Sometimes, it’s worth stating the obvious in order not to be so.
We’ve come to accept that art is a profession. To become a recognised artist, most need to follow an institutional path. According to art world specialist Peter Hill, ‘the usual route is to attend a university school of art, and there are approximately thirty of these around the country. One can leave such an institution with an undergraduate degree, an honours degree, a variety of Masters degrees, or a PhD by project.’ Once out of university, the artist then needs to be selected for exhibitions in commercial or public galleries. This institutional route winnows out those who are serious from the part-timers.
While the logic of this system is self-evident, it has its limitations. The inherently elitist trajectory is seen to exclude a particular kind of art which is not beholden to the academic field. For the critic Russell Jacoby, the academicisation of cultural life encourages internecine concerns. Yet apart from some experiments in relational aesthetics, the outsider artist is an increasingly rare phenomenon in the West. This is a significant point of difference with countries in our region.
It is often remarked that Asian cultures do not have a word for art that is distinct from other forms of creative expression. The closest equivalent in Sanskrit is shilpa, which means ‘diverse’ and includes horsemanship and cooking. Given the continuity of tradition, there are often strong communities of artists who exist outside the academy, yet are not hobbyists.
Consider folk artists. Their context includes temple decoration, festival costumes and ritual events such as weddings. In the West, public decoration is largely a commodified domain involving advertising and industrial printing. Folk art is the remnant of a world when it is easier to make something by hand than buy it in a shop.
Within a ‘third world’ framework, such art is backward, provincial, staid and crude. Lacking the innovation that comes from contact with the wider world, it prime value is for tourists. Better to embrace more professional art forms, such as painting on canvas.
The inexorable power of this story was demonstrated to me in 2006, when I met with the board of the National Gallery of Mauritius. For a population around one million people, the prospect of such an institution was more an aspiration than a reality. Though the building for their gallery had been promised by successive governments, it is yet to eventuate. Instead, I was shown photographs of their collection, which consisted almost exclusively of paintings, many by Europeans passing through.
While Mauritius has a rich history of folk crafts, particularly from the kreol communities, aspirations for art followed quite foreign European lines. Of course, there was a logic behind this. Why create a collection in order to preserve what can already be found outside on the street? Yet, as the place to tell the story of a national culture, much was swept under the carpet.
But we know that this developmental push isn’t the only story emerging from the West. The English writers William Morris and John Ruskin provided an alternative path based on labour as a form of creative expression. For Ruskin, ‘Fine art is that in which the hand, the head, and the heart of man go together.’
In the West, this provided an ideological platform for the revival of folk crafts in the 20th century, leading to the emergence of studio craft as modernist art form parallel with painting and sculpture. This sometimes uneasy alliance is described in Glenn Adamson’s classic text Thinking through Craft: while craft reflects how things are made, visual arts presents the final image. The DIY movement that has since eclipsed studio craft has more affinities with folk craft though it is more about individual expression than cultural traditions.
The Arts & Crafts Movement had a more political value in non-Western countries. In the early 20th century, the Japanese drew on the ideas of Morris and Ruskin to develop a craft aesthetic in opposition to Western culture. The Mingei movement (from minshuteki kogei ‘popular crafts’) emerged in 1926 from a meeting of Kanjiro Kawai, Shoji Hamada and Bernard Leach, who [email protected] the aesthetics of honest labour in Asian ceramics. As the recent publication Modern Japanese Art and the Meiji State argues, the concept of bijustu (art) was perceived during this period as a Western imposition on Japan.
There are echoes of Mingei still in contemporary Japan. The 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa celebrates artisan craft. As the director of the Yuji Akimoto says in a recent interview: ‘It wasn’t all that long ago young artists were interested in creating universal artwork, abandoning techniques and aesthetics like those rooted in kôgei. But now people are finding local art and craftwork modern and interesting once again.’ His 2012 exhibition Art Crafting towards the Future features older art forms like lacquer and ceramics in dialogue with manga, design and contemporary art.
In India, the profile of modern folk art has strong roots in nationalism. For Gandhi, Ruskin’s ideas helped critique the Western quest to save labour through technology. His attempt to forge a nation state independent of Western influence involved mandating members of the Congress Party to spin cotton every day; Gandhi laboured as a spiritual exercise to stay in tune with village culture. This call was extended by activist Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay to the founding of the All India Handicrafts Board, representing up to 200 million village artisans.
While many crafts now operate within the market, the ornamental folk traditions that are tied to festivals and rituals persist in India. According to the latest census, 70% of the population still live in villages.
In the West, folk arts are usually presented as anonymous. This can be either as ethnography, such as the Paris Trocadero, or as appropriation, such as Australian painter Robert McPherson’s ‘swamp rat’ road signs.
Indian folk artists began to emerge as named individuals in the 1980s. The artist J. Swaminathan sought to establish a distinctly Indian school of art that drew from folk traditions rather than external movements like Abstract Expressionism. Through the Bharat Bhawan museum in Bhopal, Swaminathan set out to collect work from the region. The museum was soon home to an extraordinary group of tribal artists, including a woman named Sonabai, whose creatures in clay and straw conveyed a charmed world. Many then found opportunities beyond Bhopal. Sonabai was featured in the Delhi Crafts Museum, a visionary institution set up by Jyotindra Jain to living traditional artists. She was even invited to create an installation for the 1999 Asia Pacific Triennial in Brisbane.
It is interesting to see quite divergent narratives about Sonabai’s creativity. The US writer Stephen Huyler describes her as a self-taught artist whose inspiration came from the purely personal experience of loneliness: ‘she is herself an archetype of the unrecognized woman who creates beauty in her life’. For Hyuler, Sonabai is a lone genius who deserves wider recognition. Accordingly, fellow villagers who make work in this style are seen as imitators trying to cash into her success. By contrast, Jyotindra Jain’s account in his book and exhibition Other Masters places her within the culture of her village, specifically the annual ritual chherta harvest festival when houses are re-decorated.
But now, a new interest in the more collective folk traditions has emerged. Two recent exhibitions have focused on the most humble of decorative arts—broom making. Despite its utilitarian function, the use of natural fibres affords a strong regional variation. The Arna-Jharna Desert Museum of Rajasthan was established in 2008 by musicologist Komal Kothari. As a ‘laboratory of the ordinary’, its first three years were devoted solely to the broom. The museum described itself as having ‘consciously prioritized social relationships generated by objects, rather than a purely aesthetic or ethnographic focus on the objects themselves.’ The broom is positioned as part of a knowledge system that interconnects environmental and social domains. As part of its expanded role, the Broom Project considers practical issues such as health issues, urban waste management, education and political rights of broom makers.
A parallel urban exposition of brooms was developed by the Asian Heritage Foundation, established by Rajeev Sethi, a designer who returned to India from Paris to work with traditional crafts. In 2020, the Foundation was inaugurated with an exhibition dedicated to the broom— Sweeping Change: Transforming Attitudes towards the Humble Jharu (Broom) at Gandhi Smriti in Delhi. While the exhibition featured a purely aesthetic taxonomy of brooms, it also involved the broom community directly, such as broom sellers performing their cries.
The exhibition had been designed by Ishan Khosla, who has also returned after a period abroad to take up the many opportunities back home. Khosla has since established a graphic design practice working closely in collaboration with artisans. For a book cover, he commissioned a traditional Rajasthani kaavad painter to reflect on the publication’s contents.
Now folk artists are increasingly accepting commissions. The Australian sculptors Rodney Glick and Wanda Gillespie have drawn on the skills of Indonesian artisans —Glick from Balinese carving and Gillespie from bird cage painters in Jogjakarta. This follows a trajectory for folk artists to take on an increasingly active role in their creative practice.
This development is an important manifestation of the changing world order. Where previously the Third World was seen in a relatively dependent position toward the developed world, with the emerging superpowers in Asia and Latin America, there is an increasingly bilateralism in international relationships.
Folk art need no longer be seen as anonymous cultural flora. Nor need it be the work of a lone genius, waiting to be plucked from obscurity by a visiting curator. It is a form of creative expression with its own political interests. Love my art, love my people.
Murray, Kevin. “A New Broom Sweeping Changes to Folk Art in Asia.” Artlink 33, no. 1 (March 2013): 64–67.
 Stephen Huyler Sonabai: Another Way of Seeing Mapin publishing in association with Mingei International Museum, San Diego, 2009, p. 39