From there to here, with a bouquet–Vicki Mason jewellery

Catalogue essay for the Vicki Mason exhibition Botanical Fictions, e.g.etal, Melbourne and Gallery Bilk, Queanbeyan, Australia, 2011

The other day I renewed my driver’s license. Uploading my identity into the matrix was a strangely disembodying experience. Accompanied by the clatter of scans and clicks, I made my way to the front of the queue before finally being snapped by a photo-bot and then ushered out into the street. It felt like I’d been mugged, even though all my belongings were intact.

But a pleasant surprise was in store. When the card arrived, my portrait wasn’t the only ghostly presence on its surface. Amid the phantasmagorial holograms and reflective stripes I could discern the abstract outline of a plant form. Indeed, the accompanying letter informed me that the card was embedded with the image of a ‘common heath’, the official floral emblem of Victoria. I was quite touched that this connection with nature would survive the technocratic state.

High up in the information cloud, we are increasingly grateful for such signs of the world of here below. Traditionally, jewellery played an important role in forging the floral emblems that signify place. The development of this local language runs parallel with the emergence of a national identity. While much of the goldfields jewellery was styled after the cameos in transatlantic centrepieces, the late nineteenth century English Arts & Crafts movement turned our attention to local flora. European migrants like the Latvian Niina Ots played a major role in moulding a nationalist jewellery. From today’s perspective, such craft can often seem quite literal in its reliance on iconic Australian symbols. This nationalism was expressed through gems, such as opal and pearl, and fauna, particularly the kangaroo and emu.

From the 1970s, the influence of modernism liberated jewellers from their debt to tradition. The inherited understanding of nature was stripped back to reveal lived individual experience. A key figure in this modernist turn is Marian Hosking, who developed a unique language of silver in order to express a certain tactile experience of nature, beyond familiar motifs. This language is expressed largely through metal by piercing and casting. Such techniques present a nature immanent in touch.

While Vicki Mason also makes the connection between adornment and place, her work is unusual for at least two reasons.

First, she draws as much from the haberdashery as the foundry. She manipulates plastic like a fabric—cutting, folding and coiling it to create new textures. With these materials, she can create works of great colour intensity that at the same time continues the mission of contemporary jewellery to critique preciousness.

Her work has a particularly suburban feel. The power-coated brass, silver and copper presents an artificial sheen produced by chemical processes, rather than hand-filing and polishing. It evokes not just the blooming garden bed, but also the cast iron fence. Part of the effect of Mason’s jewellery is the alchemic capacity to transform such artificial materials into objects of organic beauty.

Second, she deals mostly with the symbolic meaning of flora, rather than her own experience. While this may make her work appear stereotypical, it also opens great potential for semiotic play. Her work creates historical resonances. Vicki Mason draws from past ornamental traditions, such as the mid-nineteenth century ceramics of Mason’s Ironstone China. But it also evokes the collective ritual of flowers.

The semiotic play in her work engages with traditions for arranging flowers. The works in this exhibition reflect the form of the bouquet—a cluster of flowers bound at the stem to be used as a handheld decoration. The bouquet is found in comic festivals, such as wedding ceremonies. In gathering a garden bounty, arrangements like the bouquet celebrate our natural world. Vicki Mason’s jewellery gives this seasonal display a more enduring presence.

Vicki Mason opens up the potential for exploration of other floral bundles. In our Asia Pacific region, the garland is popular way of honouring guests. Like the daisy chain, it is a series of flowers threaded sequentially, then bestowed on a visitor as a sign of welcome. More soberly, the wreath is a series of flowers woven around a circular structure to decorate a grave. Each particular constellation of flowers has a unique syntax that parallels different jewellery forms, like the ring and bracelet. In her handsome brooches, Vicki Mason joins jewellery with floristry.

As technology ‘smartens’ our lives, taking us out of ourselves, jewellers like Vicki Mason play an increasingly important role in finding our way back home. Welcome back.

Jugalbandi – Designed and Made in Australia and India

The aim of this exhibition is to explore new opportunities for Australian art, craft and design through creative dialogue with India. The principle of this dialogue is the understanding that no culture is sufficient to itself. Each culture has certain biases which prompt those within to seek values from other cultures that complement its deficiencies. In Australian craft, we have seen this in the influence of Japanese wood-fired ceramics, which provided a sensitivity to natural process otherwise missing in an Anglo culture. What what might India in the 21 century contribute to Australian culture, and vice versa?

The title Jugalbandi is used as an initial starting point. It refers to a duet in Indian music were performers from two different traditions, such as Carnatic and Hindustani, play together. Its literal meaning is ‘entwined twins’, which evokes the pre-history of Australia and India as once connected in Gondwana.

This exhibition will feature a variety of Australian artists, craftspersons and designers, including some established but with a particular focus on those emerging. The prime venue will be the gallery at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, which will coincide with the Australian Year of India.

In the lead up to this, there will be a series of pop-up exhibitions during Sydney Design Week in August 2012. Venues for this will include the Powerhouse Museum, COFA and the new India Cultural Centre. The plan is then to take this back to Australia for an exhibition in 2013.

I am interested to hear from others involved in this exchange across the Indian ocean. I hope that Jugalbandi provided a platform for experimental creative dialogues between two quite opposite cultures.

Stop the Moats: Recent work by Cecile Williams and Nick Mangan

‘He who lives on an island should not make an enemy of the ocean.’ Berlin proverb

The interregnum that followed the 2010 Federal election drew attention to the voices of Independents, speaking free of the constraints of party machines. Refreshing views came to the surface. During his campaign for election to the electorate of Port Macquarie, Rob Oakeshott questioned both party’s approach toward asylum seekers. He said, ‘If you spend time looking at it, we in Australia are the moat people.’ His point was that the natural isolation of Australia as an island continent will always temper exposure to hoards of refugees. The generous airing his views received during the tussle between Labor and the Coalition for his vote enabled him to put this phrase into the public domain repeatedly.

But ‘moat people’ has resonance beyond Oakeshott’s intention.[i] It evokes the image of the ‘big pond’—the conceit that Australia is naturally separated from its neighbours. This understanding of regional isolation has a long history. The notion of Australia as the ‘last outpost’ of the British Empire underpinned the White Australia Policy, determined to keep out those nearby.

While it might seem that much of this xenophobia is whipped up by sensationalist media, particularly the Sydney talk show hosts, the concept of ‘moat people’ strikes deep. The cultural theorist Suvrendrini Perera ties the notion of Australian ‘exceptionalism’ to the suburban tradition of the backyard. For her the quarter-acre block is ‘the little Aussie battler’s own kingdom and domain’,[ii] caught between ‘the racially charged wilderness of terra nullius on the one hand and the besieging ocean frontier on the other.’ In this picture, Australia is a backyard on a continental scale.

How do we respond to this? It seems the default position is to despair at the inherently racist nature of the Australian population and dream of a more Scandinavian liberal consensus. This is a comfortable dream. It positions those of us with university education safely above the suburban rednecks below. Still, neither of us ends up any closer to our neighbours across the water.

Two Australian artists point us in a different direction. Their work emerges from a particularly charged test of the moat people. As is legend now, in August 2001 a Norwegian vessel rescued 438 Afghan asylum seekers on their way to Christmas Island to seek refugee status. In the political storm that emerged from that incident, inflamed by the destruction of New York’s World Trade Centre, the government took various measures to protect the moat. Christmas Island was excised removing the obligation to process refugees who arrived on its territory, and eventually those aboard the Tampa were re-located to Nauru, as part of the ‘Pacific Solution’.

This kind of operation was not new to the moat people—in fact it, was how they came into being. Australia was, after all, settled as a penal colony in order to rid England of the unsightly vagrants in their midst, mostly refugees of the industrial revolution. As often happens in the post-colonial, a nation perpetrates on others the act of subjugation of which it was originally victim.

But there is a contrary strain in southern cultures like Australia which contests this hierarchy. The practice known as ‘poor craft’ collects detritus what is left over to alchemically re-create a new preciousness. ‘Poor craft’ can be seen in the fibre works of Nalda Searles, the milk bar jewellery of Roseanne Bartley and transformation of fine furniture from firewood by Damien Wright. Recently, two artists have explored the Pacific Solution and found ways of re-connecting us with its refuse.

Denmark (WA) artist Cecile Williams first visited Christmas Island in 2001 as a part of a schools circus program. This has continued in recent years and she has begun to involve local people in making costumes, sets and large scale festival puppets for their recent 50 years celebration. She is particularly attracted to Greta Beach, which receives a huge tide of plastic debris bought on from the tides of the trade winds. Once while combing the beach she found a Muslim good luck charm, used by an Indonesian fisherman to gain safe passage at sea. This prompted her to consider the stories associated with flotsam.

Back in her studio, Williams sorted through the detritus and collected ten- and twenty-litre plastic containers from her tip. With a background in puppet theatre design, she constructed dioramas to re-create diverse scenes from life on Christmas Island, including phosphate mining, the early history of the island like beriberi sickness, local Malay and Chinese culture, the Hungry Ghosts Chinese Festival, golf and the detention centres. The results were shown in the Perth International Arts Festival under the title Contained: Collected Moments from Christmas Island.

Given the subject matter, we would expect to find tragic scenes of suffering. But Contained reveals something new. The installation of nine containers called ‘Detained’ is particularly grim, featuring grills and body parts collected from washed-up toys. But I particularly like Buddhist Chant. Toothbrush heads ornament its border and the interior space is beautifully suggested by the over-sized foot, delicately constructed shrine with a yellow glow within. A stray fragment of Australia has drifted into the moat .The familiar moral drama of detention centres for refugees has brought us this unexpected scene of Buddhist life. Both tragic and festive scenes are brought together in a humble aesthetic of found materials.

As a visual artist, Nick Mangan has a more austere story to tell. The Melbourne-based sculptor has been engaged in a particularly rhizomic aesthetic, imitating the work of termites in a theatre of speculative exoticism. His Gertrude show Colony in 2005 featured a Danish table top used as an atavistic altar. His work is a kind of reverse primitivism familiar elsewhere around the South, such as the South African sculptor Brett Murray and the Colombian artist Nadín Ospina. Mangan recovers primitivism from its colonial gaze and re-directs it back on the viewer.

Mangan’s more recent work has been inspired by found objects that match his aesthetic. The crude pinnacles outside Nauru House in Melbourne stand as a Neolithic exception to the polished granite surfaces of the city. Mangan was inspired to travel to their source.

Nauru is one of the most extreme examples of the resource curse. ‘Thanks’ to its phosphate deposits, Nauru once boasted the highest per capita income in the world. Having squandered its wealth, the nation now seems a litany of failures. It has the highest level of diabetes, the highest road mortality (despite having only one intersection), and unsustainable debt. Mangan has mined this tragic story for a series of works that first featured in the Adelaide Biennial. Notes from a Cretaceous World includes a series of coffee tables made from slabs of coral limestone that remained after the strip-mining in Nauru. Their source was the pinnacles that once adorned Nauru House in Melbourne. These tables realise a dream of the past President of Nauru, Bernard Dowiyogo. It is unreliably reported that , as he lay dying of diabetes in the USA, before signing over the use of his land, Dowiyogo suggested that the nation’s fortunes might be stored by developing a furniture industry making table tops from coral rock.

Mangan’s work has none of the unexpected delights of William’s dioramas, but they do share a parallel logic. While Williams is recovering the plastic detritus of consumerism, Mangan is dealing in an older sedimentation of marine guano. Mangan too uses the complicity that connects Australia with Nauru to conjure a story closer to home. The ‘resource curse’ is a presage of Australia’s fate, living high on the profits of mining without adequately planning for its future.

Their work can be seen as part of a broader southern aesthetic. As an alternative to the ‘big pond’, Perera invokes the concept of ‘tidalectics’, which originated in the writing of Caribbean poet Edward Kamau Brathwaite. Tidalectics reflects an island aesthetics of iterative rhythms. For Perera, tidalectics is a counterpoint to the exclusive binary of land and water that typifies the colonial imagination. As Australia has pushed a tide of refugees back to places like Christmas Island and Nauru, Williams and Mangan have shown how it is possible to draw back new elements into Australia, both critical and enlivening.

There are moves afoot currently to engage more creatively with the region. There is clearly more to learn than the tourist spectacle of grass skirts and kava. The University of the South Pacific has been producing challenging scholarship of relevance to Australia, particularly in Indigenous studies. A good source for this is the Fijian education theorist Unaisi Nabobo-Baba, who has been publishing on the subject of knowledge practices in Fiji. She has proposed a Fijian Vanua Framework for Research (FVRF). As she writes, ‘Knowledge is seen as a gift by Fijians; hence within the frame of Vanua research the gift is sought for and derived accordingly.’ She also proposes a ‘cultural taxonomy of silence’ involving fifteen different expressions of silence in Fijian culture. Along with others, what is emerging is an epistemology that strays from enlightenment assumptions and is as much about sustaining boundaries of ignorance as it is about spreading knowledge. The Institute of Postcolonial Studies has embarked on a series Southern Perspectives that aims to explore such vectors of south-south that are emerging in Australian research and thinking.

And in Suva last November, the Pacific Craft Network was established as an organisation to promote craft practice within the context of the World Craft Council. Australia happens to share this with Fiji as members of the Pacific sub-region. As late as 1999, Australia was once able to host a regional meeting in Suva on this platform. The opportunity exists now to recover that relationship.

Australia was originally conceived as a sewer for the English class system. Pacific is increasingly a drain for the world’s crap. But this contains the magical potential of reversal, transforming rubbish into beauty. The moat may end up being what connect us, not what keeps us apart.

  • John Connell ‘Nauru: The first failed Pacific State?’ The Round Table (2006) 95: 383, pp. 47-63
  • Unaisi Nabobo-Baba ‘Decolonising Framings in Pacific Research: Indigenous Fijian Vanua Research Framework’ AlterNative (2008) 4: 2, pp. 140-154
  • Unaisi Nabobo-Baba Knowing and Learning: An indigenous Fijian approach Suva: IPS Publications, 2006

[i] Oakeshott goes on to say, “The very fact that you have to get in a boat to get to Australia means we have much less of an issue than most other countries in the world.” (5/7/2010 Port Macquarie News

[ii] Suvendrini Perera Australia and the Insular Imagination: Beaches, Borders, Boats, And Bodies New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, p.51

Originally published in Artlink  vol 30 no 4, 2010

Painterliness in contemporary glass art

Delivered as the Strattman lecture, Adelaide GAS Conference, 9 May 2005

At this moment, Australia plays host to an international gathering of glass artists. It would seem remiss, then, not to mention one of Australia’s most noticeable contributions to the international world of glass art. The Peter Carey novel Oscar and Lucinda used glass blowing as a key narrative element. The film, starring Kate Blanchett and Ralph Feines, presented Australian glass-blowing to the world—albeit as a historical recreation. Though historical fiction, it is a promising platform for some burning issues in contemporary glass art.

Lucinda in the glass factory

If we look at the actual content of Oscar and Lucinda, we find quite an interesting question about the business of what it is to be a glass artist. The story revolves around the acquisition of a glass factory by a young recent arrival to colonial Sydney.

For Carey, glass is where reality and fantasy intersect. Unlike the down to earth male world of glass-blowing, tied to the market for utilitarian objects, Lucinda Lepastrier dreamily engages with the fantastic world of glass. Her attention is drawn to the purely useless item—Prince Rupert’s drop. Lucinda believes that ‘glass is a thing in disguise, an actor, is not solid at all.[1] Glass is conducive to the realm of the fantastic that figures so strongly in Carey’s fiction.

Contrary to expectations, Lucinda takes a great interest in the business of how glass is made. She insists on being part of factory life. It is here that she encounters the pre-eminent senior blower, Arthur Phelps.

But Lucinda’s presence at the glassworks is not welcome. A delicate, and maybe even interfering female, is not a familiar presence. Phelps fears that she might distract the men from their labour. When Lucinda protests that she is the proprietor of the glassworks, Arthur Phelps complains, ‘I know, mum, but it be our craft, mum, you see. It be our craft.’[2] The male technical pursuit proves surprisingly vulnerable to womanly presence.

Josiah McElheny

One artist who seems to have overcome this barrier between glass and mainstream art is the American artist Josiah McElheny. McElheny has served his apprenticeship in glass-blowing and spent his time at the feet of the Venetian masters. While being beholden to the world of glass, McElheny has managed to break through into the contemporary art circuit, including the prestigious White Cube gallery in Hoxton Square, London.

Most of my reference to McElheny comes from the substantial catalogue to a retrospective at Centro Galego de Arte Contemporánea, Santiago de Compostella.[3] The exhibition contains a formidable range of work. It expresses not only technical excellence but also conceptual sophistication..

In the interview that has been published in the catalogue, McElheny does not disavow the craft basis of his work: ‘The subject matter of my work assumes that the anonymous, artisanal, industrial activity of specific glass-factory cultures could be viewed as a complex, creative and meaning-generating activity.’[4] This seems an honest avowal of skill by contrast with the celebration of ‘cleverness’ by conceptual artists like Jeff Koons.

We can see here a new interest in skill that is emerging in the contemporary visual art scene. While celebrating conceptual play, it could be argued that visual art has always had a place for an unquestioned point of certainty. In recent times, this has been often what is considered indigenous, including customary forms of knowledge. We can see in McElheny’s career the possibilities that skill itself could become a quasi-sacred element in the visual art arena.

Here McElheny promises to take craft to a new level. There have been a few craftspersons in the visual art world. In many cases, they fail to pave the way for others of their medium. The Turner Prize winner Grayson Perry uses his status as a potter as evidence of his idiosyncrasy. Would McElheny be any different?

Despite an extraordinary corpus of work, blessed by both skill and intellect, McElheny misses the chance to take craft seriously in its own terms. We can begin with cover of the catalogue. Rather than a glass work, it depicts a nostalgic image of an elegant woman walking through the factory. The text within identifies her as Ginette Gagneous, the wife of the master glass-blower Venini. According to the story, the Dior outfits worn by the boss’s wife became an object of fascination for the blowers and led to new designs in glass, which McElheny reproduces in his exhibition.

Maureen Williams

At this point, it is possible to select any number of Australian female glass artists, many of whom are forging a new language for landscape in glass. I chose the Victorian artist Maureen Williams as someone whose work is the closest to a traditional painting practice.

In a series of images over the past ten years, we can see a steady journey in glass through landscape. Beginning in 1996 with the Transition Series, Williams creates a cylindrical white canvas on which she paints vertical rock-like shapes. There is relatively little sign of landscape, though the forms are clearly drawn from nature. The accompanying empty shapes lend the work a formalist quality that emphasizes their status as drawings.

It is tempting to ascribe a linear development to Williams work. Certainly there seems to be a development from literal representation of landscape to the thing itself with the rock-like forms. But the disappearance and re-appearance of the figure in her landscapes seems like a continual play that she engages in. This oscillation highlights the fragility of self in land, particularly a land as archaic as Australia.

Painterliness is an interesting quality to associate with glass. The allusion to the brush seems contrary to the essence of hot glass, being a medium that resists the organic. Painterliness suggests an opacity that is the opposite of the glowing transparency of glass.

The brush is something we associate closely with the hand of the individual artist. It is the instrument that elects the painter into the fine arts, alongside the pen of the writer and the baton of the conductor. Henry James could thus write about ‘his brother of the brush.’

The material arts are more haptic in nature, involving the body as a whole. Blowing glass, throwing ceramic vessels, weaving a tapestry or hammering out a ring—these activities require the weight of the body to be successful.

In the case of Maureen Williams, painterliness draws our attention to the differences between her work and painting. Rather than render the world on a flat linear plane, she adopts a cylindrical format. Williams claims that her choice is medium is more from a deficit on her part. She says:

I find it hard to paint two-dimensionally because I don’t know what to do with the edges. I’m used to going around. When I hit the edge, I don’t know how to deal with it.

While this might explain the choice to work on a circular medium, the choice of glass rather than ceramics or metal still remains a mystery.

To understand more fully what is happening in Williams’ work, we need to consider the basic elements of the pictorial frame. In the case of painting, the frame gives its content a clear sense of beginning and end. Beginning and end are the basics elements of any narrative structure. It is what Frank Kermode calls ‘that concordance of beginning, middle, and end which is the essence of our explanatory fictions’

As a framed structure, painting is very much a window onto the world, one which is contained by our own needs. This window has metamorphosed into today’s screen, which with the growing popularity of plasma technology is increasingly replacing the window that once looked out on our now non-existent gardens.

Williams’ journey as an artist harkens back to the romantic quests of painters to capture the essence of their world. By taking this journey into the radiant three-dimensional world of glass, she grants this quest a relevance that is otherwise missing. Glass is the future of painting.


This lecture is dedicated to the memory of Australian artist Neil Roberts. The full version is available online at

[1] Peter Carey Oscar and Lucinda St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press,

1988, p. 135

[2] Peter Carey Oscar and Lucinda St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press,

1988, p. 329

[3] Josiah McElheny Centro Galego de Arte Contemporánea; 18 April –

17 June 2002

Magicians of the South

It seems these days we are blessed, or cursed, by long-term incumbent governments. Yet despite their seeming inexorable hold on power, we know that eventually, as night follows day, the UK will eventually be Tory and Australia will be Labor.

For Hegel, the popular understanding of the dialectic is expressed in the phrase, ‘Live and let live… each should have its turn…’ While Hegel’s logic is most commonly applied to the relationships of social class, dialectics can be useful in understanding other hierarchies, such as the one we all live in—the world. History has conspired to divide the world up into quarters—north and south, east and west. The uneasy relationship between these parts has provided the engine of much that we know of as world history. Today, the process of globalisation is seen to realise the dominance of one quarter over another—the west over the east, and the north over the south.

The role of craft in this world dialectic is particularly interesting. The crafts movement has defined itself by reference to the creative energies of the northern peoples. We can see today, though, a new destiny for craft in the post-colonial predicament of the south. The purpose of this paper is to outline what this destiny might entail.

To find our way south, in the space of a few minutes, we need to begin at the start of our journey—the west.

The Greek world view was defined by contrast with the barbarians beyond its borders. The Persians by Aeschylus is the earliest known Greek play, taking as its theme the invasion from the east. After the defeat of Xerxes’ Persian armies in 490 BC, the chorus laments:

Now All Asia’s lands
Moan in emptiness

For post-colonialist Edward Said, this play sets the stage for the dialectic of orientalism that dominates the West’s imagining of the east in centuries to follow: to Asia is a lost glorious past that only the West can recover. I’m sure that we are all familiar with this position and it doesn’t bear rehearsing here.

Orientalism was clearly important in the development of Western decorative arts. Styles such as Chinoiserie helped the rigid Europeans break out of their rigid conventions and embrace the arabesque.


But such exoticism is vulnerable to the inevitable criticism of decadence. In the late nineteenth century, the Arts & Craft movement proposed an alternative polarity that replaced the lost civilisation of the East with one more directly related to Europeans—the noble world of the north. The spiritual centre of William Morris’s craft revolution was Iceland, which he described a ‘holy land’, evoking the romance of the Norse sagas. On a parallel path, John Ruskin praised the ‘magnificent enthusiasm’ of the Gothic.

Along the vertical moral axis of the Arts & Craft movement, the vigorous character of the north is contrasted with stultifying hierarchies of the Latinate south. There were ample precedents for such a hierarchy. Germania, written by Tacitus in the first century, marvelled at the rude energies of the northern races. In the mid-eighteenth century, Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws laid the philosophical foundation of the European state with a climatic analysis of politics, contrasting the sincere north with the passionate south.

This movement certainly had its timeliness.

This North-ism is an occidentalist alternative to the decadent fascination with an exotic orient. It turns the gaze back on the orientalist to question his own lost origins. But the dialectic never rests: North-ism leads to its own alternative (with an interest) in the spontaneous creative energy that lies in the south.

‘Each should have its turn.’


In the early twentieth-century, many French artists looked south to refresh their jaded imaginations. In 1930, Henri Matisse travelled to Tahiti ‘to find simpler ways which won’t stifle the spirit’. One of the distinctive crafts in that part of Polynesia is tivaevae, appliqué quilts in bright colours. This flat decorative style re-emerges in Matisse’s later works using the cut-out technique, such as the Jazz series. As far as we know, Matisse established no enduring relationship with Tahitian crafts practitioners. His debt to their tradition is never acknowledged.

Closer to our time, this primitivist idealisation is often directed to the indigenous races of the south. The 1989 exhibition Magicien de la Terre invited third world artisans who had for so long been an inspiration to French artists. They were taken out of their ethnographic cabinet to sit alongside the individual western artists in a contemporary art setting. Magicien de la Terre was widely criticised for its Benetton-like global context. These artisans were the exotic guests in a modernist palace.

At this point, I should acknowledge the hospitality of Edinburgh College of Art in allowing ten Australasian jewellers to present their work in conjunction with this conference. Guild Unlimited works its way into this argument as a neoclassical regeneration from the antipodes: the intensely hierarchical structures of guild from the old north are here opened up to a pluralistic imagination of the new colonies.

Returning to south-ism, there have been attempts in Australian decorative arts by those originally from the north to incorporate indigenous motifs. The Australian printmaker Margaret Preston called for a new school of decorative arts influenced by Aboriginal designs. In 1925, she called for a national theme based on indigenous crafts:

… 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.

Though artists like Preston seemed to celebrate indigenous culture, they were largely oblivious to the need for Aboriginal participation in this process.

This brings us to the post-colonial phase of the world dialectic, when the subaltern eventually asks to take the lead. In their recent book Empire, Hardt and Negri draw on Sartre’s concept of the ‘the moment of the boomerang’ to describe this phase. Here the exotic other begins to speak back, and so Aboriginal Australians began to increasingly assert their independence. In Australia, every important occasion is now preceded by an acknowledgment of traditional owners.

Thus we have seen a flowering of Aboriginal crafts in Australia. Just to take one example, Tiwi Island ceramics, originally established by Michael Cardew, was recently revived and exhibited as Yikwani, containing sculptural works of great invention.

Craft has become so associated with Aboriginal culture that in a recent government report (Inquiry into the Contemporary Visual Arts and Crafts by Rupert Myer), the generic term ‘Art and Craft Centres’ was used to describe Aboriginal places for making art. It was assumed that an ‘Art and Craft Centre’ would not be something that non-indigenous Australians would use.

We might feel a sense of completion with such an arrangement, as though we were at the natural end of the dialectic, when the passive object of colonial fascination is finally the active agent in the construction of their own culture. Yet, as Soviet Marxists found to their dismay, the dialectic is never finished. What is the sound of one hand clapping?

The indigenous flowering of craft occurs surrounded by a non-indigenous audience. They are the writers, curators, gallery visitors, administrators, bureaucrats, art advisors and connoisseurs. They are the silent participants, enjoying the other’s enjoyment.

As the identity of place is increasingly deferred to the original people, the moral tenure of northerners gone south becomes problematic. The question is raised: what can they give in exchange for the exotic delights they receive from the southern peoples?

And here we come to the present crisis in south-ism. In recent years, this has become especially evident with the defeat of apartheid in South Africa, and the increasing recognition of first peoples in Australia and New Zealand.

Politically, bi-polar dialogue seems stymied with fears of land claims. Sport is often seen as the level playing field for Western and traditional, but there is little evolution of understanding. However, quietly working away in their studios, craft practitioners are stitching, soldering and dove-tailing together two otherwise incompatible cultures.

I’d like to mention briefly some developments in what used to be called the ‘southern dominions’.


To begin in Australia, textiles tend to be the preferred medium for craft exchange between indigenous and non-indigenous cultures. In Western Australia, the fibre artist Nalda Searles has developed a strong collaborative method with Aboriginal artists—Noongar in the south and Ngaanyatjarra in the Western desert.

In her art, Nalda Searles has been exploring ways of combining natural and man-made fibres. This includes embroidery of flora on found fabric, such as blankets and clothes. Her work reflects on the tenuous place of white people in this land. Searle’s 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.

As a result of her long involvement with Ngaanyatjarra people, Nalda Searles is known by the word Kabbarli, which means ‘grandmother’. This term had been applied most famously to another woman living in the Nullarbor Plain a century earlier—Daisy Bates. Searles is currently developing a series of works that explore the confrontation between European dress and the more natural indigenous ornament. Bates’ morning toilet is a fascinating ordeal of Western decorum sustained in dramatic isolation. She writes,

I made my toilet to a chorus of impatient twittering. It was a fastidious toilet, for throughout my life I have adhered to the simple but exact dictates of fashion as I left it, when Victoria was queen—a neat white blouse, stuff collar and ribbon tie, a dark skirt and coast, stout and serviceable, trim shows and neat black stockings, a sailor hat and a fly-veil, and, for my excursions to the camps, always a dust-coat and a sunshade. Not until I was in meticulous order would I emerge from my tent, dressed for the day. My first greeting was for the birds.

This encounter between Western dress and southern wild nature provide the perfect scene for Searles’ craft process. Initi gloves combines the white gloves that Daisy Bates wore all the time during her dealings with the Aborigines and the initi seeds that they wore in their hair.

Searles’ combines both modern and traditional elements in a way that exposes their separation.

New Zealand

The dialogue mellows as we cross the Tasman Sea. There has been a more consistent history of reciprocal dealings between the Maori’s and their British guests. In the spirit of bi-culturalism, those of European descent refer to themselves as Maori term, Pakeha, meaning ‘those who arrive on ships with tall white sails’.

In the twentieth-century, there was much interest by Pakeha in the Maori ornamental traditions. This culminated in the Stone, Bone & Shell exhibition which toured Australia in 1988. It included jewellers and sculptors who drew from the Maori carving traditions, especially using Pounamu, or greenstone.

In 1998, the school was criticised for its appropriation of Maori culture. The jeweller Warwick Freeman was singled out as a ‘plunderer of the Pacific’. At a conference in Hobart in 1998, Freeman defended his practice as a form of dialogue between cultures.

Bi-culturalism calls for active exchange between the cultures—art is a fundamental participant in this engagement—it functions well in the so called ‘negotiated space’ – the space between two cultures

More recently in New Zealand, there have been a number of Polynesian artists, especially from Samoa, who have begun to exploit this irony. Niki Hastings-McFall is of Samoan descent and combines in her work reference to traditional islander forms and modern symbols, such as the conjunction of Solomon Island breastplates and modern symbols such as mag wheels. Her series ‘Flock’ uses the techniques of traditional breastplates but incorporates alternative materials, pearl shell and silver. Included in the radial design are aeroplane symbols which reflect an ironic continuity of traditional and modern.

For all the inevitable conflicts and misunderstandings, New Zealand craft appears to play on a relatively reciprocal exchange between Western and traditional cultures.

South Africa

The parallel path of relations between first and subsequent peoples has taken a dramatic turn in South Africa. Under the Dutch Reform Church, Afrikaners saw themselves as the chosen people and their Great Trek was a journey to the Promised Land. Now, in the Rainbow Nation, they must take their place amongst the heathens not as masters but as equals.

Apartheid had extended to the arts as much as politics. There had been little appropriation of African crafts by settler artists. The curios that could be purchased during holiday treks to the Transvaal were largely imported from countries like Congo and Nigeria.

It’s different now.

New crafts have emerged as hybrids of traditional technique and modern lifestyle. Telephone wire weaving was developed initially by city nightwatchmen, who sought to fill their time by weaving as they would in their village home. Without natural grasses, they were forced to gather whatever was to hand. Odd pieces of telephone wire provided particularly colourful materials for weaving.

Today, telephone wire weaving has become the main source of income for villages like the township of Umlassi in Durban. It has reached the stage now where the main telecommunications company Telkom distribute the wire for free—for the practical reason that otherwise people would steal wires off the poles and so disrupt the telephone system.

While these crafts provide important sources of income, they have not as yet been able to establish themselves as individual artists with reputations in their own right.

Among visual artists gaining reputation in the new South Africa are Zulu men who aspire to the status as healers. These are often charismatic figures whose work is informed by visions.

Lange Magwa looks particularly to objects that are held as sacred to both Western and traditional cultures. ‘Made in China’ is a large gramophone horn woven from cow hide, inside which is a speaker broadcasting in different languages represented in Durban radio. It rests on a springbok hide which is laid over an Indian fabric. For Magwa, his work aims to operate magically to heal the rift between the three main races of Durban. In Zulu ritual, the horn is used as a symbol of magical protection: it can be ground up as healing powder, used as a container of medicine or added to other objects, like a house, to protect it from evil spirit. By finding a link with the European white magic of the gramophone, Magwa is extending the power of the horn into the new South Africa.

So where does this leave white Africans? Many white artists have moved now from their own work to facilitating others. One such artist is Andreas Botha. He has established a philanthropic project, Amazini Abisifazane (Voices of Women). This is a cooperative venture presenting embroideries by women about their traumatic experiences. While such projects are important to the economic development of the new South Africa, they do risk entrenching a victimary identity on the previously disadvantaged.

Botha’s own sculptural installations move towards greater self-understanding. In his monumental series What is a Home (1995), a three-metre high steel-plated man with Afrikaner hat is clutching a straw woman in Zulu headdress performing a dance known in Afrikaans as binne boet (‘inside the arse’). In his own work, Andreas is attempting to uncover the folk tradition of Afrikaner culture to find something that is more complementary to the Zulu values.

Contemporary sculptors in the new South Africa are drawing on their own craft traditions to weave together the black and white cultures that have been kept strictly separate during most of their lives. There’s a long way to make up.

Magicians of the south

And here we get to the bottom of things. The bottom of the world is emerging as a forum whereby the European self and its exotic other can finally meet and engage in reciprocal dialogue. This ‘south’ offers a backstage where the exotic actors can exchange masks with their ordinary audience.

In this setting, craft provides an important common language whereby exchange can develop between traditional artisans and Western artists. Old techniques can combine with introduced materials. Alien symbols emerge out of traditional patterns. Using the charismatic authority of magicians, prophets, healers and artists, these individuals can realise new similarities and differences between the two worlds that find each other in the south.

The wrongs of the past certainly demand reparation. Someone needs to say sorry. But the process of empowerment still bears the legacy of colonial paternalism. ‘Live and let live’ carries an onerous responsibility—not only to allow others to fulfil their lives, but live one’s own as well. While global culture offers a nowhere-land of vicarious experience, the local cultures of the south provide a way of re-orienting ourselves where we are, if we can listen.


G.W.F. Hegel Logic (trans. W. Wallace) Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975 (orig. 1830)

Edward Said Orientalism New York: Pantheon, 1978, p. 57

Fiona MacCarthy William Morris: A Life for Our Times London: Faber, 1994, p. 309

John Ruskin Stones of Venice New York: Da Capo Press, 1960 (orig. 1853), p. 176

Thomas McEvilley Art & otherness: crisis in cultural identity Kingston, NY: Documentext/McPherson, 1992, pp. 69-70

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

Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri Empire Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001, p. 130

Daisy Bates The Passing Of The Aborigines: A Lifetime Spent Among The Natives Of Australia London: Murray, 1938, p. 198