to be matched by content. The overall narrative of Garland is a journey across the Indo Pacific to discover how we make our world beautiful. Our upcoming China issue looks to one of its key stories that has universal appeal: the dragon. We use the dragon as a model of how objects are animated by mythical tales. We open this to the similar creatures that exist in other cultures of our region, including the Aboriginal rainbow serpent, the Mexican Quetzalcoatl, the Hindu naga snake god and the Maori taniwha. While offering space for the imagination, these creatures also provide a way for thinking about a world that is experiencing the unpredictable effects of climate change.

Universities can play an important role in helping the development of stories through historical research, international surveys and platform reviews.

Story provides the traditional source of meaning in craft. Our civilisations are evolving new and different ways of telling our stories. Especially today, we are witness to exciting new narrative tools. These contain the promise that the stories which animate our crafts will spread widely to reach new generations and distant horizons.

Dr Kevin Murray is the Senior Vice-President of the World Crafts Council  – Asia Pacific

From Tabu to Blockchain: The Renewed Role of Currency in Contemporary Jewellery

Bridget Kennedy, A year of time, 2017, installation

The Israelites left Egypt for the “promised land”. After travelling for 44 days, they arrived at Mount Sinai, where their god was finally revealed in a burning bush. Their leader Moses duly ascended the mountain in order to receive divine guidance for the rest of their journey. For forty days, they had no sign of Moses. Anxious for divine presence, the Israelites confronted Moses’ brother, Aaron, demanding that he make them a god to worship. Previously they had received divine instruction while escaping Egypt to plunder the Egyptians of their elaborate jewellery. Aaron said, “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” Out of the rings taken from their fingers, noses and ears, he fashioned a calf using a cheret, or graving tool, overlaying the gold around a wooden sculpture. An altar was built, sacrifices made and a Festival of the Lord held in front of the Golden Calf, a diminutive version of the sacred bull god of Baal.

When Moses did finally come down from the mountain, he was furious at this challenge to his authority. He called the men of his Levite tribe to “slay every man his brother and every man his companion and every man his neighbour” (Exodus 32:27). He also revealed the divine rules written on the stone tablets, including the second commandment: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image”. The peoples of the book heeded this message and placed the meaning of the word before the aura of hewn objects.

Money or your word

This binary between sacred word and profane money echoes through the rest of the Bible. The book of Titus evokes the image of money as dirt, which sullies the motives of preachers, “Whose mouths must be stopped, who subvert whole houses, teaching things which they ought not, for filthy lucre’s sake.”

Filthy lucre continues to haunt Western civilisation:

  • Jesus Christ casting out the moneylenders from the temple
  • The thirty pieces of silver paid to Judas to betray his leader, Jesus Christ
  • The pound of flesh in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice
  • Scrooge in Dickens’ Christmas Tale
  • Exxon Mobil putting profits before environmental risks
  • The Panama Papers scandal of dirty money laundered in tax-free havens

And most recently, it turns out that Facebook, the global playground of family snaps and endearing emojis, has been selling off our private moments to scheming political manipulators.

This epic struggle with the demon Mammon is especially felt in the arts, whose value is underpinned by factors outside the economic. As Robert Frost said, “There’s no money in poetry, but then there’s no poetry in money”.

But paradoxically, art needs money if it is to exist in a capitalist economy. As Glenn Adamson and Juliet Wilson (2016) put it neatly: “On the one hand, nothing damages an artist’s reputation more than the perception that they are making work primarily to sell. On the other, artistic reputations are made by and in the market. The artists who succeed financially are those who manage to have it both ways.” We struggle to make money the servant of love, but know in the wider neoliberal world this won’t always be the case.

Hermann Jünger

In the field of art jewellery, we have our own Exodus story of liberation from the rule of money. When Damian Skinner and I faced the challenge of writing a history of Australasian jewellery, it was the critique of preciousness that offered a mission sufficiently broad to encompass both the high modernist work of early masters and the low trash that we revere down here at the bottom of the world.

As Skinner states crisply, this critique involves “the struggle to liberate jewelry from restrictive notions of value, so that it becomes available for artistic expression and experimentation, a deeper engagement with society, and a new awareness of the body and the wearer”

This story begins with traditional jewellery, which is cast as mere portable wealth, a wearable savings account, whose value is reduced to the price that can be obtained for its material elements, particularly precious metal and rare stones. A scandalous version of this is the engagement ring as commodified by De Beers, in which the size of the diamond is seen as directly related to the amount of love. This art aids the victory of Mammon over love. In this way, the task of design in jewellery is to highlight the material worth: to make gold gleam and gems sparkle. As Peter Dormer (Dormer and Turner 1994) wrote, “In most commercial jewellery the design matters only as a vehicle for gemstones and precious materials.”

Then came along our own Moses. We know the story as well as a Jewish family around the Passover table. Hermann Jünger subverted the economic imperative by putting the medium of gold to aesthetic uses. This was soon followed by the introduction of non-precious materials, such as aluminium and Perspex, whose worth was more directly related to non-material values, such as skill, creativity and especially originality. The struggle against money has been the source of much invention since then. Our version of Malevich’s seminal Black Square, Otto Künzli’s famous “Gold makes blind”, contradicts the economic imperative by concealing value from sight (a gold ball is concealed under a layer of rubber). Then the Dutch took this into the conceptual realm. Amen.

Language of Things

The critique of preciousness is the conventional point of entry for a general audience. As the label in Language of Things says: “The ‘critique of preciousness’ is a foundational theory in contemporary jewellery that leads makers to democratise adornment through the use of accessible materials, so that it can be a form of self-expression for anybody, not just the elite or wealthy.”

This is particularly evident in the number of works in this exhibition that use money itself as a material. Christel van der Laan has created a necklace from price tags, while Lauren Tickle’s neckpiece is literally made out of money, $US 63 to be precise. In her Art Jewelry Forum interview, Tickle claims that “My work erases the functional value of currency in order to express the creation of value.” Akiko Kurihara’s 1000gs reduces the work to the weight of its precious metal, but through a circuitous route by making 1000 letter g’s, each one weighing gram.

These follow Jünger’s innovation of painterly gold by rendering art victorious over its enemy by attacking its material base. Its need for a presence in our world is a source of its vulnerability. Matthew McIntyre-Wilson takes advantage of this by physically altering coinage as a post-colonial gesture.

Even in the corporate jungle, hard currency can become a weapon. In 2013, Samsung was ordered by the court to pay Apple $1 billion in damages, which they delivered in truckloads of 5 cent coins.

The material dimension of value isn’t always a source of critique. It can be used poignantly. Ted Noten’s ‘5kg silver suitcase’ was inspired by the tale of a Jewish refugee who kept gold in his shoes for security after the trauma of the Second World War.

Art jewellery about money

The other side of this particular coin is the decision by the Danish government to confiscate jewellery brought by refugees. The government deemed that this ornament be considered to be part of a refugee’s personal wealth, which should be used to cover their health expenses while in the country. The subsequent exemptions for “meaningful” objects such as wedding and engagement rings, has stirred Susan Cohn to develop a performance that will occur soon in Copenhagen, questioning the rigid separation of sentiment from capital. As she says,

“This reducing of the value of jewellery to an asset is contemptuous and ignorant of the crucial role jewellery plays in people’s lives – especially people fleeing from war and trauma.”

But as we know, the value of money is not merely related to the goods it might purchase, but also for the aura it lends to its possessor, evident in a magical title such as “billionaire”. In this way, wealth by itself can become a thing of beauty beyond its currency value.

In 2014, Australian artist Denis Beaubois received a $20,000 grant to make an artwork, out of $20,000. The artwork, titled Currency, included two stacks of 100 uncirculated $100 dollar banknotes. It was sold at auction by Deutscher and Hackett and fetched a price of $21,350. For a while, you can find an app on the Apple Store called I am Rich, which sold for $999 and did… precisely nothing.

There was a particularly interesting reflection on this conspicuous consumption of money at Schmuck in 2011. Stefan Heuser’s The Difference Between Us featured a series of cast sterling rings identical to each other, with the exception of being numbered from 1 to 100. The purchase price corresponded to their number. As expected, most of the rings were sold in a linear sequence, from cheapest to most expensive. But some buyers jumped the sequence. One went straight to the top and bought #100, for his grandmother on the occasion of her 100th birthday.

We can celebrate Heuser’s work as a victory over the economic, demonstrating the arbitrariness of the money value of jewellery.

The social turn

In Australia, Bridget Kennedy has been especially engaged in the struggle against Mammon. She balances the demands of “making a living” through retail sales with non-commercial activism such as repair cafes. Her artwork often rubs against the economic grain by confronting audiences with their own greed. In “Just help yourself why don’tcha” (2013), visitors were invited to take from a selection of 10,000 rings for a suggested $5 cost. In Choice Mate (2015-17) visitors signed up to a “mining agreement” that they would send an image and story of what they did with the object. These were stories were compiled into books sold on Blurb.

Last year, Bridget Kennedy spent the year making baskets and logged the amount of time involved. This resulted in the exhibition A Year of Time 1:30 where each basket had a disk on which was stamped the labour time, first in discrete minutes it took to make the work and second in total life time that elapsed, a multiple of thirty. The expectation was that purchasers would pay an amount equivalent to the cost of their own time.

Though a practising jeweller, Kennedy chose the medium of basketry given her experience living part of the time in a Philippines village. The materials of basketry are also usually very cheap, highlighting the value of time above materials. Kennedy gathered fabric from friends and even included shopping bags. She will be repeating the exhibition at the end of this year with the abundance of goods and services that were offered in return for the baskets.

Feminist economics

There is sometimes a feminist element in this critique, given the dependence of capitalism on unpaid female work in the home. This is strikingly presented by Lisa Gralnik’s ‘Golden Standard’, which renders the otherwise invisible domestic labour as gold in a sink.

This has been a particular focus here in Wellington, where collectives such as See Here and Occupation Artist have enabled a jewellery scene that is relatively independent of the market. One of these members, Sarah Read, has established a creative practice that has reduced the value of jewellery from its material base to the labour it entails. Offering herself as labour for the residents recovering from the earthquake in Christchurch, she freed up forms of usefulness from their material circuits. That said, these projects always had a material residue, such as the labour tokens that appeared at the National Gallery.

Blockchain

Meanwhile, in the outside world, the nature of money as currency has also been undergoing radical changes.

Our 21st century Moses is the fictional figure of Satoshi Nakamoto, who created the code that was registered as Bitcoin in 2008. Bitcoin uses a form of cryptography known as blockchain, which is a distributed ledger of financial transactions. Very simply, information about transfers is broadcast to nodes across a network, meaning that it cannot be altered in any single ledger.

Cryptocurrencies are part of our late 2010s zeitgeist. Names are emerging like Ethereum, KodakCoin, Venezuela’s Petroglyph, Namecoin, Peercoin, Potcoin for the cannabis industry, and Hullcoin for Hull.

Blockchain offers a glimpse of a post-capitalist future, where the corporations can be bypassed. Wessel and Coeckelbergh (2016) argue that blockchain has a liberatory potential. In normal finance, loans and payments bind social relations, often reinforcing class and hierarchies. Institutions like banks have subtle filters that restrict access to capital, particularly globally. Abstracting this system means the currency can circulate without reference to entrenched powers.

Blockchain continues the evolution of peer-to-peer networks from earlier versions such as Napster or bit-torrents. Like consumer platforms such as Uber and AirBNB, it promises to bypass the middlemen and allow an open connection between consumers and providers. While technology has enabled alternative currencies, some operate outside digital platforms. The Brixton Pound was established in 2008 as a purely local currency that could only be used within the municipality of Brixton.

Good Coin is a virtue currency, which puts the idea of karma into an app. It runs on the principle that “an evidence-based, motivating, and community-oriented rewards system spreads Good habits exponentially.” These currency apps work on a similar principle to the “loyalty” programs that reward our patronage, from Frequent Flyer Points to the card that is punched at our corner cafe for a free 50th latte.

Blockchain and jewellery

What does this have to do with jewellery? You might expect, given its prehistory as a currency, that these changes will begin to impact our medium. It certainly has in the jewellery industry. A London-based company called Everledger has placed more than 1.6 million diamonds on a blockchain, which records details such as colour, carat, and certificate number, which can be inscribed by laser on the crown or girdle of the stone.

And art jewellery, more specifically? To an extent, the blockchain resembles in abstract form the nature of any field of practice. The process of citing references, exhibitions and works presume a form of knowledge that is distributed across different magazines, journals, catalogues and online platforms. We expect that any new work or concept of worth invokes the chain of works that led to it in the field. But given the relatively subjective nature of this endeavour, this evaluation is more likely to be conducted in person-to-person events like this than become the business of an algorithm.

But for jewellery itself, I argue that blockchain helps us recover our roots. Here, I’d like to refer to the work of anarchist anthropologist David Graeber, especially his book Debt: The First 5000 Years (Graeber 2011). Graeber confronts the growing power of debt in modern capitalism. While it was previously limited to capital for housing, the extended reach of debt through student loans has now grown to cast a significant shadow over the average life. The interweaving of financial debt into our lives makes it almost impossible to imagine a life outside the capitalist system. But this is financial debt, enforced by law. Graeber does not discount the usefulness of debt per se, which has been an enduring dimension of societies, binding its members in a web of mutual obligation. Echoing George Simmel, he writes, “social life is based on the principle of reciprocity”.

As an alternative and more constructive currency, Graeber gives the example from Fiji of the whale tooth, which is offered to the bride’s family. This tooth does not stand as a direct payment for the bride, but as an acknowledgement of debt, similar to a mortgage payment. What he calls “social currencies” are not designed for buying and selling per se, but for sustaining sets of obligations to each other.

Indeed, it is not in technology that we see the reintroduction of currency into the contemporary jewellery field, but in artists who draw on customary practice.

While not an “art jeweller” in the strict sense, Lisa Hilli has made body adornment a key area of her creative practice. The project to re-create the midi necklace draws on her background as a member of the Tolai community in Papua New Guinea. This group is known for the kinavai, an elaborate costume worn by men in dance for which they are paid tabu, a form of shell currency. Hilli came across an elaborate necklace made from this shell in a collection at the Melbourne Museum. For her Masters at RMIT, she attempted to reverse engineer the museum artefact to understand how it was constructed and put it back into circulation. This was a painstaking task that involved removing the humps of every tiny shell. That aspect of the task was within her own hands. But there was a less certain challenge: finding enough tabu to make this necklace.

Hilli had received some tabu at funeral ceremonies which she attended. She reports that, among the Tolai, shells strung on a cane known as loloi are dispersed at funerals. It was important for her that this midi have the currency which she acquired at these events. But on closer examination, she noted that the original midi contained shells that might have been too small to pass as currency. So she decided to intervene in this reproduction and incorporate larger shells. She supplemented her personal supply with shells purchased at a market stall in Honiara, Solomon Islands: “I was not only paying for the shells, I was paying for the time it took her to collect the hundreds of tiny shells off the beach or estuarine, punch a hole in each shell and thread it on string.”

There’s a lot more to Hilli’s story than we can cover here, but what we can take away is how she has engaged with the circuits of exchange along which shells still travel across the Pacific. Though it was out of her hands, the customary work required to gather the materials should be seen as part of its value.

A less traditional project, but one that translates similar customary values is the Power Pendant initiated by a number of Moana artists, including Mary Talia Pau. These pendants were made in a traditional style from fabrics that were important to the wearer. The key to their value, though, is the contract that the six sisters undertake to wear their pendant when notified by one of their number that support is needed.

Beyond the relational

The reintroduction of currency into jewellery promises to advance our field. For the past two decades, we have been passing through a relational phase. This has re-connected the art form with its social function, where it finds its pre-capitalist roots. But the relational is vulnerable to critique. In its crude form, it is based on a premise that form can emerge from mere assembly: meaning will emanate from the simple gathering of people together, such as at a free meal in a gallery. This is the kind of vague relational aesthetics that has been satirised in the Scandinavian film The Square, where the creation of a space for reciprocity only leads to violence and chaos.

The evolution of the relational involves the development of social structures that can regulate that space. These require agreed rules, evident in craft projects, games, codes or currencies. Materially, a currency offers a way of bringing people together in a meaningful and sustained web of mutual obligations.

One very basic form of currency is the heirloom. This object is given with the understanding that it is to be passed on to a new host given the right conditions. The trajectory of this object could be seen as a kind of analogue blockchain, whose memory is encoded in the family history. Culturally, of course, this kind of principle operates in the case of taonga, whose value accrues with its successive owners.

So where do we place this in the history of art jewellery? There are calls from figures such as Lizbeth den Besten for an “expanded jewellery”. The Art Jewelry Forum publication in Contemporary Jewelry in Perspective, edited by Damian Skinner, proposed a model that expanded the meaning of jewellery beyond the focus on the private world of the bench to include other spaces where it subsequently dwells, such as the magazine’s page, the collector’s drawer, the wearer’s body, the fashions of the street and the things of the world.

Alongside this horizontal spatial expansion of the jewellery field is a temporal dimension revealed in the expanding scene of global art jewellery. Jewellery artists now working in alternative cultural contexts, such as Moana, Persia or Buddhist Asia, often draw value not only from their individual skills and creativity, but also from the past, especially the traditions that they translate into body ornament for life in modern cities.

Can we begin to see value not in who made it, but also who wore it? But let’s tread carefully here. We might not like where this leads.

The National Gallery of Australia recently opened an exhibition of jewellery by Cartier. The primary focus was on the clientele, which “included royalty, aristocrats, socialites, and stars of the stage, cinema and music.” Jewellery with this kind of history seems the antithesis of the art jewellery movement. Indeed, the show has been critiqued on the basis that jewels are not art. Not only has the National Gallery of Australia betrayed its mission as a cultural institution, it has also given the medium of art jewellery a bad name by pandering to celebrity worship.

Not all bearers are of equal worth. We don’t like to be judgemental, but I have to say that bestowing a midi necklace on a tribal leader as a form of cultural renewal is a lot more interesting than gasping at the baubles on a celebrity whose worth is manufactured by media corporations. We should acknowledge the ethical value of the circuits that are opened up by contemporary jewellery.

This is not a mere political issue. There is creativity in the construction of value and innovation in the development of alternative platforms. Vicki Mason’s Broaching Change project pioneered the blog as a kind of blockchain to record recipients of her brooches. But she had to make objects of great beauty to begin with in order to provide the value that would circulate. Now we see Instagram becoming an important ledger of use, such as Mia Straka’s Valere Talisman project.

This means having alternative ways of looking at a jewellery object besides something original and unprecedented. It means considering not only who made it, but also who got wear it. It means appreciating the traces of its use. In this way, as the Tongans say, Ka wa mamua, the past is in front of us.

Further reading

Adamson, Glenn, and Julia Bryan-Wilson. 2016. Art in the Making: Artists and Their Materials from the Studio to Crowdsourcing. 1 edition. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson.

Dormer, Peter, and Ralph Turner. 1994. The New Jewelry: Trends+ Traditions. Thames and Hudson.

Graeber, David. 2011. Debt: The First 5,000 Years. New York: Melville House.

Reijers, Wessel, and Mark Coeckelbergh. 2016. “The Blockchain as a Narrative Technology: Investigating the Social Ontology and Normative Configurations of Cryptocurrencies.” Philosophy & Technology 31 (1): 103–30.

Nalda Searles and the poetics of infestation

Nalda Searles, Hybrid stole

Grass is the forgiveness of natureher constant benediction. Fields trampled with battle, saturated with blood, torn with the ruts of cannon, grow green again with grass, and carnage is forgotten. Streets abandoned by traffic become grass-grown like rural lanes and are obliterated…

In 1870, the renowned Kansas orator Senator John James Ingalls gave a speech titled ‘In Praise of Blue Grass’. He offered soothing words at a time when American South looked to the restorative powers of nature to heal the damage of the recent civil war. In the work of Australian artist Nalda Searles, we also discover a nature that quietly returns to recover lost ground. Searles offers irrepressible nature a helping hand.

With her needle and thread, Searles gathers native flora into forms that reflect the lives of those who dwell on the land. She embroiders clothes with leaves and seeds that lie scattered on the ground. She tells a story of love and courtship embellished with bush motifs. She translates the Indo-European language into antipodean nature. Searles overcomes us.

There’s something quite patient and rhythmical about the patterns that emerge in Searles’ work. If you’ve visited one of her exhibitions, it is likely that you have heard in a video the gentle melody of her voice as she describes the working process. Her intonation is an undulating up and down like a scrubby landscape. Each humble element of flora is approached in its individuality. It is not captive to a grid. Nalda’s hand gathers into shape, rather than orders into alignment.

After such an intense experience, we feel a responsibility to preserve Searles’ method somehow and somewhere. How can we carry this charmed experience beyond the gallery and into the world? Where do we place Searles’ work?

Strange to basketry

The most immediate location for Searle’s work is within the craft of basketry. Searles shares with the American pioneer fibre artist Ed Rossbach a similar invention with materials. Rossbach demonstrated that the techniques of basketry could be applied beyond natural materials, even incorporating plastic or newspapers. Like much 20th century American studio craft, Rossbach’s work emphasised individual invention and virtuosic technique. By contrast, Searles’ work seems to aspire to neither of these qualities. Her materials remain organic and her technique cleaves to nature. Where might Nalda’s work fit into the international scene?

Is it an indigenous connection? Native American and African traditions play an important role in the US scene. A basket-maker like Mary Jackson draws inspiration from the sweetgrass baskets passed down from slaves. She interprets this tradition in classical forms that honour the past through perfection of technique. By contrast, Nalda’s forms are strange to basketry, belonging more to fashion or everyday life. She honours her material with the imperfections that reflect the variegation of materials.

But there is an American thread that brings us closer to the world of Nalda Searles. Douglas Fuchs was an American basket-maker who came to Australia with an interest in our fibre traditions. He arrived in 1981 and developed the exhibition Floating Forest for the JamFactory in Adelaide. Fuch’s challenge was to find ways of incorporating materials from the land such as seagrass and kurrajong pods. While this resulted in large abstract forms, he inspired basket-makers such as Virginia Kaiser to confront the challenge of interpreting Australian materials. Thus continues an Australian basketry scene that exists in parallel to Searles. We now see the east coast artist Beth Hatton create works from grass that reflect ironically on colonisation.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Nullarbor Plain, Searles was able to inspire a mixture of indigenous and non-indigenous artists with ambitions to create a world of grass. Through workshops with Nalda, the Noongar artist Joyce Winsley from Narrogin developed a technique for binding grass together into figures with narrative power. From the formless expanse of bush she was able to fashion animated characters, such as the Didgeridoo Man. Taking basketry into the Western desert, Searles’ inspired artists like Kantjupaye Benson who extrapolated this technique to monumental extremes, as in the grass vehicle of Toyota Dreaming. One of Searles’ protégés, Kate Campbell-Pope, has been able to take this method into the reverse dimension by constructing an anatomical model of the human body out of grass. There seems no end to what can be done.

We’ve seen emerge in Australia a language of artistic expression that is unique in the world. In its resonance with the land and boundless possibilities, it can be compared to the development of dot painting that occurred in Papunya during the 1960s. Nalda Searles is a foundational artist in this new tradition. She continues basketry’s experimentation with natural materials and develops needlecraft techniques for sculptural effect. And so how do we place this in the broader Australian context?

Nalda Searles, Red basket

Poor relations

This use of a common material like grass can be seen as part of a widespread interest in the use of found materials. Such ‘poor craft’ is also evident in ceramicists who cast ordinary objects (Fleur Schell), jewellers who transform plastic bags (Mark Verwerk and Stephen Gallagher), furniture makers to adapt to indigenous timbers (Damien Wright) and glass artists who cast consumer packaging (David Herbert). The key to poor craft is the use of materials that are devoid of any monetary value. Searles’ materials are gathered from the bush floor, leftover clothing or fodder of the land. In a highly privatised, commodified, world, artists seek out the worthless as a precious element capable of shared meaning.

For Australians, this has particular resonance in the make-do tradition that forged a settler culture on the other side of the world. It reflects an egalitarian sensibility that seeks out the underdog for special encouragement.

Of these artists, Searles’ work connects strongly with the Koori artist Lorraine Connelly-Northey, but in a reverse direction. Rather than adorn settler objects with native flora, Connelly-Northey re-creates traditional Aboriginal artefacts such as coolamons out of found alien material such as fencing wire and mattress springs. It goes both ways.

Searles is a key force in the Australian craft scene. Where might she fit in the broader visual arts scene?

The sculpture scene of the 1980s has strong parallels with Searles. The land art tradition of Andy Goldsworthy has served as a context for Australian sculptors who aspire to subtle interventions that honour the landscape. The late John Davies attempted to express the fragile beauty of the environment with ephemeral self-specific installations involving leaves and trigs. This has been replaced by more conceptual work today.

…with the exception of Adelaide artist Fiona Hall. For both Hall and Searles, art is a matter of artisanal invention—learning how to adapt traditional craft techniques to non-traditional materials (Hall knits baby clothes out of coke cans). Both enact an eventual victory of nature over culture (Hall’s birds’ nests made from US dollar bills). Their difference is largely one of mobility. Hall is on a constant quest to find new forms of transformation and new cultures to engage with (recently British Guyana). As a craft artist, Searles is more located in her place (the west half of Australia), her medium (basketry) and her communities (Blackstone). Searles is local to Hall’s global.

We see a similar contrast in the recent work of the Colombian-born artist Maria Cardoso, who creates painstaking installations with emu feathers embroidered on mesh. Like Searles, Cardoso creates form from Australian materials. But the effect is more monumental than narrative. Her work aspires to abstraction, while Searles’ is grounded in the particular.

While Searles processes resonate with work by Australian visual artists, her work remains more in its location of origin. In this groundedness, it has a special place in the broader context of Australian culture.

Petticoat pioneers

Beyond the artistic context, Nalda is part of a distinctively Australian lineage of women who have submerged themselves in the lives of Aboriginal communities in the nation’s desert centre. The most notorious of these is Daisy Bates, from whom Nalda has drawn inspiration in some of her works. Bates used her Irish background to claim special understanding of Aboriginal mythology. Initiated into these secrets, she was able to say that ‘the ever-open book of Nature has taught me more of wisdom than is compassed in the libraries of men.’

While Bates absorbed the indigenous culture around her, she managed to maintain her own cultural identity with strict attention to her Edwardian costume. Bates constructed a complicated daily routine in order to maintain this edifice. As she said, ‘I made friends with the needle’. While far more sensitive to issues of transmission in Aboriginal culture, Searles’ place has strong resonance with the white woman of the desert.

More recently, the Tasmanian Olive Pink settled in Alice Springs to connect with the Walpiri, seeking to find a sanctuary to protect them from the encroachments of white development. During a radio broadcast in 1939 she invited listeners to imagine the night sky in central Australia, ‘

If you can imagine yourselves there, you will be more in the most to think WITH, instead of just FOR the Aborigines. and it is only by thinking with them that we shall ever have the sympathetic insight to obtain ‘givings’ for them that they do not, themselves, look on only as a FURTHER TAKING AWAY…

Like Bates, Pink was legendary for her regal attire. She was given the nickname ‘flower pot’ for her terracotta hat. The contrast of delicate female clothing and the alien hard Australian landscape is remembered in the novel and film of Picnic at Hanging Rock. By contrast to the male ‘drizabone’ bush uniform, which signifies a conquest of nature, the petticoat implies a submission to its life force.

There are strong parallels in the lives of these legendary Australian figures and the real-life experience of Nalda Searles. But through the work of Searles we can also reflect on the scene of a Western woman seeking to find a place among the people of the land.

Searles’ work manifests a particularly rare form of collaboration with Indigenous artists. While she has studied and absorbed the Ngaanyatjarra culture, she also seeks to contribute something in return. Her needlecraft skills have been important in developing new collective activities such as basketry that enable a positive engagement with whitefella culture.

By contrast with New Zealand, Australia has lacked a formalised dialogue between indigenous and non-indigenous. The bicultural relationship between Pakeha and Maori continues to evolve—from the Waitangi treaty to the echoes of traditional motifs in non-indigenous jewellers such as those involved in the Bone, Stone and Shell exhibition of 1988. Through writers like Michael King and artists like Colin McCahon, Pakeha have negotiated a place for themselves in New Zealand. By contrast, in Australia, the legal doctrine of terra nullius has left a legacy of profound alienation from the culture that has given the land its meaning. Searles work is a beginning in the slow alignment of these two elements.

Gone to seed

Beyond New Zealand, we can find resonance for Searles’ work with other cultures that have also undergone colonisation. South Africa’s vibrant indigenous basketry traditions have developed with the incorporation of found materials such as telephone wire. Beaded embroidery reaches a monumental scale. Yet both crafts remain at the level of the graphic, with little direct reference to nature. One artist close to Nalda is the white Congolese sculptor Jacques Dhont, who weaves figures from the bark of Port Jackson wattle, originally an Australian tree and now detested as an ‘alien’ that destroys the delicate ecology of the cape. His work has value for both the forms that he produces and the contamination he decreases.

Across the Pacific, the use of grass in Brazil has developed to form works of great technical skill, but these remain retail products with little story to tell. In Peru, there is trade in dolls constructed from scraps of old traditional textiles, but this only appears in markets. Though the scene is changing, artisanship in Latin America remains a lower caste activity not associated with the conversation about cultural identity.

But the spirit of Nalda’s work does have resonance with broader republican themes of Latin culture. In 1923, the Brazilian poet Oswald de Andrade initiated a new movement known of Anthropofagi which celebrated a cultural version of cannibalism. Defying the tendency to always identify with civilised Europe, Andrade advocated identification with the native Tupi Indians. ‘Against all importers of canned consciousness’ he opposed the palpable existence of life’. Andrade’s manifesto initiated a bold Brazilian modernism that tried to ignore previous models but at the same time absorb all influences. It inspired the movement of Tropicalismo, which sought a full-bodied audience participation in the space of new possibilities that have been created.

Compared to the cannibalism celebrated by Brazilian modernism, Searles’ quieter approach is more like a gradual infestation. Exposed to the resilient energies of the outback, the accoutrements of modern life are soon covered with insects, seeds, leaves and dirt. Colonisation has been a constant battle against these elements in order to keep settlement pure. Searles’ work allows nature to infiltrate the settler culture. But rather than corrupt and destroy its beauty as feared, nature provides a baroque ornament. It adds value to the host while retaining its own origins.

The idea of an Australian republic has continued to appear as an abstract legal formality. The work of an artist like Searles provides us with a tangible sense of what such a future might feel like. As a basket-maker, artist and cultural agent, Nalda Searles represents a key point of convergence in our part of the world.

This essay is for the Nalda Searles national touring exhibition in 2009.

The Rame Rame issue of Garland #8

The Indonesian nation was founded on the five principles of Pancasila: divinity, humanism, nationalism, democracy and social justice. In 1945, the Indonesian President Sukarno reduced these to the fundamental principle of gotong royong, or mutual cooperation. This is the official story of values Indonesia presents to the world.

This issue of Garland is a kind of “gotong royong”. We’ve been advised by a dedicated team of young Indonesians who are keen to see this value updated to the country of today, 72 years later. The textile designer, Frans Pandjaitan sees this concept as more relevant to agricultural communities, where members of the kampung (“village”) come together to sow seeds or harvest. For urban dwellers like himself, it is more limited to big social events like weddings or funerals. For product designer Nadia Pramudita, this spirit still pervades much social life, such as the ngariung shared meal that is part of Sundanese culture and is now a fashionable kind of gathering in Jakarta. As a more familiar version of the sentiment of cooperation, Nadia suggested the phrase rame rame, which is typically said to rouse a group of people to action.

Rame rame  is a contribution to the ongoing exploration of the value of creative practice in the broader Indo-Pacific. With the quarterly essay by Rob Finlayson about Rodney Glick, we visit Bali, where many Westerners have been travelling not only for holidays, but also to work with the many skilled artisans. In Ubud, Glick has established a unique practice that combines not only a series of Hindu-inspired sculptures, but also a chain of cafes, filled with his designs for furniture and eating. With a keen ear for the conversations around Glick, Finlayson conveys the easeful flow of sociability that grounds his work.

We’re lucky as well to have an explanation by Mas Ruscita of the very material form of spirituality that underpins this Balinese attitude to the world. The Balinese cooperative Ketemu extends this into the social realm with a Schizo-friends project, realised in a yoga park. To the north of the island, Gede Kresna’s Rumah Intaran revives Balinese crafts, trades and recipes for local inspiration. And Marty Hope’s Elephant Shark represents an attempt to restore an image of Bali in the “old days”, before it became so commodified.

Collaboration is a key theme. Annie Gobel’s Complete Me jewellery project takes rame rame to Melbourne. Nuraini Juliastuti offers an Indonesian take on Tom Nicholson’s collaboration with diorama artisans in Yogyakarta. The artist Rosslynd Piggott writes about the value of her partnership with Venetian glass makers. Lisa Waup and Sarah Weston present their collaboration of Indigenous design and fashion. And the next instalment in the Stringlines series on fibre art tells the remarkable story of mentorship between a Sumatran datu spirit man and a newly lauded Indigenous artist, Jenny Crompton. Indonesia seems to have embraced social media and it is worth learning how they have adapted it to their values. During the course of this issue, we will be exploring the potential of Instagram as a platform for working together.

There’s much to learn about Indonesia itself. William Ingram and Jean Howe articulate the philosophy of Threads of Life through a visit to a traditional weaving community in Flores. Fauzy Prasetya shares his thoughts on what it takes to set up a ceramics studio today. Two articles are about the Dayak culture of Kalimantan: Karen Macdonald takes us to a Dayak wedding ceremony and Stephanie Brookes looks at the fibre craft that holds a village together. Marian Reid and Emily Lush discuss the iconic craft of Timor-Leste, tais weaving.

As always, we discover strong cross-cultural dialogues. Carla van Lunn writes about a fashion exchange between Australia and Indonesia, while Elizabeth Shaw reflects on a parallel jewellery exchange. Alexandra Crosby introduces us to some current thinking around design from Surabaya.

As well, there’s a roundup of stories from across the region. We hear from Lisa Cahill on Charlotte Haywood, Mark Stiles on Helen Wyatt, Elliat Rich on her design interpretation of central Australian landscape, Renate Mellão on the Brazilian embroidered house, Madeleine Kelly on an exhibition by Mexican artist, Claudia Fernandez, and a series on Japanese ceramics artists by Shoko Ono, Yoshika Yajima, Naho Yamashita and Tomoko Kawakami.

One of the goals of each issue is to find ways of connecting people together. We’ve been very lucky to have excellent advice from Frans Pandjaitan, Nadia Pramudita, Annie Gobel, Grace Samboh and Anisa Fardan Nabila. We hope they will help us continue to provide an Indonesian voice as Garland travels to other parts of our world.

To see the complete list of contents, go here.

Kai Melbourne…

Over the years, I’ve corresponded with people in Aotearoa / New Zealand. Almost all of them, including both Pākeha and Māori, have responded with the salutation, “Kia Ora…” By contrast, my generic response, “Dear…” or “Hi…” seemed lacking in culture. I’ve tried to counter that by including the latest weather forecast in my signature, at least to make evident that this message in the cloud comes from somewhere on earth. But that’s not a shared ritual.

Occasionally, I will start an email correspondence with “Cooee…” which does have Australasian roots and at least acknowledges my settler background. But “Cooee…” is more an initial greeting and doesn’t work for an ongoing email conversation. Occasionally I use “G’day…” which is more familiar, but it feels too closely aligned the tourist promotions featuring the happy Ocker. It’s not a term that reflects our growing diversity.

This situation has come to a head recently as I’ve been corresponding with those involved in the upcoming Moana issue of Garland. From different Pacific voices, I get a wide variety of salutations, including “Sio’otofa…” (Tonga), “Bona Marum…” (Tolai, PNG) and “Drau bula vinaka…” (Fiji).

It grates on me to reply with a pallid “Dear…” Is there an alternative? One response might be, “Well too bad, your settler heritage is all about the flattening of ritual and tradition. Suck it up!” But I’ve tried to live by the maxim of the great Southern thinker Paulin Hountondji that “culture is a project”, which balances the debts we’ve inherited from the past with a responsibility towards the future. One of the projects we have in Australia is to lessen our colonial attachments and more fully live where we are in the world. How we talk to each other seems a part of that project.

A few years ago, I started a quest to find a name for settlers like me that might correspond to Pākeha in Aotearoa / New Zealand. I discovered that there was no common name for “whitefella”, but instead quite a dizzying diversity of terms reflecting different ways in which the European intruders were greeted. The most prominent term seemed to be “Balanda”, used by the Yolŋu from a word they were given by the Macassan fisherman to describe the Dutch colonists (“Hollander”). I kept a blog Being Balanda to document this, in response to Michael King’s book Being Pākeha. But the question of salutation goes beyond individual identity to how we speak to each other.

At an exhibition opening recently, I found myself talking with Aunty Joy Murphy Wandin. I presented my dilemma to her and asked if there was a term she I could use that reflected the culture of the Wurundjeri as traditional owners of Narrm (Melbourne). She encouraged me to use the word “Kai” as an email greeting. A word can be a very special gift. Should accept it?

We’ve now adopted the custom of acknowledging traditional owners at public events. Might those of us living in Melbourne begin also to adopt the Wurundjeri salutation? The history of our settlement is marked by Wurundjeri place names, like Toorak, Dandenong, Tullamarine and Yarra. Should we consider this a continuing process? Should we eventually re-name Melbourne to Narrm? Are there other local customary practices that would be more widely adopted?

It is not up to any individual—particularly a settler descendent—to determine these standards. But it seems important that we keep the question open, so that we can move to a better future together.

So kai, what do you think?

Image of Dandenong is taken from Victoria Places