Designing with the Neighbours in Mind: Unlimited Asia Pacific

Unlimited Asia Pacific is a platform for the Queensland state government to join Victoria as a leading force in Australia’s emergent design economy. While the Victorian State of Design Festival is focused on state-based activity, Unlimited triennial builds on the work of its visual arts sister, the Asia Pacific Triennial, to position design within the wider region. The question is: What does Unlimited add to the APT?

Unlimited offers promising opportunities. The APT deals largely in the cultural reflections in our region, questioning stereotypes and familiarising ourselves with a contemporary Asia Pacific sensibility. Despite massive audience numbers in Brisbane, participation from the region is likely to be limited to those with the resources to engage in visual arts. Unlimited offers the possibility of partnership beyond the performance of cultural difference—it engages in the everyday life of the region.

Besides its relevance to our dialogue with the Asia Pacific, Unlimited coincides with the birth of the Australian Design Alliance as a lobbying group to promote design as a capacity across government. This design push takes aligns itself with the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council, which has historically supported the crafts. It argues that ‘Australia should keep pace with the rest of the world in generating creative capital through innovative ideas, product differentiation and systems effectiveness.’

From a government perspective, support for design is seen a business-friendly initiative. The focus of the Queensland event reinforces the link to economic growth – the theme of the 2010 Unlimited festival is ‘opportunity’.

Yet the concerns are not purely profit-driven. There is much in the program that focuses on improving social condition in the region. One of the great successes of Unlimited was Bunker Roy, of Barefoot College, who received two standing ovations for his account of the south-south enterprise teaching grandmothers to become solar engineers. Cases studies of ‘Design in Action’ mostly focused on needs of poor communities in the Asia Pacific region.

But sometimes business and development combined uneasily. There’s a growing school of thought, reflected in C.K. Prahalad’s Bottom of the Pyramid, that a win-win scenario for global North and South can be created by harnessing informal economies in poor countries to the efficiencies of global capital. Mark Ingram from Millennium Business Development told the story of a village in the highlands of PNG, where responsible women farmers were contrasted with indulgent men wasting their time in body decoration and spear-sharpening.

While few today would argue for the interests of men above women, MBD can be seen as advocating a missionary approach. This kind of business development isolates the primitive elements of a culture off from its progressive capacities. It’s doubtful that MBD would overtly identify as imperialist, but critical discussion is important to clarify its aims.

Unlimited has some important issues to work through. Given the urgency of poverty, perhaps cultural identity is an unnecessary romance. Conversely, the prioritising of economy above culture may itself be specific to a Western world view that focuses more on the future than the past.

If it were to articulate such issues, Queensland’s Unlimited would not only position the state in this growing region but also play a leading role in a national conversation about our place in the world beyond. Figures like Noel Pearson have alerted us to these issues within Australia, now we are finding resonant voices from our neighbours outside.


The Unlimited Asia Pacific website contains a full range of videos of presentations from the event; a visit is highly recommended.

Australian Design Alliance

Originally published in Artlink vol 30 no 4, 2010

Welcome Signs: Contemporary Interpretations of the Garland

    Welcome Signs website now online at

    A common cultural thread throughout the Asia Pacific region is the ceremony of welcome. Honoured guests, returning fisherman and sometimes lost strangers are treated to delicacies, gifts, song and dance. The garland plays an important role as a beautiful and scented wreath with which to adorn the neck of a guest.

    With urbanisation, traditional communities and families are becoming increasingly fragmented. The welcome garland changes its function from an ephemeral part of the ritual to a keepsake of home. Degradable materials like flower petals can be replaced by other materials, including plastics, money and confections. This is particularly poignant in Pacific communities, where sea-level rises combined with economic diasporas is placing increasing pressure on maintenance of traditional culture.

    Welcome Signs is an exhibition of jewellery and adornment that draws on the tradition of the garland. It considers how the cultural traditions might be sustained despite displacement and urbanisation. And it re-considers the role of welcome in a world increasingly made of strangers, including temporary citizens, such as students and refugees.

    As a project, Welcome Signs draws on the success of the Melbourne Scarf Festival, which over five years explored the many cultural dimensions of this popular craft, including its religious, tribal, fashion, psychological and even technological aspects. By comparison, the garland is like a closed scarf whose meaning is more in the act of bestowal than in the wearing.

    It also draws from the Turn the Soil exhibition that toured Australia in 1998-9, featuring the work of second-generation Australians. As this exhibition visited venues throughout the country, it focused on different stories about the particular contribution of non-British cultures to the story of Australia.

    Welcome Signs aims to be a touring exhibition that not only contains beautiful and interesting objects, but also acts as a catalyst for thinking about the practice of welcome today. Jewellery will be sourced from throughout the Asia Pacific. This will include Australasian contemporary jewellers who create unique works of art out of these traditions. Works will include:

  • Salusalus and leis from Pacific islands, including new forms from Auckland
  • Innovative versions of the var mala garlands that are part of Hindu ritual
  • Urbanised versions of the phuang malai in Thailand
  • Contemporary interpretations of the tais from East Timor and selendang from Indonesia
  • Contemporary art neckpieces from Australasian jewellers, including wreaths, laurels and medals

Welcome Signs: Contemporary Interpretations of Traditional Garlands consists of several components

Delhi exhibition (confirmed)

New Delhi, India, 4-6 February 2011

Exhibition for the World Craft Council Jewellery Conference, Abhushan: Tradition & Design – Dialogues for the 21st Century

This exhibition from the Asia Pacific region will form a key element in the international survey of jewellery for this major convention

Touring exhibition (in development)