An orchid in the desert – the lacquer journey of Bic Tieu

Bic Tieu, Joss Vessels, copper, lacquer and silver leaf, 2016, 32 diameter x 52mm and 32 diameter x 35mm
Bic Tieu, Joss Vessels, copper, lacquer and silver leaf, 2016, 32 diameter x 52mm and 32 diameter x 35mm

What does it mean for an Australian to master lacquer art? This quintessential oriental art developed over seven millennia to become one of the most sophisticated languages for expressing the preciousness of human existence. What chance does a young settler culture have to contribute to this tradition? Our ancient art is ochre and bark, not resin. Not only do we lack a history in this art form, the delicate essence of lacquer seems out of proportion to our wide horizons. Like the Japanese haiku, lacquer is a medium for the world in miniature. The challenge of finding a place for Australia in this refined tradition gives the art of Bic Tieu its own unique poignancy.

Understanding Bic Tieu’s own journey helps us appreciate the meaning of her work. Tieu’s grandparents moved from China to Vietnam in order to escape poverty. Her parents then left South Vietnam for similar reasons after the war. A product of that journey, Tieu was born in an Indonesian refugee camp (“Bic” means sapphire).

Like many others arriving from south-east Asia, Tieu’s family moved into Sydney’s inner West. The father had a job in the steel industry and the mother worked in garment factories. Despite the responsibilities of family and work, Tieu’s parents retained a strong traditional aesthetic. They grew plants as a side business, nurturing succulents, cactus and orchids. On return visits from Vietnam, her family brought back panels of black lacquer with mother-of-pearl inlay. Tieu grew up in this world of delicate things—still and living. We can imagine this Asian menagerie in a domestic bubble, surrounded by the rough and tumble of suburban life—“She’ll be right, mate!”

Initially, Tieu combined her love for the beautiful with the practical business of survival by enrolling in graphic design at the University of NSW. Exposed to a variety of creative practices, she fell into jewellery, thanks to the inspiration of lecturers Wendy Parker and Leong Chan. Then, fatefully, in her final year, she was recommended a book on East Asian lacquer. Tieu was captivated by what she saw. But who could teach her this technique? Australia has no history of this craft.

During her Masters, Tieu was able to do some field studies in Hue, back in Vietnam. But “always in the back of my head was Japanese lacquer – maki-e.” She was eventually successful in getting an Australia Council New Work Grant to go to Japan in 2007. The aim was to learn from the lacquer master, Kitamura Tatsuo, then 55 years old and living in Wajima, a small town on the west coast of Japan, near Kanazawa. On arrival, she was tested in her skills of brush work and polishing. After painstaking preparation, Tieu produced a flawless golden flower, floating on a sea of black lacquer. She consequently passed the test and was initiated into the mysteries of maki-e. Tieu returned to Japan for two years between 2009 and 2011 to refine her skills.

What Tieu imbibed in Japanese culture was an extraordinary sensitivity to the material world. This reverence for objects is expressed powerfully in the tea ceremony. Melvin Jahss writes in his book on Japanese lacquer: “Even the approved manner of handling these objects of art in the palm of the hand (guarded with the opposite hand and held low) speaks for the loving care with which the Japanese regard fine art objects.”

Lacquer art came into its own during the Edo era. The bushido worldview upheld qualities of diligence, honesty, honor, loyalty, and frugality. Lacquer helped exercise these qualities—it is an unforgiving substance. Gold powder is sprinkled gently by the delicate flick of a finger on the bamboo dispenser. A single object may take years of steady labour—the merest speck of dust can ruin an entire work. Four hundred years later, this skill and technique is still sustained in contemporary Japanese lacquer art, such as the tea caddies by Kanazawa artist, Shinya Yamamura.

Elsewhere in East Asia, lacquer art has taken a radical modernist turn. At South Korea’s 2015 Cheongju International Craft Biennale, an exhibition of contemporary lacquer art showcased the Pebble, a seat by Hwang Sam-yong covered entirely in mother-of-pearl. Unlike the traditional use, which employed inlay to create subtle pictorial scenes in a sea of black, this was just the shell itself.

Rather than strip away tradition, Tieu builds on the past with her own techniques. Many of the vessels are acid-etched. Tieu interprets traditional floral patterns on Adobe Illustrator and prints out the design which is applied to the object. The vessel is coated with lacquer, which is then polished back in a way that carefully exposes the copper motifs.

Tieu’s approach to lacquer art is postmodern, as befits a migrant society, seeking to balance the old and the new. This reflects the second generation experience of growing up in a belief system whose reality is at odds with the world outside. In Unpolished Gem, the novelist Alice Pung weaves a parallel story as a Chinese Cambodian growing up in Melbourne’s West.

I could hear Grandmother’s voice in my head: “Stupid white ghosts don’t understand bugger-all about real people, about the need to be protected.” They were already ghosts, what need did they have of protection from ghosts?  

Like Pung, TIeu returns to the “superstitions” of her childhood world. This western Sydney version Chinese auspicious culture prescribed which direction to face when sleeping, what sacrifice to make for an ancestor and the need to finish every grain of rice in her bowl (or she would marry a husband as spotted as that). It is an art of careful alignment, a world of Feng Shui.  

It’s useful to step back here into the Chinese culture from which Tieu is descended. With the arrival of Buddhism in third century BC China, came an appreciation of the symbolic meaning of flowers. Peach blossom evokes the gods in heaven, who dwell in the Far West. Tang flower poetry and Southern Song painting reflect the importance of nature in representing human affairs.

The eleventh century Song poet Ouyang Xiu draws on West Lake for inspiration:

The painted boat is punted in to where the flowers are thick.
Fragrance floats round golden cups,
Mist and rain are so, so fine…

The apprehension of beauty is made poignant by its fleeting quality. This is at odds with our consumerist response to attractive things, which is to seek to possess them—as purchases or photographs. During the Song dynasty, acquisitiveness seemed contrary to the spirit of harmony in nature. The ideal was to “view flowers on horseback” (zou ma kan hua)—catching beauty with a casual glance.

For us today, seeing Tieu’s work in a gallery imposes a similar distance. Such precious objects invite the hand. We long to hold one between our fingers and watch the dance of light as patterns evanesce. But these are not ours to touch. Instead, like the art lover on horseback, we hover around them, enjoying the play of glittering copper and blood red lacquer.

Circling dimensions invites us to circumambulate like the lid of the cylinder. Connected harmony is an ornamental version of a calendar: one side has the Chinese lunar date and the other its Western equivalent.

Tieu’s objects are alive. The lacquer forms a translucent skin that contains the precious interior. And like succulents, lacquered objects require a humid atmosphere to develop. In a relatively dry city like Sydney, Tieu must place her objects in a humidity box, containing a layer of plaster of Paris, and left on a warm window sill. Tieu adds to the unpredictability by using copper as a metal inlay, which slowly turns green with oxidation. The Spring transitions necklace presents metal in flux like seasonal change.

So how does this fragile orchid of a craft survive in such an arid continent? The poet Les Murray articulated as well as any other Australian writer the battered environs of his culture, where “hot water crinkles in the tin wash dish.” But at the core of this world, Murray saw a careful regard for things that is almost Japanese in its sense of aesthetic order. As he wrote in Aqualung Shinto:

Oh Zen makes colonials of a few
but each people has its proper Shinto
Distinctive as verandah beams.

Tieu has found her own “proper Shinto” in lacquer. Drawing from her Vietnamese inheritance, she makes precious rings from eggshell (Moon Autumn), the poor man’s pearl. The object Twang distorts the perfection of the vessel into a unique broad shape, like the broad Aussie accent Tieu acquired growing up in Sydney’s West. And her Prunus Bowls are vessels with minimal inner volume—like a niche to house a sacred symbol rather than a store a thing of the world.

Tieu has sat at the feet of a Japanese master. Through tireless application, she has learnt the delicate language of fragile materials. After endless polishing, she has gradually revealed the preciousness within. But her work is not trapped in time. It is open to the world around her—the air and the light and to us who find ourselves momentarily stilled.  


Jahss, Melvin, and Betty Jahss. 2013. Inro and Other Miniature Forms of Japanese Lacquer Art. Tuttle Publishing.

Knapp, Ronald G. 1999. China’s Living Houses: Folk Beliefs, Symbols, and Household Ornamentation. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Pung, Alice. 2009. Unpolished Gem: My Mother, My Grandmother and Me. London: Portobello Books Ltd.


Craft in Australia: let’s not forget the real value of the handmade

With the possibility of technology taking over our jobs, now is the perfect time to remind ourselves of the value of Australian craft culture, and the beauty of the handmade.

In his budget reply speech in May 2015, Bill Shorten claimed that “coding is the literacy of the 21st century.”

With the possibility of technology taking over our jobs, now is the perfect time to remind ourselves of the value of Australian craft culture, and the beauty of the handmade.

In September, Melbourne will host the inaugural Radiant Pavilion, an international jewellery festival – along with the state organisation’s Craft Cubedand national conference, Parallels: Journeys into Contemporary Making – to be delivered by the National Gallery of Victoria.

This conference culminates the National Craft Initiative (NCI), managed by theNational Association of the Visual Arts (NAVA). A 2014 report by the NCI, Mapping the Australian Craft Sector, called for an urgent review of its sustainability.


In 2009 NAVA Director Tamara Winikoff described craft in the community in the following terms:

The extent of the Australian community’s engagement with craft and design (over 2 million participants) is a powerful affirmation of the deep seated satisfaction which people gain from the exercise of their imagination and skill. The ambition of the NCI is to stimulate engagement of the Australian craft and design sector with new ideas, ways of doing things, connections and opportunities.

University of South Australia’s Susan Luckman’s recent book, Craft and the Creative Economy (2015), reflects on the growing interest in the handmade, prompted by increasing awareness of exploitation in global industrial production:

Craft, as both objects and process, appeals in this moment of increasing environmental and labour awareness as an ethical alternative to mass-production; craft also speaks to deep human connections to, and interest in, making and the handmade as offering something seemingly authentic in a seemingly inauthentic world.

The internet – bringing with it businesses like, which has exceededUS$2 billion in transactions – promises to extend the intimacy of the local market to a global audience, offering a sense of connection that is lacking elsewhere.

But how does Australia feature in the global industry of craft? Surprisingly, Australia was once a world leader.


The Crafts Council of Australia emerged in 1964 as a response to an invitation from the World Crafts Council (WCC) to attend its inaugural event in New York. In 1973, the Crafts Board was established to represent the arts in the Australia Council alongside visual arts, dance and literature.

Then in 1980, Australian ceramist Marea Gazzard was the first elected president of the WCC. Political leaders of the time sought to identify with popular crafts, such as Democrats founder Don Dunstan opening the Adelaide’s JamFactoryCraft Centre in 1973 and Rupert Hamer launching Victoria’s Meat Market Crafts Centre in 1977.

However, Australian craft has since virtually disappeared from the national stage. Through the 1980s, the Crafts Board was incorporated into the Visual Arts/Crafts Board, and eventually merged into the Visual Arts Board in the 1990s, as it now remains.

Finally, the last national link to craft was lost with the 2011 decision to cut funding for Craft Australia.

Recent political leaders have failed to use Australian crafts to demonstrate their national pride, with the exception of John Madigan and Nick Xenophon’s failed attempt to furnish Parliament House with Australian-made crockery.

The now corporatised state-based crafts councils such as Craft Victoria and Adelaide’s dynamic JamFactory generate much local activity, but they are not supported by a national platform or funding.


Though Australian craft is rarely seen on our national stage, we have actually made many unique objects of enduring value. As a material art, craft expresses in a tangible appreciation of the land. Using Japanese techniques, Australian ceramicists give artistic expression to the rich soils, glazed with ash from our native timbers.

As shown in this year’s Venice Biennale, Aboriginal communities from central Australia use the unique plants of the desert to tell sacred stories in fibre sculptures. Wood craftspersons are learning how to adapt European techniques to the challenges of our indigenous timbers. Jewellers have taken the egalitarian approach to materials and learnt how to make exquisite works out of humble materials.

While other nations have attempted to re-focus on making things, the “lucky country” has come to depend more on what can be extracted from the land than is produced on it. The “clever country” imagined during the Hawke-Keating years made a virtue out of the loss of manufacturing, heralding a knowledge economy that focused on financial and education services.


In the US, President Obama personally hosted the annual Maker Faire last year, reviving some national pride in making things through local production, featuring neighbourhood labs that offer services such as 3D printing.

In the UK, craft contributes A$6.5 billion to the economy. The Crafts Councilactively presents craft in the public eye, including a recent manifesto – Our Future is in the Making – launched in the House of Commons to promote craft in education.

Across the sea, the Crafts Council of Ireland receives annually A$5.2 million in government funding to support craft initiatives such as Future Makers to nurture the next generation (a per capita equivalent in Australia would be A$26 million for a national craft organisation).

China, South Korea, Japan and India have also dedicated significant funding,international festivals, infrastructure and craftsman support services) to the development and sustainability of locally crafted goods, including Nahendra Modi’s personal commitment to support khadi (handloom) cotton production.

But with the end of the mining boom, we are looking at the impact that this loss of productive capacity has on our ability to sustain our future. What exactly will be the legacy of our good fortune apart from large holes in the ground?


This year – will it be a turning point, or could it be more of the same?

For the past two decades, the cult of the new prevented us from building on the unique traditions we have established. Arts talk today is infected with corporatephrases such as “disruptive technologies”, “breaking down barriers”, and “design thinking”.

The obsession to break with the past weakens the social and community values that underpin meaning.

Understanding where we have come from offers a trajectory that can guide us into the future. According to Marian Hosking, President of the newly revivedWorld Crafts Council – Australia:

Today’s craftsperson draws on both traditional craft practice and new technologies, with an understanding of historic and social precedence.

The end of the mining boom is a chance to review the implicit direction of Australia as a nation. What will happen as Asian countries inevitably raise their wages, develop first rate universities and create their own designs?

Crafts help us answer that question. Crafts demonstrate that we know our place in the world and are committed to make something from it.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Alice Springs Beanie Festival

Article for The Age about the Beanie Festival

Panjiti Lionel's award winning beanie


While the end of the 20th century was marked by the destruction of the Berlin Wall, we are now witnessing the construction of a barrier more than three times its length, along Israel’s West Bank. The optimism of the velvet revolutions has reverted back to the spectre of xenophobia. Australia is no exception. As someone recently remarked, ‘Woomera has replaced Alice Springs as the most famous place in central Australia’.

The comment was made by Clive Scollay, while compering the ceremonies for a remarkable event known as the Alice Springs Beanie Festival. Against the backdrop of detention centres and Aboriginal ir-reconciliation, this annual celebration of beanie-dom stands out as a Brigadoon-like apparition of cross-cultural harmony. I recently visited the Beanie Festival to see if it lived up to its reputation.

The Beanie Festival began six years ago when an education officer started using crochet as a way of winning the trust of women in an Aboriginal community. Adi Dunlop found that the supply of beanies was outstripping demand and she displayed them at the Araluen Arts Centre in Alice Springs. They sold out instantly, encouraging her to initiate a regular event. Word began to spread around the fibre world and beanies were soon flooding in from all over Australia.

In its current form, the Beanie Festival includes a market, prize exhibition, parade, workshops and concert. The festival is based entirely on volunteer effort and receives no outside funding. But its real achievement is something more profound than a merry crochet circle. The celebration of beanies promises a genuine opportunity for reciprocal relations between indigenous and non-indigenous people.

Regardless of race, all the different communities of Alice Springs gather under a common beanie. It’s the weather. The Centralian winter is both cold and dry—a perfect time to camp out with a swag and beanie.

Beyond the weather, the beanie also has sacred meaning peculiar to the different races.

The Pitjantjatjara and Aranda peoples trace beanies back to a time before white people. The mukata were worn as ceremonial headdress, made from human hair and emu feathers. Old men would often store sacred objects under their mukata. Their most common incarnation today is the ubiquitous football beanie, proclaiming allegiances to Bombers, Eagles or Crows. Elders are still known to keep a car key or photo of a grandchild under their beanie.

For whitefellas of course, the beanie is a popularist headgear, harking back to the rites of home and away football when barrackers would stand in the open air to proclaim their tribal allegiances. Deeper into history, the beanie returns us to the English Civil War, when Cromwell’s roundheads defied the wigged cavaliers of King Charles.

Elsewhere in Australia, beanies are associated with greenies and organic food. For the more ascetic ferals, it has become a sacred item, made on a mountain top and worn over the chakra.

Like many, I’ve been dismayed at the benign apartheid that has crept into Australian cultural life. In cities today, indigenous peoples are most often found on a museum pedestal or shunted off stage with the official opening party. As a white person, it’s hard to find a context to engage with Aboriginal culture without being seen to appropriate their spirituality. The Beanie Festival seems a rare chance for reciprocal understanding.

Could such an opportunity be realised? My first impression raised hopes. The beanie spirit was all over Alice. You find the most outlandish beanies being worn down the street, in bank queues or supermarket aisles. It was all the talk: ‘Are you wearing this year’s beanie?’ ‘That’s a real wicked one.’ Indeed, there was something exotic in seeing this riot of colour in a desert setting, like those miraculous wildflower blooms after a downpour.

The main venue for the festival intensified this carnival spirit. The Witchities gallery at Araluen Art Centre was filled with a large web structure, on which were pegged thousands of knitted headpieces. Appended to the web was a quote from Shakespeare’s All’s Well that Ends Well, ‘The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together.’ Visitors plunged into this labyrinth of beanies, eagerly seeking their special purchase.

The competition beanies were sorted into categories, such as ‘Best Embodies Spirit of the Land’, or ‘Cutest Beanie’. They included elaborate beanies in the shape of crowns, beanies made from recycled lolly wrappers, beanies with dreads, beanies as volcanoes and ziggurats. Even the tea cosies had attitude.

The festival climaxed at the official award ceremony. After a concert of local talents, prizes were announced and the evening concluded with the Beanie anthem, sung with great gusto, followed by a passionate rendition of ‘My beanie just cares for me’.

But despite this heartfelt participation, there were relatively few Aboriginal people present. I spoke with one young man from Blackstone who was in Alice doing a car mechanic course. He seemed there for the same reason as me, hoping for an event where relations between races were relaxed. But as the only Aboriginal man, he looked self-conscious and left early.

It turned out there has been a rougher version of the Beanie Festival the previous weekend. The Beanie Bash was a rock concert with lots of cheap beanies for sale, but the ratio of whites and blacks was reversed. Non-indigenous were a token minority.

But the division into two festivals was as much about gender difference as racial separation. In Centralian slang, the bash was for ‘mob’, and the festival was for ‘ladies’.

The ‘ladies’ at the festival proper were from Ernabella. During the weekend, they sat in the gallery spinning, using a traditional technique originally developed to produce threads out of fur and hair. Mission life, which came late to Ernabella, was under the benign rule of the Scottish Presbyterian Charles Duguid. Women learnt crafts for using the wool that was grown on their land. Since then, Ernabella has become world famous for its fibre arts, including colourful batik silks learnt from Indonesian artisans.

One of the ladies, Pantjiti Lionel, had won first prize for the craziest beanie. Her beanie was made from a mix of turquoise wool and small emu breast feathers, crowned by a crest of long emu wing feathers that were dyed bright red. With several front teeth missing, Pantjiti did not look the image of an artist, though an inventive sense of humour was evident in her offbeat creations.

Adi Dunlop teaching crochetThe Ernabella women were being looked after by a tireless art coordinator, Hilary Furlong. She had invited the festival director, Adi Dunlop, to visit a few weeks before to encourage women to produce work for the occasion. According to Adi, there were many other requests from communities to participate in the festival, but they lacked funds for transport.

A few Aboriginal women joined the beanie-making workshops. They were mostly from other parts of Australia. Adi’s instructions were pitched for a broad Aboriginal audience; her ‘beanie dreaming’ translates the various steps of beanie making into a story about three brothers and a sister.

By the end of the weekend, the Beanie Festival was being heralded as an unprecedented success. More than 2,000 beanies had been sold, helped by temperatures that plummeted to minus six overnight.

Despite this wonderful success, it was clear that the festival had some way to go before it became a truly reciprocal event. It is perhaps on occasions which promise dialogue that you feel its real absence in contemporary Australia. But it’s a challenge that the festival director is willing to face head on.

Adi Dunlop has a disarming appearance. She seems to have come straight out of the pages of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. Her soft round face and giggly voice belie the seriousness of her life-long mission to spread the beanie message throughout the land.

Adi is particularly distraught by the situation facing Aboriginal communities in central Australia, where art centres are being radically de-funded. She tells me, tears welling in her eyes, about the cycle of despair in communities. ‘I know Australia spends a lot of money nurturing our athletes. We maintain that Aboriginal art is a national treasure, and it is a resource that everyone would be proud of. There must be a continuing responsibility or commitment to maintaining those skills through hard times.’

Success has emboldened her. Adi recounts the story of facing an education bureaucrat, in the early days of the festival, requesting funds to work with a community in Hermannsburg. He slid the application back across the desk, ‘My dear, we have important things to teach Aboriginal people—beanie making is not on the list.’ But today, Adi is more self-assured, ‘I could go back much more confident, and I would hold my ground and I would not leave that office until I’d achieved something.’

The plight of Aboriginal communities has stimulated people like Adi to take things into her own hands. The Alice Springs Beanie Festival is the first step. Others are becoming inspired. There is talk of a scarf festival in Melbourne as a satellite event. Look out fortress Australia, here comes the beanie revolution.

Call me Balanda

For reasons that will be clear later, I’d like to start tonight’s lecture by acknowledging the people who lived on this land before John Batman declared it a village—the Woiwurring and people of the Kulin nations.

Tonight, I want to talk with you about the role of art in reflecting where we live, with particular regard to the texture of our material environment. The lecture is constructed around three poignant scenes of craft culture. There will be one sidetrack. We will visit the work of five contemporary craft practitioners who grapple with the dilemma of what it means to be non-indigenous. At the very end, I will leave you with a word—a piece of Australasian vernacular—that seems to be perfectly embody our post-millennial condition

Let’s start tonight where we left off—the twentieth-century.

Scene#1 – Time to Say Goodbye

‘Good old Collingwood forever.’ There was a moment at the end of the twentieth-century century when only one of these was true: Collingwood. Many cities have strong traditions of inter-suburban rivalry. In Siena’s Palio the city’s districts compete in a bloodthirsty horse race which has continued annually from the middle ages to today. But in Melbourne, at the end of the twentieth-century, its colourful tradition of weekly winter contests in suburban ovals was coming to a symbolic end.

Collingwood’s President, Eddie Maguire, was leading his team into a new millennium by moving his club. In the future, home matches were moving from Victoria Park, where they had been for the past 107 years, to the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the symbol of success. On 21 August 1999, in their last game for the season, they were ingloriously thrashed by the previous year’s wooden spooner, the Brisbane Bears.

Here is one of many pre-millennial scenes: the grass scattered with trash, bitter fans, and rising above them all, the glowing screen proudly bearing the message, ‘Fly Emirates’.

What we glimpse in such a scene is the transcendence of the new millennium from its ground in the local public domain. By the end of the twentieth-century, this ‘lift-off’ was visible throughout Melbourne, from the Suprematist architecture of Denton Corker Marshall to the four wheel drives that elevated their passengers above the earth.

Now we are three years into the ascension, and there are signs of a bumpy ride, if not a crash landing. The collapse of corporations such as Enron,, OneTel and HIH has demonstrated the unsustainability of the ‘sky is the limit’ management style. September 11 and enduring Middle Eastern conflict has confronted the West with the inexorable limits of globalisation.

It seems time to reacquaint ourselves with the ground on which we stand.

Home crafts

If we were to think of modern society as an electric circuit, craft is the extension that earths its energy into the material world.

Through local potteries, weaving workshops, jewellery guilds and furniture studios, makers have been able to give tangible form to their immediate world. Consider Dresden china, Gobelin tapestries, Shaker furniture, Indonesia Ikat or Danish silverware. These products embody their world in both the material substances from which they are constituted and the creative energy to which they bear testimony.

This locative function of craft is especially important in an industrial era, where the global circulation of goods threatens to create a placeless world. As the Mexican poet Octavio Paz wrote in 1972:

Craftsmen defend us from the artificial uniformity of technology and its geometrical wastelands by preserving differences, they preserve the fecundity of history.[1]

Regionalism was one of the main forces in the formation of the Arts & Crafts Movement. Figures like William Morris and John Ruskin both saw craft as embodying the home-grown Anglo-Saxon energies, in contrast to the foreign Latin hierarchy imposed by invading Normans.

In Australia today, vernacular craft is championed by South Australian writer Noris Ioannou. Ioannou is Australia’s sole remaining public craft critic, as well as social historian of the Barossa folk crafts. In recent years, Ioannou has pitched his argument against the homogenous culture of design. I quote from a talk he presented in 1998:

At the end of the twentieth century we might ask: are the crafts expressive of or connected to any true Australian cultural authenticity or social meaning, or are they just another appendage of twentieth-century global craft?[2]

At this point, I should acknowledge that there are varying degrees of vernacular, ranging from mugs decorated with gum nuts to the sophisticated pastiche architecture that was so popular in Melbourne during the early 90s. As will be evident later, what I am pointing towards here is a vernacular that concedes a relationship to place that is not indigenous. It is the tentative belonging felt by guests, rather than the proprietorial claim of hosts.

So given the quest for homecoming that has been set up by the ‘lift-off’, and the traditional role of craft in defining our unique place in the world, how has craft fared in this process?

Scene #1 – One dollar

You could say it has been a bumpy ride, at some risk of understatement.

To return to the end of the twentieth-century, the process of dislocation affected our local craft scene dramatically. The closure of the Metro Craft Centre in May 1999 effectively ended the Meat Market’s role as the state’s nursery of craft—the base for those whose responsibility it is to create our future heritage. Gone were the retail outlet, exhibition spaces, State Craft Collection and access studios. Craft was evicted. Despite all that Craft Victoria has done to recover to accommodate craft, through its CBD galleries, new retail outlet, Open Bench, the website and Skill Bank, we still lack access studios critical for emerging makers.

During the creditors meeting on 21 May, a host of tenants, employees and guild representatives turned up to stake their claim. The locks had been changed on the building and many were anxious simply to retrieve their goods and equipment. No one from the state government of the time dared to appear and explain the situation. Much of the meeting was taken up with reading out the list of creditors who has signed up with the appointed liquidators. Most of their claims were the base minimum—$1. All the symbolic significance of a common institution for the crafts to flourish was converted to a flat nominal sum, as though the victim of hyper-inflation.

The various ‘lift-off’ reforms, such as the disappearance of tram conductors, the privatisation of public utilities, new opportunities for gambling away your life’s savings, have substantially reduced what it means today to say you are Victorian. The default option for most people today is the shop around the corner selling cheap imported designer goods. We need to provide a choice that allows people to decorate their lives in a way that contributes to the sustainability of their own world.

White culture of no-place

We are heading into difficult terrain. One path ahead leads to the no-where of an internationalised lifestyle. Along this path, the non-indigenous peoples of the world are consigned to a Hilton-like limbo of standardised fixtures, their senses dulled by the techno-banging beat that dominates pubs and cafes, their experience cocooned in entertainment capsules, more concerned about Madonna’s navel than the native forest being wood-chipped in their own state.

No, let’s not go there. I don’t mean the global no-where. I mean beyond that—to the enclaves of high culture and the self-satisfied mindset of anti-popularism. Rather than succumb to this kind of elitism, we need consider our own part in the process. We should be aware that this ‘lift-off’ is not simply the result of a global empire attempting to colonise our hearts and minds. If we look closely, we can find reasons for such a move that correspond with the noblest of motives.

Let’s try again.

At the same time that settlers have divested themselves of place, the spiritual custodianship of the land has been returned to indigenous Australians. It is these people that are first acknowledged before speaking in public, whose smoking ceremonies sacralise our lands and whose dances provide the official ceremony of our grand occasions.

While Western culture was ascending into the new millennium, it bequeathed its title deeds to the indigenous people. In the wake of ‘lift-off’ was a symbolic restoration of native ownership. As the Meat Market was closing, the Melbourne Museum was opening its key new wing, Bunjilaka, a centre for local indigenous culture. As Victoria Park was closing, the city acquired its first substantial park for more than a century, Birrarung Marr, named after the local aboriginal words for ‘place of mists by the side of the river’. Local councils around the state were developing indigenous features. Non-indigenous were acknowledging the violence of colonial invasion and the displacement of the natural owners of the land.

But again there are problems.

There is an implicit convenience at work in this direction of reconciliation. Devolving a spiritual claim to the land allows settlers to embrace global culture all the more freely. There is less contrary pull to speak for one’s region. Like the Goethe’s Faust, we have sold our soul in order to gain the power of flight—to move around the world and always be at home. The settlers embrace the practical business of getting things done—building infrastructure, administering projects, managing budgets and formulating policy. To the first peoples is the burden of expression—the pleasure of the brushstroke, the hurt of discrimination, the pride of achievement and the hope of renewal.

The Australian theorist McKenzie Wark, now living in New York, advocates ‘We no longer have roots, we have aerials’. We could structure this into a more active sentence, such as: ‘We have passed on our roots so we can climb aerials.’

It’s at this point that it be useful to call on that kind of Protestant energy that helped develop the Gutenberg Bible and forge self-reliant crafts. Impatient with priests, the Protestants claimed an individual responsibility for their own salvation. Every culture seems to need these democratic movements at some stage in their historical cycle to counteract hierarchies that inevitably develop around specialisations. The process of reconciliation seems ripe for a personal journey of indigenousness. Rather than relying on a fixed division of labour, whereby sense of place is relegated to Aboriginal Australians, custodianship should be something we can all be part of. This beckons what Calvin called ‘the heart brought to light’.

We are clearly a long way off from this process. The difference between indigenous and non-indigenous is so stark for us in Australia, that it is very hard to think around this dichotomy without seeming either racist or new age. One advantage of craft theory is that it attends to the sub-theoretical layer of experience. Ideas can be explored through the phenomenological encounter with our material being. As a process of re-orientation, I’d like to draw on a parallel dichotomy in our contemporary experience as urban consumers—chewy versus crunchy.

Detour – Chewy versus crunchy

Consider the traditional culture of the Pitjantjatjara lands west of Uluru. Here, the craft ethic is an integral part of the traditional lifestyle. Around Ernabella, in northern South Australia, women have practiced spinning since before contact. The process involves rolling a wooden frame on their legs while pulling away the yarn. They call this action rungkani, which also applies to other actions involving the palm of the hand in a circular motion, such as grinding seed. Advocates of authentic craft such as Edmund Leach see a kind of rungkani as the epitome of the potter’s creative skill.

Rungkani’s dialectical opposite in Western culture can be found in the latest evolution of consumer aesthetic, the KFC chicken popcorn. These deep-fried chicken remnants are testament to the craving for crunchy that afflicts the non-indigenous consumer. The advertising image almost sends up its voracious orality, alluding to the cover of the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, designed by John Pasche. Like the Keith Richards guitar riffs, Chicken Popcorn is loud and aggressive. You can eat them while you are driving. They are the crispy crunchy fizzy world of Ciabata bread, mouse clicks, potato crisps, pizza crusts and Coca-Cola. Like the process of digitisation, one whole domestic fowl is reduced to many individual bites.

By contrast, the indigenous world is chewy. The old world of betel nuts, pumpkin seeds, bush tobacco, beef jerky and chewing gum where consumption occurs with ruminative repetition and slow accretion. This is horizontal molar grinding, rather than vertical molar clash.

Now going back into the more familiar realm of theory, we can readily cast this opposition in Freudian terms. As well we all know, Freud made the classic distinction in childhood development between oral and anal phases. The consumer ethic is transparently oral. It is about filling an emptiness. Within those terms, the indigenous ethic tends towards the anal. The creative process is about giving form through slow processes. It is to produce, rather than consume.

What this dichotomy demonstrates is the need to maintain contact with the modality currently inhabited by people like the hundred odd Pitjantjatjara still living in communities around central Australia. We need something to chew on, in both physical and metaphorical senses of the word.

Reverse colonialism

In order to develop dialogue with indigenous culture we need to push what has become known as the post-colonial project. While the process of post-colonialism was designed to relive the sins of the imperial powers, and celebrate the enduring quality of indigenous culture, there is the acknowledgment now of the dangers that can arise when colonial rule is suddenly withdrawn. The abrupt end of the Portuguese colonial rule in 1975 led to the tragedy of East Timor and enduring African civil wars. Leave it to the locals to clean up mess.

Rather than post-colonialism, what is called for today is a kind of reverse colonialism. Those who were once masters need to see themselves as guests, at least symbolically. Rather than conveniently disappearing into the neverland of global consumerism, we need to renegotiate our place.

So how do we continue? What can we take from indigenous Australian culture that is not simply appropriation?

In the case of our decorative arts, there was a time when Australian artists naively turned to Aboriginal culture to develop a sense of local identity. The printmaker Margaret Preston believed that drawing from indigenous craft helped counterbalance the dominance of overseas influences. In 1942, Art in Australia published her article ‘The indigenous art of Australia’, where she argued that authentic Australian art must draw from Aboriginal sources. Preston concluded the article:

Our saving grace is our distance from contaminating sources. We have teachers and wonderful prints to help us and the rest must come from ourselves, and the beginning should come from the home and domestic arts. This is the reason that I have studied the aboriginal’s art and have applied their designs to the simple things in life, hoping that the craftsman will succeed where, until now, the artist has certainly failed.[3]

In our time, the respect that accompanied an artist like Preston’s foray into Aboriginal design seems at best condescending. It would be a brave designer today how would try to establish a new language of the decorative arts by appropriating indigenous forms.

Respect in our time entails precisely the opposite regard for Aboriginal culture. Not using it is our standard of respect for indigenous rights. Suburban boys playing didgeridoo are seen as gauche leftovers of a naïve white Australia. In their place are lawyers specialising in copyright and art academics checking to see who really benefits from the success of Aboriginal art.

We are left with no other choice but to be non-indigenous. But what does that mean?

Our southern cousins across the Tasman have struck a tentative arrangement whereby the New Zealanders from the north acquire a special Maori word for non-indigenous. Since the first years of colonisation, settlers have been known as Pakeha, thought to mean ‘those who come in tall white ships’.

Pakeha Glass

With the extensive New Zealand migration to Australia, we need to consider the Pakeha experience as part of our own picture. As seems often the case, the Kiwi expatriate provides Australian culture with a softness and nostalgia that is otherwise missing in the blokey mainstream. This is the case in film, comedy, jewellery and music.

It is very interesting to see the Pakeha consciousness surface in new media—in this case, glass. Wendy Fairclough moved to Australia in 1978. Despite the length of time here, she maintains a close identification with her New Zealand homeland through her work, particularly around the place of her birth, Wanganui.

Fairclough’s glass work is ornamented with New Zealand landscapes. Her installation ‘Journey #2’ is made from handblown glass, engraving and enamel paint. She uses the forms of everyday domestic objects, rendered in frosted glass, which grants them a sense of fragility and distance about them. The long grey cloud evokes a far land. The combination of form and decoration produces an effect of insatiable longing. There is something about glass that puts us at a distance from our desires, like the landscapes we see through the thick transparent skin of Maureen Williams’ vases.

Remembering Taranaki is produced in a similar way, though the work here features the Ponga, the ubiquitous New Zealand silver fern found in its many damp gullies. The same fern can be found in What seekest though in the unknown land, which uses gold leaf. The combination of glass objects in each installation has the effect of a virulent growth, reflecting the obsession of nostalgic memory for the dark cool spaces of New Zealand while sitting in a hot studio in the bright brown Adelaide hills.

The challenge of Pakeha identity is to locate an equivalent term in Australia. Of course, there are difficulties. The distance between the indigenous and non-indigenous people in Australia is far greater than in New Zealand. There is no one Aboriginal language that might offer a term like Pakeha.

The most common term for non-indigenous person in Australia today is Balanda—a word taken from the Macassan fisherman who visited the shores well before Captain Cook. Balanda is a version of ‘Hollander’, but is used frequently in the land of Yothu Yindi and Maningrida baskets.

But in the national context, Balanda is quite different to Pakeha. It is the word of one group of Top End Aboriginal languages. Other indigenous languages have different terms. One can’t speak for all. There are Kardiya in the Kimberleys, Migloo among the Murris in Queensland, for the Noongar it is Watjala, the non-indigenous people among us here are Gubba, and there are the Numminer across the Bass Strait. One means of dealing with this diversity is to adopt a federation of non-indigenous terms. Who knows, perhaps in a twenty-second century census of Australia we will have to nominate such categories for ourselves.

Watjala Fibre

In Australian culture, we are only seeing tentative steps towards embracing non-indigenous identity. One example comes from the Watjala people, Nalda Searles. Nalda has grown up in Kalgoorlie under the broad open skies of Western Australia, where civilisation thins out and individuals fall back much more on their own imagination to colour their world. Inspired by her surroundings, Nalda helped establish the legendary textile camps at Edith Cowan University. Since 1987, artists and students have been venturing into the wilderness to make out of what nature brings to hand, such as puff ball dyes, grass for stitching, seeds for ornamenting. Members of this push include the late Elsje King, John Parkes, Holly Story and Kate Campbell-Pope.

In 1992, Searles was involved in a project with the Wongutha community living on the fringes of Kalgoorlie. The project was titled Warta Kutju, one tree. Many of the Wongutha had come in from the Western Desert where they had succumbed to a cycle of poverty and alcohol. Searles took the people back out to the desert and worked with them on different creative projects. Through their networks, she established contact with Aboriginal communities throughout the state, from Narrogin in the south to Blackstone in the east.

One of her collaborative projects was with the painter Mary McLean, which involved a picture book of words from her language, Ngaanyatjarra. As you can see, Searles is not trying to capture some connection with pre-contact world of dreaming. She engages with the immediate materials of life in Aboriginal communities, especially blankets and clothes.

As well as these collaborations, Searles’ own work reflects on the place of white people in this land. Her signature piece is White Boy Blazer, a school uniform on which have been sewn the brachia of Xanthorrhea, known colloquially as Black Boy. Each of these brachia has been painted white, showing the uneasy tension between settlement and the wild bush beyond.

In Aboriginal communities of the Western Desert, Searles is known as Kabbarli, the word for grandmother that was used to describe Daisy Bates. Recently, she has been engaging in a significant body of work dealing with the complex biography of this woman who lived alone in a tent on the Nullarbor Plain. This work consists of a pair of white gloves sewn together and ornamented with initi seeds, reflecting the strangeness of Daisy Bates Edwardian attire while living in the desert. The people from the Musgrave Ranges, who used to come down to visit her camp, often wore initi seeds in their hair. Today you will find these seeds used as decoration on the rim of baskets.

I think what is significant about Nalda’s work is the way her art exposes European culture to the rough edge of the bush. It is a grafted culture, never completely merging with the land. She gives a flavour to the non-indigenous.

Victorian Wood

In Victoria, the natural genus loci is wood. We have seen recently great interest amongst our furniture makers in the way local timbers can be used as a language for craft. Damien Wright has made a particular feature of gidgee in his tables. Part of this process is getting to know the timber, its strengths and limits. In this process, the maker embodies the physical stratum of our place. Such direct knowledge is one advantage that maker has over the mere designer, who does not have to engage with materials.

The aptronymically named Andrew Wood is a maker who explores the symbolic potential of this language. In Wood’s debut exhibition, Reading the Country, he presented a series of furniture pieces that reflected the relationship between trees and water. For instance, the Billabong piece included a slumped glass insert that could contain a small body of water.

Wood followed this path to uncertain territory. In an attitude similar to Margaret Preston’s, last year he produced a series of works based on the Aboriginal coolamon. They were beautiful works, but they prompted that uneasy feeling we have these days when seeing indigenous forms used by a non-indigenous maker, no matter how well-intentioned.

Recently, Wood has developed a series of work that is less beholden to the problems of authenticity. His commission for an apartment in Albert Park continues his use of inlaid water bowls, though in this case they are designed to reflect the bayside landscape. Wood is exploring how a rural medium like wood might fit in an urban context.

City Rings

The vernacular in metal has taken many forms. During the 1970s, there was a strong push with artists like Helge Larsen and Darani Lewers to incorporate the local architectural fabric in their work. They followed a Scandinavian model of jewellery practice that saw creative labour embedded in the environment.

In Melbourne today we see a very different kind of vernacular. Melbourne is privileged in the availability of relatively cheap studio space in the middle of the city. The Flinders Quarter has locations like the Nicholas Building and Carlow House that contain warrens of workshops, studios and trade outlets. These collectives place jewellery in the centre of Melbourne life.

However, rather than simply reflect the city around them, Melbourne’s jewellers are making active interventions in urban life. Roseanne Bartley has established a practice in public jewellery, where the wearing of labels such as ‘unAustralian’ has extended the stage of jewellery from the body to the public at large.

Another Melbourne jeweller who has extended jewellery’s horizons is Caz Guiney. Guiney has attempted during the course of her career to stretch the boundaries of jewellery practice, in particular rings. She has made rings out of ephemeral materials like ice and sugar.

Her City Rings project approaches the city as a whole with a jeweller’s perspective. City Rings entails the fabrication of rings that can be attached to elements of the city. There are twelve locations around the city that Guiney has chosen as sites for her rings.

Jump Ring is attached to a flag pole on the top of a city building. The ring floats around with the breeze over the city. Gold Nut is screwed into the rear of a city billboard. Tucked behind a large advertisement, Guiney’s jewellery is lost in a maze of nuts and bolts.

Guiney is unconcerned about the long-term fate of these precious objects. What is critical to her is the translation of the city into a jeweller’s concerns. This means searching the city for the negative spaces on which jewellery might be threaded. City Rings is a conceptual work that is about changing the way we look at the city, of recovering it from the Adshel signage that plasters its tram stops and the techno pulse throbbing from its cafes, so that it becomes again a place of human habitation.

Trash Ceramics

The modern tradition of ceramics is closely linked to the environment. The Japanese values that so informed Australian pottery in the 1960s identified beauty with the effects of nature. As Soetsu Yanagi said, ‘the world is natural’.[4] Within this philosophy a generation of Australian artists like Les Blakeborough, Col Levy, Jeff Mincham and Milton Moon adopted the Japanese methodology to harness the beauty of the world in their work through use of local clays, timbers and glazes.

By contrast, today’s younger generation of ceramists appear to be philistines. Ceramists you see today at Haecceity Gallery like David Ray, Vipoo Sviralasa, Irianna Kanellopoulou, Zoë Churchill and Sharon Muir stray far from nature and draw instead on the trashy world of popular culture. But in doing this, they are actually following the mission of craft to reflect its world. As Ruskin advised, ‘reject nothing.’

The work of Nicole Lister shows how this method can provide a dynamic basis for artistic evolution. Her earlier work, ‘Stack Up’ and ‘Production Line’, played with a kind of surreal Warhol effect of multiples. The work based on paper cups had an obvious illusionistic effect of making enduring what seemed ephemeral. Her more recent work explores this play with ephemerality in a more experimental fashion. Works like ‘Wrapping Cloth’ convey a stronger sense of the materiality of her subject. Rather than cast her forms, Lister delicately paints her subjects with a Limoges porcelain slip. The bisque firing burns away the cardboard and then the work is fired again at a higher temperature. Lister renders her subject in unique forms, not multiples. She then assembles them into quilt-like structures, reintroducing the culture of handwork.

Ceramists like Lister give form to what otherwise is a largely transient stream of the material world. Ephemeral packaging becomes a work of art in itself. This creative alchemy subtly subverts the denial of materiality that lies at the basis of a hyper-consumer culture.

Scene #3 – The world gets flatter

Before we end, I’d like to return to the role of craft in the indigenous relationship to the land. In looking at the contribution of Aboriginal art to Australian culture, particular emphasis is usually given to Papunya, where art coordinator Geoffrey Barden introduced acrylic paints in the early 1970s. But there have been many other creative interventions, especially in the crafts—they continue to this day. One of the most well-known is the Hermannsburg Pottery, where ceramics were introduced by the Lutheran missionaries in the 1960s. The pottery produced engaging round pots detailed with imagery from the surrounding McDonald Ranges. But such developments often have to contend with the predominance of painting, both in terms of comparative prices and the priorities of major institutions.

I came across a salutary example of this is recently. When the director of the National Gallery of Australia, Brian Kennedy, visited the pottery, he saw a large painting they had made collectively for the Yeperenye Festival. Kennedy promptly reached for his cheque book and proclaimed the work worthy of the national collection. Faced with this signal, the potters today are now learning painting skills—reluctantly for both the artists and the art coordinator Naomi Sharp, herself a ceramist.

In the current arrangement, such a move would seem a natural progress towards self-management. However, if we look at what we do in craft as maintaining a responsible relationship to our environment, then we might feel more comfortable about extending support for these potters in maintaining their own unique language in the face of an ever-flattening two-dimensional world. By reminding Canberra of craft’s value, we might indirectly be influencing its sustainability in remote Australia. Our business is their business.

The final word

So we return to where we began, at the end of Collingwood’s last game. Quite a strange development occurred after humiliation on the ground had ended. As hundreds poured on to the ground to enjoy a final kick to kick on their sacred grass, young children began spontaneously to souvenir their own piece of the turf. Regardless of the ‘lift-off’ of the new millennium, these boys wanted their piece of the earth on which their heroes engaged in battles of strength, skill and honour. Accompanying the dizzy expectations of the new millennium was a strange impulse to make contact with the ground of the one about to pass by.

So we come to the final word. In the late 1990s, there was a kind of Mexican wave of ‘lift-off’s in sport and entertainment. One particularly pervasive gesture occurred in the ‘Oh What Feeling’ advertisements for Toyota cars. These ecstatic displays of consumer joy were enacted in a wide variety of subjects and settings.

At our troubled side of the millennium, though, this phrase has been replaced by a word that is grounded in the Australian vernacular. In ads inspired by New Zealand’s John Clark, a leaping dog is unsuccessfully launches itself onto a speeding Ute. Lying forlorn on the mud, it utters a word that says it all for the renewed reality of earth and gravity in the new millennium: ‘Bugger!’

This was originally delivered as the Craft Victoria Annual Lecture 2012

[1] Octavio Paz In Praise of Hands: Contemporary Crafts of the World Toronto: World Crafts Council, 1974, p. 23

[2] Noris Ioannou ‘Crafts and nationhood: Multiculturalism, creativity and Titanic’ Byline: Craft & Text CraftSouth 1998, p.17

[3] Margaret Preston ‘The indigenous art of Australia’ Art in Australia 1925, pp. 3-11

[4] Soetsu Yanagi The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight Into Beauty (trans. Bernard Leach) Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1989 (orig. 1931), p. 101

Biggest in the Southern Hemisphere or what?

There is a rumbling down-under. We are ‘turning the page’ with a new government, facing the challenge of a warming global agenda and considering a new place in the world of this young nation. What place might that be?

At Craft Victoria, we started to explore what we might have in common with countries of our region. Not the Asia-Pacific region to our north, but that other region, the Afro-Latin South at our end of the world. Over the last four years, the South Project has completed a cultural circuit: gatherings of artists in Melbourne, Wellington, Santiago and Johannesburg have shown a readiness to take off the blinkers and learn about the cultures sitting alongside each other. Buoyed by a generous hospitality, particularly from Indigenous peoples, we now have time to reflect on what’s been revealed.

For me, one particular moment endures. I was talking with a wire sculptor in Mpumalanga (previously South Africa’s Transvaal). Enoch Ngwenya is a self-taught artist who created his entire world from aluminium wire, not only sculptural works but also practical objects like wardrobes. After some small talk, he felt bold enough to ask me a burning question about Australia – ‘In your country, does the black man still bow down to the white man?’ I couldn’t say yes, that we had Apartheid, but I also couldn’t say no, that Australia is completely open to people of all colours. We are used to evaluating countries like South Africa in our terms of health and security. But how do we measure up in their eyes?

Sometimes, it seems almost an accident that we find ourselves in the South. It’s as though we were a respectable middle class family that lands on the other side of the tracks. Our place downunder is something we seek to rise above, evident in the common boast ‘biggest in the southern hemisphere’, which can apply to anything from Scottish Festivals to car parks. If you Google the phrase, you find there are more than 3,500 claims to this title. But how many if you search for ‘biggest in the northern hemisphere’? That there are only eight such claims (mostly icebergs) is hardly a sign that this hemisphere is lacking in distinction—precisely the opposite. Of course, anything of significance up there is likely to be the ‘biggest in the world’.

Is this southern aspirationalism a peculiarly Australian phenomenon? Identifying the claims by country (including Spanish and Portuguese versions of the phrase) reveals that Brazil (42%) has twice as many claims to ‘biggest in the Southern Hemisphere’ as Australia (21%). This is not surprising, given the scale of Brazil’s population and economy. But it’s a sober reminder that, despite images of hemispheric isolation such as ‘big pond’ and ‘great southern land’, we are not alone.

After focusing our gaze on the eastern hemisphere during the 20th century, it seems we are finally beginning a new chapter in the South. Many journals have recently published special issues on this theme, including Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art, Artlink, Griffith Law Review and the Australian Humanities Review (out soon). A new book titled Southern Theory by Sydney sociologist Raewyn Connell identifies an alternative source of ideas in our region. Questions are being posed.

There is a broader context at play. As we well know, the Kyoto Protocols are based on the assumption that any solution to climate change must involve an equal contract between first and third worlds, particularly respecting the right of poorer countries to reduce the economic gap with the other half. In Bali last year, Australia conspired with Argentina to extend the talks for an extra day, finally bringing the USA to the table.

We seem well-positioned as a mediator between first and third worlds. Our position in the South, long seen as a ‘tyranny of distance’, may prove to be a godsend.

How can the arts be part of this? With globalisation has come increasing collaboration between artists from first and third worlds: the modernist potential of one is exchanged for the deep cultural content of the other. Already well-established in world music scene, there is ‘multilateral’ dialogue now occurring in theatre, visuals, craft and design.

World arts aspire to be sustainable, democratic and innovative. OK, the first two terms are givens, but innovation is especially important. Innovation is not just the mixing of modern form and traditional content, but also in developing the trust necessary for that to develop. Behind the scenes is a web of negotiations between artists from the first and third world about what can be made of mutual benefit. It’s not without misunderstandings and resentment. But it exercises the assumption that there can be activities that please both worlds—metrosexual and villager alike.

These worlds meet everyday. There are those who drive taxis, and those who take them. If you want to know the Global South, hail a cab. More than likely you’ll find yourself a fascinating conversation about Kenya, Somalia or Ethiopia. This works particularly well in Australia. Elsewhere in the world, it is usual custom for the passenger to take the back seat, leaving the driver alone in the front. Not so here. This relative disregard for hierarchy makes Australia an excellent incubator for world arts.

Will we always be happy with the Deputy Sheriff honour ‘biggest in the Southern Hemisphere’? Or might one day we aspire to be a ‘close cousin of the South’? All will be revealed when we ‘turn the page’.

This was originally published in Arts Hub, 2008