What to make of 2014

Master batik artist Tony Dyer with a young Japanese textile student at the Semarang International Batik Festival in May 2013

One of the major events of 2014 will be the Golden Jubilee of the World Crafts Council, which will be held in Dongyan, China, 18-22 October. It will be very interesting to see how the Chinese presidency of WCC uses this unique occasion to promote local craftsmanship. One day ‘Made in China’ may be something that actually adds value to a product.

The China event will be an important occasion to present the Code of Practice for Partnerships in Craft & Design, which has been developed over the past three years of discussions that were part of Sangam: Australia India Design Platform. We’ll be developing a platform based around those standards to promote fair partnerships between producers and developers. This year, the network will extend to Indonesia, with a workshop at Kampoeng Semarang looking particularly at commissioning of batik artists.

The key element that draws me to craft is the way it engages with tradition. While the modern world encourages freedom, it is hard to conceive of a meaningful life without responsibility. Custodianship gives meaning to our otherwise fleeting lives. And craft traditions require skill and imagination if that are to be something we can pass on to future generations.

This is something quite evident to indigenous peoples, whose own culture is vulnerable to colonisation. Retaining language and custom gives purpose and honour to individual lives in indigenous communities.

By contrast, the dominant white Anglo world seems to require little from us in order to flourish. It runs increasingly on automatic, sustained by machines and global corporations. But there are still buried traditions that we can uncover and pass on. Colonisation involved removing the social value from objects, otherwise considered the primitive domain of fetish or idol. The challenge is to recover social objects such as charms, crowns, garlands and heirlooms that offer a hard currency of interconnection.

Amulets from the Sonara Market in Mexico City - how to turn objects of destruction into agents of good?

The project Joyaviva: Live Jewellery across the Pacific travels to Latin America this year. It will be very interesting to see how these audiences respond to the challenge of designing a modern amulet. Can folk traditions transcend their nostalgia and become relevant elements of contemporary life?

The broader questions associated with this will be played out in a series of roundtables as part of the South Ways  project. This will seek to identify creative practices that are unique to the South. The first one in Wellington will look at the relevance of the Maori ‘power object’, or taonga, to Western art practices such as relational jewellery.

Other projects will help tie these threads together. The performance work Kwality Chai will explore what an Indianised Australia might be like. This relates to the utopia of Neverland, in which Australia becomes a haven for cultures that have no home in the world, such as Sri Lankan Tamils.

Craft keeps us alive to the debt we owe to previous generations. I’m very pleased to be involved with Wendy Ger’s Taiwan Ceramics Biennale where many artists have mastered clay as a language for the unique expression of ideas and values.

So there’s much to be made of 2014. Let’s hope this includes a future for 2015 and beyond.

Happy New Day

Bangalore flower market

Last month I took a walking tour through the old city of Bangalore. Up to that point, Bangalore had seemed a difficult city. Little of the wealth generated by its fabled IT industry seemed to have flowed through to public amenities. And its traditional identity as the ‘garden city’ appeared lost amidst chaotic traffic and cheap new architecture.

A visit to the flower market changed all that. In contrast to the inhospitable atmosphere outside, the flower market was an island of freshness and good humour. Vendors even welcomed our cameras despite limited sales prospects.

I learnt from our guide Aliyeh Rizvi how the market works. By 4am it is busy preparing garlands for traders throughout the city. The flowers are then sold to ordinary Bangaloreans for daily use and special occasions, such as festivals and weddings. Sure enough, later that morning, I saw people walking to their work places with plastic bags of blossoms or garlands of marigold, where they would be used to adorn idols at home or work.

The ‘City Beautiful’ was not lost, but it had retreated from public spaces to private rituals. Bangalore’s gardens are now recreated every morning by individual acts of adornment.

And what of my city, blessed by expansive manicured gardens? Melbourne’s capillaries were once activated with deliveries of daily supplies of milk, bread, and newspapers. But now milk is bought from supermarkets in plastic bottles and daily news is delivered through the ether. We now have to invent ways of waking up our city, as they do in Bangalore.

Today is one day out of 365 that is privileged as a beginning of something new. But of course, every day has its own beginning. The Russians say that the morning is wiser than the evening.

Happy new day.

(Thanks Suresh Jayaram for advice on Bangalorean history).

Gondwana Bound

Following Neverland, Gondwana Bound considers what an Indian Australia would have been like. This project involves writers, artists and cooks to give free reign to their imagination and populate the continent with a Hindu civilisation.

  • What would the relationship be like between Aboriginal and Hindu peoples?
  • Are there aspects of Tamil culture that would be realised here that have been lost to history?
  • How would Indian cuisine use the bush spices of the land, such as lemon peppers and myrtles?

This journey calls on some adventurous pioneers of speculation.

A new broom: sweeping changes to folk art in Asia

Sometimes, it’s worth stating the obvious in order not to be so.

We’ve come to accept that art is a profession. To become a recognised artist, most need to follow an institutional path. According to art world specialist Peter Hill, ‘the usual route is to attend a university school of art, and there are approximately thirty of these around the country. One can leave such an institution with an undergraduate degree, an honours degree, a variety of Masters degrees, or a PhD by project.’ Once out of university, the artist then needs to be selected for exhibitions in commercial or public galleries. This institutional route winnows out those who are serious from the part-timers.

While the logic of this system is self-evident, it has its limitations. The inherently elitist trajectory is seen to exclude a particular kind of art which is not beholden to the academic field. For the critic Russell Jacoby, the academicisation of cultural life encourages internecine concerns. Yet apart from some experiments in relational aesthetics, the outsider artist is an increasingly rare phenomenon in the West. This is a significant point of difference with countries in our region.

It is often remarked that Asian cultures do not have a word for art that is distinct from other forms of creative expression. The closest equivalent in Sanskrit is shilpa, which means ‘diverse’ and includes horsemanship and cooking. Given the continuity of tradition, there are often strong communities of artists who exist outside the academy, yet are not hobbyists.

Consider folk artists. Their context includes temple decoration, festival costumes and ritual events such as weddings. In the West, public decoration is largely a commodified domain involving advertising and industrial printing. Folk art is the remnant of a world when it is easier to make something by hand than buy it in a shop.

Within a ‘third world’ framework, such art is backward, provincial, staid and crude. Lacking the innovation that comes from contact with the wider world, it prime value is for tourists. Better to embrace more professional art forms, such as painting on canvas.

The inexorable power of this story was demonstrated to me in 2006, when I met with the board of the National Gallery of Mauritius. For a population around one million people, the prospect of such an institution was more an aspiration than a reality. Though the building for their gallery had been promised by successive governments, it is yet to eventuate. Instead, I was shown photographs of their collection, which consisted almost exclusively of paintings, many by Europeans passing through.

While Mauritius has a rich history of folk crafts, particularly from the kreol communities, aspirations for art followed quite foreign European lines. Of course, there was a logic behind this. Why create a collection in order to preserve what can already be found outside on the street? Yet, as the place to tell the story of a national culture, much was swept under the carpet.

But we know that this developmental push isn’t the only story emerging from the West. The English writers William Morris and John Ruskin provided an alternative path based on labour as a form of creative expression. For Ruskin, ‘Fine art is that in which the hand, the head, and the heart of man go together.’

In the West, this provided an ideological platform for the revival of folk crafts in the 20th century, leading to the emergence of studio craft as modernist art form parallel with painting and sculpture. This sometimes uneasy alliance is described in Glenn Adamson’s classic text Thinking through Craft: while craft reflects how things are made, visual arts presents the final image. The DIY movement that has since eclipsed studio craft has more affinities with folk craft though it is more about individual expression than cultural traditions.

The Arts & Crafts Movement had a more political value in non-Western countries. In the early 20th century, the Japanese drew on the ideas of Morris and Ruskin to develop a craft aesthetic in opposition to Western culture. The Mingei movement (from minshuteki kogei ‘popular crafts’) emerged in 1926 from a meeting of Kanjiro Kawai, Shoji Hamada and Bernard Leach, who cel@ebrated the aesthetics of honest labour in Asian ceramics. As the recent publication Modern Japanese Art and the Meiji State argues, the concept of bijustu (art) was perceived during this period as a Western imposition on Japan.

There are echoes of Mingei still in contemporary Japan. The 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa celebrates artisan craft. As the director of the Yuji Akimoto says in a recent interview: ‘It wasn’t all that long ago young artists were interested in creating universal artwork, abandoning techniques and aesthetics like those rooted in kôgei. But now people are finding local art and craftwork modern and interesting once again.’[1] His 2012 exhibition Art Crafting towards the Future features older art forms like lacquer and ceramics in dialogue with manga, design and contemporary art.

In India, the profile of modern folk art has strong roots in nationalism. For Gandhi, Ruskin’s ideas helped critique the Western quest to save labour through technology. His attempt to forge a nation state independent of Western influence involved mandating members of the Congress Party to spin cotton every day; Gandhi laboured as a spiritual exercise to stay in tune with village culture. This call was extended by activist Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay to the founding of the All India Handicrafts Board, representing up to 200 million village artisans.

While many crafts now operate within the market, the ornamental folk traditions that are tied to festivals and rituals persist in India. According to the latest census, 70% of the population still live in villages.

In the West, folk arts are usually presented as anonymous. This can be either as ethnography, such as the Paris Trocadero, or as appropriation, such as Australian painter Robert McPherson’s ‘swamp rat’ road signs.

Indian folk artists began to emerge as named individuals in the 1980s. The artist J. Swaminathan sought to establish a distinctly Indian school of art that drew from folk traditions rather than external movements like Abstract Expressionism. Through the Bharat Bhawan museum in Bhopal, Swaminathan set out to collect work from the region. The museum was soon home to an extraordinary group of tribal artists, including a woman named Sonabai, whose creatures in clay and straw conveyed a charmed world. Many then found opportunities beyond Bhopal. Sonabai was featured in the Delhi Crafts Museum, a visionary institution set up by Jyotindra Jain to living traditional artists. She was even invited to create an installation for the 1999 Asia Pacific Triennial in Brisbane.

It is interesting to see quite divergent narratives about Sonabai’s creativity. The US writer Stephen Huyler describes her as a self-taught artist whose inspiration came from the purely personal experience of loneliness: ‘she is herself an archetype of the unrecognized woman who creates beauty in her life’.[2] For Hyuler, Sonabai is a lone genius who deserves wider recognition. Accordingly, fellow villagers who make work in this style are seen as imitators trying to cash into her success. By contrast, Jyotindra Jain’s account in his book and exhibition Other Masters places her within the culture of her village, specifically the annual ritual chherta harvest festival when houses are re-decorated.

But now, a new interest in the more collective folk traditions has emerged. Two recent exhibitions have focused on the most humble of decorative arts—broom making. Despite its utilitarian function, the use of natural fibres affords a strong regional variation. The Arna-Jharna Desert Museum of Rajasthan was established in 2008 by musicologist Komal Kothari. As a ‘laboratory of the ordinary’, its first three years were devoted solely to the broom. The museum described itself as having ‘consciously prioritized social relationships generated by objects, rather than a purely aesthetic or ethnographic focus on the objects themselves.’[3] The broom is positioned as part of a knowledge system that interconnects environmental and social domains. As part of its expanded role, the Broom Project considers practical issues such as health issues, urban waste management, education and political rights of broom makers.

A parallel urban exposition of brooms was developed by the Asian Heritage Foundation, established by Rajeev Sethi, a designer who returned to India from Paris to work with traditional crafts. In 2020, the Foundation was inaugurated with an exhibition dedicated to the broom— Sweeping Change: Transforming Attitudes towards the Humble Jharu (Broom) at Gandhi Smriti in Delhi. While the exhibition featured a purely aesthetic taxonomy of brooms, it also involved the broom community directly, such as broom sellers performing their cries.

The exhibition had been designed by Ishan Khosla, who has also returned after a period abroad to take up the many opportunities back home. Khosla has since established a graphic design practice working closely in collaboration with artisans. For a book cover, he commissioned a traditional Rajasthani kaavad painter to reflect on the publication’s contents.

Now folk artists are increasingly accepting commissions. The Australian sculptors Rodney Glick and Wanda Gillespie have drawn on the skills of Indonesian artisans —Glick from Balinese carving and Gillespie from bird cage painters in Jogjakarta. This follows a trajectory for folk artists to take on an increasingly active role in their creative practice.

This development is an important manifestation of the changing world order. Where previously the Third World was seen in a relatively dependent position toward the developed world, with the emerging superpowers in Asia and Latin America, there is an increasingly bilateralism in international relationships.

Folk art need no longer be seen as anonymous cultural flora. Nor need it be the work of a lone genius, waiting to be plucked from obscurity by a visiting curator. It is a form of creative expression with its own political interests. Love my art, love my people.

Previously published:

Murray, Kevin. “A New Broom Sweeping Changes to Folk Art in Asia.” Artlink 33, no. 1 (March 2013): 64–67.

[1] http://www.ajkanazawa.com/386/culture/focus/the-next-generation-yuji-akimoto-on-the-future-of-modern-art-in-kanazawa

[2] Stephen Huyler Sonabai: Another Way of Seeing Mapin publishing in association with Mingei International Museum, San Diego, 2009, p. 39

[3] http://www.arnajharna.org/English/Events.aspx

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.