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

Craft Unbound introduction


(Melbourne: Thames & Hudson, 2005)

By Kevin Murray


There was once a familiar order to things. On one side was the supermarket and on the other was the art gallery. There was the world of common things to be used up and discarded, and the realm of precious objects to be appreciated into the future. The meaningless cycle of consumption was counterbalanced by the collection of treasured objects. But this cultural economy has become stagnant as art becomes increasingly insular and detached from everyday life. Consumption continues to accelerate while art risks being locked into the fashion cycle.

A generation of radical Australian makers is challenging this arrangement by bringing the profane world of consumption into the sacred halls of art. Theirs is not merely a conceptual exercise. There is no Duchamp-like cleverness about their use of found objects. These craftspersons express a renewal in the elemental energy of creation, reaching back to the mysteries of material transformation in alchemy. They are breaking through.

This is a distinctly Australian phenomenon, and we need to gather these makers together to appreciate their work, learn about its origins, and understand its meaning. What is the relationship between beauty and rarity that their work confronts? Let’s begin to examine this question with the broad brush.

The lay of the land

To make the common precious is to work against the grain. The identification of value and rarity is self-evident. It governs the way we see the world and how we transact with it. According to Gestalt psychology, we perceive the world by dividing it into figure and ground: the lone object stands out before the common background. By taking the common for granted, we can focus our attention on the singular.

In the English language rarity is almost always expressed using words that carry a positive connotation—words such as ‘extraordinary’, ‘special’, ‘rare’, ‘incomparable’ and ‘noble’. Whereas what is common is valued negatively, as in ‘ordinary’, ‘average’, ‘mundane’, ‘usual’, ‘pedestrian’ or ‘plebeian’. Accordingly, we will pay more for something that is exclusive, one-off or editioned than we would for goods that are mass-marketed.

This asymmetry is especially prevalent in the world of art. It seems obvious that the beautiful is necessarily exceptional. After all, art history is peopled by rare geniuses who produce rare masterpieces. Craft plays its own part in this story. In the decorative arts treasures such as the Fabergé Eggs are valued for their rarity as much as their craftsmanship. The value of an object is conditioned more by its supply than its simple use value.

But there are ways in which this natural order of things can be questioned. In a radical move the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argued that rarity is not the accident of beauty, but rather its cause.[i] We enjoy a masterpiece because it is rare. According to Bourdieu, art enforces a hierarchical society, in which value must be seen as limited to the few.

This view has its shortcomings. While providing a powerful critique of aestheticism, such arguments do not suggest ways of creating beauty that are alternative to the existing economy. To find these, we need to go beyond academic theory and explore the popular values that shadow elitism. The different manifestations of elitism provide us with alternative ways of understanding what Australian craftspersons are achieving today.

Throughout the history of Christianity, the gospels have often been used to support the Church’s responsibility to the broad mass of people—‘The meek shall inherit the earth.’ In contrast to the hierarchy of the Vatican orders such as the Franciscans make humility a life-long vocation. And, most radically, during the Reformation anti-elitist movements celebrated daily labour and the common tongue. A similar tension is present in Islam, in the opposition between the priestly Shiite and popularist Sunni versions of the religion. Beyond religion, popularism was given its most powerful expression in the revolutionary movements that culminated in Marxism. Given the declining significance of theology and ideology in the third millennium, where might an aesthetics of commonness reside today?

In Western society, there is alongside the mainstream economy of beauty a black market of artistic production.[ii] The value of rarity is reversed when it is seen to be tightly controlled by a particular group. Thus there are negative terms associated with those who police rarity, such as ‘elites’, ‘priesthoods’, ‘snobs’ and ‘cabals’.

The craft movement

Throughout modernity, craft has provided an alternative set of values to the positivist dream of technological advancement. At its most basic, craft is the transformation of common materials into precious works. Potters dig up mud which they shape and bake in the fire to make vessels for eating and drinking. The history of modern craft is characterised by a search for these elemental roots.

It was during industrialisation in the nineteenth century that craft emerged as a foil to modern capitalism. Reflecting a Protestant spirit, the English Arts and Craft movement of this period championed labour and decried bourgeois decadence.

Rarity was a significant issue for the movement’s champion, John Ruskin. He admitted that certain kinds of rarity, such as a fine sunset, were legitimate as ‘Nature’s way of stimulating your attention’. However, if rarity became a matter of possession, then it was idolatry: there was no reason to value pearls above glass beads. So Ruskin wrote, ‘If only the English nation could be made to understand that the beauty which is indeed to be a joy for ever, must be a joy for all.’[iii] At the time, the craft spirit was identified as a northern phenomenon, with its origins reaching back to the historical struggle of egalitarian Anglo-Saxons against their Norman overlords.

In the twentieth century Western craft turned to the East. The English potter Edmund Leach introduced the values associated with Mingei, a Japanese movement of folk ceramics. These values emerged from a strain of Zen Buddhism that sought enlightenment in the here and now. A key text for Mingei practitioners was The Unknown Craftsman written by Soetsu Yanagi in 1931, which stated ‘Why should beauty emerge from the world of the ordinary? The answer is, ultimately, because the world is natural.’[iv] Yanagi’s values were epitomised in the Kizaemon tea bowl. This sixteenth-century bowl was celebrated as one of Japan’s most significant treasures. According to legend, the bowl was found in a Korean workshop, and produced by a regular worker in a moment of complete unselfconsciousness.

The roles were reversed in the late twentieth century. Crafts practitioners reacted against the earnestness associated with the Arts and Crafts movement, and with Japanese ceramics. Post-modern flamboyance and conceptualism, such as that inspired by the Italian designers Memphis, removed craft from its demotic base.

Meanwhile industrialisation entered the information era, which altered the basic economy of production. Today, the greater the number of people who possess a particular piece of software, the more valuable it is. As Pierre Lévy writes, ‘Everything that flows from top to bottom in theological discourse should be viewed, within the technosocial system, as flowing from bottom to top.’[v] What was vertical has become horizontal—networks replace silos. While technological change has proceeded largely independent of the arts, it does alter the mindset in which the arts are perceived. Craft is just beginning to enjoy this new ground.

Poor cousins in the arts

Modesty of means is not exclusive to the contemporary crafts movement. The ‘Poor Theatre’ of Polish director Jerzy Grotowski evolved in the 1960s as a rejection of theatrical excess, such as lush sets and lavish costumes. It used austerity to bring the focus back on the unadorned actor. This process was extended into cinema with Dogma 95, the Danish movement led by Lars von Trier, which precluded sound tracks and editing in order to bring acting to the fore. For von Trier and other like-minded directors, to work with whatever is at hand promises to be a more transparent means for creative expression.

In the late 1960s Grotowski’s Poor Theatre inspired an Italian art movement known as ‘Arte Povera’. Influenced by American minimalism, a group of sculptors reacted against what they saw as a commodification of art, and created works that materialised a raw creative energy. Their process involved both found materials and spaces outside galleries.

For its main spokesperson, Germano Celant, Arte Povera was a distinctly European movement which contrasted with the futuristic and industrialised scene in America. As Celant writes, European progress ‘is made up of elements astonishingly cobbled together, of deteriorated, ancient materials, excavated from the past and recycled according to intuitive, illogical visions.’[vi] Arte Povera embodied the primitivism of Poor Theatre while articulating a specific message about the heterogeneity of European history. And it embraced the enigmatic.

The antipodean future

At first, there seems no place for a country such as Australia in Celant’s scheme. On the one hand, our thin past does not reflect the rich palimpsest of European history. Australian history seems like a crust of colonialism built over a seemingly timeless continuity of Aboriginal occupation. And on the other hand, Australia is not gripped by the positivism of its American cousins. The cultural dynamic is more colonial in character. It is within the colonial story that we might find the ground for a distinctly Australian craft.

According to the colonial mindset, Europe is the rightful home of preciousness. In his book The Australian Ugliness, Robin Boyd holds up the north as a model: ‘Yet in England, unlike America and Australia, there is always something of genuine beauty around the corner, a medieval church or a glimpse of field, hedge and honest stonework.’[vii] This Europe is studded with the precious jewels of its grand pasts.

Such ‘colonial cringe’ naturally evokes a republican response. There have been many strains of irreverent nationalism. In the 1990s the Sydney designers Mambo celebrated suburban values, typified in local wisdom such as ‘The grass is always greener around the tap.’[viii] Films such as Muriel’s Wedding associate suburbanism with a free spirit and the sense of community; they foster a boisterous pride in being ordinary.

Australian folk craft reflects this popularism. Bush furniture celebrated the make-do practices of farmers who were isolated by the great distances of the outback. A kerosene tin became a chest of drawers. Likewise, the isolation of Aboriginal communities has encouraged an ingenuity of means. The 2001 television series Bush Mechanics celebrated the almost magical ability of the Walpiri people to keep cars going without the backup of tools and supplies. Australian popular applied arts have been forged by isolation.

Australia shares this celebration of the common with other ex-colonies, particularly in the south. Consider the most influential poet in South America, Pablo Neruda. He was ideologically committed to ordinariness. His Elementary Odes are rhapsodic verses in praise of ordinary things. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Neruda claimed that ‘The best poet is he who prepares our daily bread.’[ix] The popularism of Liberation theology and leftist revolutions aims to continue the struggle first established against Spanish imperialism into the factories.

Parallel sentiments are being expressed across the Indian Ocean, where the African Renaissance upholds the value of collective tribalism against capitalist individualism. The post-apartheid generation of South African intellectuals is keen to turn the freedom struggle beyond the spectacle of mass riots to the matters of ordinary life. The author Njabulo Ndebele writes about the ‘rediscovery of the ordinary’ as the focus for political action: ‘If it is a new society we seek to bring about in South Africa then that newness will be based on a direct concern with the way people actually live.’[x] Cultural energy in the new South Africa stems from township life, particularly music and craft.

There are clear differences between a majority White country such as Australia, and the racial profiles of nations in Africa and South America. Craft in Australia is located in galleries, where it is partly removed from its value in the market. Yet despite differences in culture and economy, all southern nations share the condition of seeming to live in the ‘shadow’ of the north, where the common things of our world are outshone by the precious imports from afar.

Eventually corrupted by modernity, the modest spirit of craft in the West seeks renewal from outside. In the past Western makers looked to the Viking north and pre-modern East. Now it is from the south that emerges a fresh energy.

‘Poor craft’

The nineteen makers profiled in this book have chosen to work with materials which might otherwise be considered worthless. They have gathered remnants, packaging and rubbish that have no place in the economic system: they turn to whatever is at hand. This ‘poor craft’ is a particularly rich source of creative expression.

To speak of a ‘poor craft’ is to suggest a movement that is bound by common experience and ideas. But it would be premature to christen a new movement. As products of relatively modest backgrounds, the makers in this book share similar sensibilities, though their ideas about preciousness sometimes diverge.

These artists share a common story. They are like the last fruit of a native Australian tree that only grows in the wild. Their childhoods were spent in relatively free open spaces—if not gazing upon the open horizons of the bush then roaming the wilds of the outer suburbs. They grew up before television had absorbed recreational time, and so faced the rare challenge of learning how to create time themselves and to make virtue of necessity.

Relatively few of the makers moved in a straight line. While institutional training has been a critical part of their development as a craftsperson, most have gained ideas on their own. There are certainly common themes that emerge through the work of these artists; they share a spirit of invention and an interest in the alchemic transformation of materials, and many are engaged in a critique of consumerism. Together, they all seek forms of creative energy that are not bound by commodification. Better to have something roughly made from common materials than a slickly produced object that fits snugly into its niche market. While the artists gathered in this book share a use of common materials, their differences are also important. There are two opposed aims. One is the goal of overturning hierarchy, whereby common becomes precious—lead replaces gold. The other is the abolition of hierarchy itself, to make the precious common—gold is reduced to lead. The former tends to be more strategic in orientation, making a mountain out of a molehill. The latter is more modernist in approach. One overturns the pyramid; the other transforms it into a cube. There are reformists, and there are revolutionaries.

The differences between the artists in this book prompt much debate and questioning. I have grouped the artists according to their method of approaching the ordinary. Each chapter deals with a particular group of makers. Gatherers draw from the Australian land to produce work, while Fossickers discover materials in manufactured environments. Gleaners use what gets left behind, such as packaging, and Alchemists look to the physical transformation of materials. Dissectors expose beauty through the act of destruction, but Liberators take the precious out of the gallery and onto the street. While representing a fresh, critical edge in Australian culture, each maker also demonstrates a growing inventiveness in the field of craft.

Like their cousins in Poor Theatre, these makers of ‘poor craft’ seek modesty of means as a way of renewing creative expression. As in the reality television program Survivor, makers are thrown back on their own craft to make works of beauty from what is at hand. And, as in the Arte Povera movement, found materials offer resistance to the dominant economic system, and allow for the spontaneous expression of identity. Ironically, both Poor Theatre and Arte Povera were inward focused and relatively unpopular art movements. ‘Poor craft’ seems different. In its reference to everyday life it seems possible that ‘poor craft’ will enjoy a broad audience, untutored in art theory. This is a rare moment for the art of the ordinary.


[i] Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, trans. R. Nice, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1984 (orig. 1974)

[ii] While the celebration of the common occurs in many different cultures and histories, we need not assume that it is linked to a universal meaning. The championing of ordinary seems a reaction against authority that emerges within a specific context.

[iii] John Ruskin, Arata Pentelici: Seven Lectures on the Elements of Sculpture, George Allen, London, 1890, p. 23.

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

[v] Pierre Lévy, Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace, Plenum Press, New York, 1997 (orig. 1995), p. 100.

[vi] Germano Celant, Arte Povera: Art from Italy, 1967–2002, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2002, p. 23.

[vii] Robin Boyd, The Australian Ugliness, Cheshire, Melbourne, 1960, p. 16.

[viii] Mambo: Still Life with Franchise, Mambo Graphics, Sydney, 1998, p. 115.

[ix] Alan Feinstein, Pablo Neruda: A Passion for Life, Bloomsbury, New York, 2004, p. 379.

[x] Njabulo Ndebele, South African Literature and Culture: Rediscovery of the Ordinary, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1994, p. 57. The phrase was echoed in the opening of a speech made by Mbulelo Mzamane in 2004 at a gathering of artists and writers from the southern hemisphere (see

The Low and High Road in Australian Jewellery

Humble beginnings

Jewellery has played a role in Australia’s emergence as a nation. Inspired by the Arts & Crafts Movement, Australian flora began to appear in brooches and centrepieces. But much of this was still made in England. Until the 1960s, the Australian jeweller was mostly a tradesman equipped with technical knowledge and skill in manipulating metal and setting stones. These resources were used to fulfil commissions for relatively timeless standards such as the engagement ring. It was only in the 1960s that jewellery schools like that of RMIT began to encourage jewellers to consider the possibility of creating their own designs. The shift towards greater autonomy came partly through the intervention of European jewellers who migrated to Australia.

The influence of migrant jewellers was particularly strong in the 1970s. In Melbourne, Wolf Wennrich, an ex-student of Friedrich Becker, encouraged students to think of themselves as artists, using the medium of jewellery to express their inner visions. About the same time in Sydney, the Danish designer Helge Larsen established the Jewellery and Silversmithing Department of Sydney College of the Arts where jewellery was positioned as an art form alongside others, such as sculpture. It was here that Margaret West was able to develop such a powerful poetic practice evoking the resonance of such base materials as pebble and lead.

The opening of Australian jewellery to the world continued in the 1970s, with range of distinguished visitors including Arline Fisch, David Poston, Claus Bury, David Watkins and Wendy Ramshaw. Of particular significance was the visit in 1982 of the Munich professor and ex-student of Franz Rickert, Hermann Junger. Junger’s extensive three-month tour enabled him to have personal contact through workshops and social activities with most of the contemporary jewellery scene in Australia. As a primitivist, Junger was intensely interested in the direct engagement of the world, not beholden to received notions of preciousness. This aesthetic resonated greatly with the emerging Australian scene.

One immediate effect of Junger’s visit was to strengthen the link between Australia and Germany, principally through Munich and Melbourne. Australian students began to travel to study as part of the Munich Academy and Junger’s successor Otto Kunzli made many subsequent visits to Australia. In 1995, Gallery Funaki opened as a gallery in Melbourne that would operate as a southern showcase for the European jewellery world that was centred in Munich.

More broadly in Australia, Junger’s visit reinforced the challenge in jewellery here of connecting with the world at hand. This was reflected in two particular themes—nature and the body. In the case of nature, there was an avoidance of literal representation, such as the gumnut, which might be confused with cheap tourist souvenirs. As we will see, there was instead an attempt to capture in jewellery a more phenomenological engagement with environment. Through events such as the 1980 touring exhibition Objects to Human Scale, the body was identified as the domain proper to jewellery—what distinguished it as an art form. As the gallery wall was to painting, so the human body was to jewellery. The artistic impulse remained the same.

Meanwhile, state galleries and museums developed strong collections of contemporary Australian jewellery thanks to generous funding and government subsidies. Thanks to generous support of the Australia Council, and the work of organisations like Craft Australia, the relatively young Australian jewellery scene was able to engage with more established scenes in Europe and the USA. In 1984, Helge Larsen organised the exhibition Cross Currents, with jewellers from Australia, Britain, Germany and the Netherlands, each selected by key figures from their own countries. As this toured these countries, it presented a story of Australian jewellery in dialogue with the wider world in the north. As Larsen concluded in the catalogue, Australian jewellery offered ‘a freedom from traditional values.’

This quest for freedom was not foreign to contemporary jewellery. In contemporary jewellery, this poor aesthetic is most evident in the turn against the legacy of precious metals and stone. In their place, jewellers embrace materials considered either profane to jewellery heritage like plastic or inherently worthless such as rubbish. Ralph Turner’s 1982 exhibition Jewellery Redefined laid down the battle lines between the traditionalists and moderns. Peter Fuller responded, ‘I never thought I would live to see the day when it became necessary to say diamonds are a better friend to a girl – or boy come to that – than used cinema tickets.’[1]

Ripples of this continued to be felt through contemporary jewellery, such as the contest that emerged between two Dutch jewellers in 1985, when Robert Smit reintroduced gold into the jewellery repertoire, to the dismay of Gijs Bakker. This stimulated a contest between craft and design within jewellery—the traditional skills of the craftspersons opposed to the conceptual creativity of the designer.

Preciousness is highly contested in Australian jewellery. The modernist approach seeks to find ways of dignifying the ordinary world. This low road contrasts with the less-travelled high road which embraces the rich aesthetic in the use of precious materials and homage to tradition. The low road takes us back to where we began, while the high road leads us ever on.

The Low Road

Back to the bush

In recent times, Australian jewellery has played an important role in this quest to understand our immediate natural world. Marian Hosking was one of the first Australian jewellers to spend a considerable time in Germany. Between 1971 and 1973 she studied at Fachhochschule für Gestaltung in Pforzheim. Ironically, the experience of being surrounded by the jewellery traditions of Europe made Hosking even more determined to find her own path as an Australian. There are many obvious symbols available to someone like Hosking. Australia abounds with unique forms, such as gum leaves and kangaroos. The danger of pursuing these graphic symbols is that the jewellery becomes simply a vehicle for hackneyed visual icons. This doesn’t reflect the creative challenge of finding meaning in the material itself. In dedicating herself only to silver, Hosking was able to concentrate on the language of the metal. Rather than a singular form, Hosking is interested in the texture of nature, its striations and rhythms of movement. While her work can embrace the singular majesty of the giant Errinunga Shining Gum tree, it also draws from the humble suburban flora such as angophora shrub. Hosking’s silver jewellery brings nature a little closer to our world.

Conventional jewellery privileges the stone as the dominant element—the clasp is relatively secondary to the precious material it contains. During her career, Carlier Makigawa has elevated the background function of jewellery as a form of containment. She eschewed metals such as gold and silver in order to incorporate found materials, which to her were more indicative of place. A pebble gleaned from the ground during a walk could speak more to one’s location than minerals extracted from mines in distant places. Inspired by Japanese culture, Makigawa found a way of using a heavily lacquered papier mâche to create forms that had the appearance of metal yet were light enough to fit easily on the body. In her later work where cage-like silver structures framed empty space, the jewellery became more purely about the container. Makigawa’s architectural approach uses jewellery to create unique interior spaces.

South Australia has a small but deeply embedded jewellery culture. The JamFactory Craft & Design Centre has helped nurture metalsmithing skills over three generations. From this soil, Grey Street Workshop emerged in 1985 as a collective to support local creative jewellery practice. It quickly established a core focus for jewellery as a language for our immediate material world. For fellow members Sue Lorraine, Catherine Truman, Lesley Mathews this world was the body, particularly the folds of human anatomy. For Julie Blyfield, however, it was the material environment of the city that engaged her, especially in urban archaeology. She was initially fascinated by lost objects charged with memory. This evolved into an interest in nature, specifically South Australian flora. Like Marian Hosking, Blyfield chose not to illustrate nature literally. Instead she attempts to give expression to the phenomenological dimension of nature in its visual and tactile textures. Blyfield’s work offers a Braille-like engagement with the world. In the pimply surfaces of her work, we witness how the process of making taps out a rhythm of nature. This is the more experiential kind of nature that a postcard fails to represent.

Australian jewellers found through metal a particularly tactile language for reflecting nature. Rather than the sweeping horizons of landscape painting, forms like brooches provided a venue for a more intimate experience with the world.


The strength of the Australian jewellery movement lies particularly in its collective structures. In 1980, Workshop 3000 was established in Melbourne as a means of sharing equipment for recent jewellery graduates. It quickly became a creative force in its own right and was eventually led by Susan Cohn. Cohn developed a sequence of highly focused projects that used aspects of modern urban life to invent new jewellery forms. This included her stylised Briefcase of 1987 and series of technology-inspired jewellery for the 1989 exhibition And does it work?

But creating precious ornaments from the profane world of the street is just one dimension of Cohn’s practice. Her capacity to transform the world into jewellery operates in the social sphere as well. Through the use of a rigorous modernist aesthetic, intelligent marketing and personal networking, Cohn has been able to use her jewellery to constitute a particular class. Her iconic forms—the mesh ear rings and donut bracelets—have come to serve as markers of identity for the design elite associated with ‘Melbourne black’. The 2003 exhibition Black Intentions used these social circles directly to realise the final work.

But as with all of Cohn’s work, there are hidden complexities in this arrangement. Cohn occupies a unique position as a designer who embraces craft values. Similarly she provides a way for the cosmopolitan elite in Melbourne to identity with their particular place at the bottom of the world. What is the material that she has chosen as currency for this elite group? For many years, Cohn’s ley material has been aluminium—a strangely humble industrial substance for an urban elite.

Does this betray Cohn’s Australian egalitarian sensibility? There is obvious resistance to a nationalist reading of Cohn’s work. In her 1991 keynote lecture for the Jewellers and Metalsmith’s Group of Australia conference at the Sydney Opera House, she criticised attempts to read Australian jewellery as a reflection of national identity.

If you are someone working in New York or Amsterdam you are not trying to incorporate eagles or turkeys or windmills to locate your work authentically in its national context. The matter of national identity doesn’t even come up. You are a designer/craftsperson/artist/goldsmith, full stop.

Certainly, it would be a mistake to reduce jewellery to some crude tourist motifs. Contemporary Australian jewellery resists this strongly. You will be hard-pressed to find any opal in jewellery galleries—that’s just for tourists. It can still be argued that artists like Cohn are inflected by an egalitarian tenor, which has an Australian base. Yet the broader project she chooses to express this is the contemporary jewellery movement.

The work of Roseanne Bartley provides a deft complement to Cohn’s. Whereas Cohn uses design to create new ornaments for the city, Bartley employs the medium of jewellery to elevate what is left behind in the process of urban consumption. The New Zealand-born jeweller established her presence in the Australian scene with a series of works incorporating parts of obsolete typewriters. Keyboard letters were housed in silver as brooches. Strikers were later joined together to form elegant necklaces. She has followed this with a series on surface archaeology, setting the ultimate challenge of transforming worthless materials like discarded ice-cream sticks into necklaces and brooches.

Like Cohn, Bartley’s work has been placed in a relational context. Bartley takes a more conceptual interest in the way jewellery reflects social groupings. The 2007 exhibition Solutions for Better Living curated by Kate Rhodes brought Bartley and Cohn together in the broader context of user-defined jewellery.

The Australian urban jewellers defiantly embraced the immediate world around them. The jeweller Linda Hughes has found ways of more directly incorporating street signage into jewellery. They are not beholden to a traditional notion of jewellery as the medium of rare materials. For them, jewellery is a way of elevating the everyday.

When opportunity arises…

Sally Marsland is one of the Australians who travelled to Munich, where she studied at the Academy of Fine Arts. She is an experimental artist interested in how jewellery can be employed as a language for the poetry of everyday objects. Marsland’s early work for the exhibition Pursued Realities (1994) included vitrines filled with objects found at the back of friends’ cupboards. Her signature series, Almost Black (2000), included a deliberately eclectic assortment of objects that were brought together solely in the process of being dyed black. Marsland’s exhibition Why Are You Like This and Not Like That? (Gallery Funaki, 2004) included objects partly sourced from an opportunity shop that were all altered in some way—painted, dissected, lathed or cast. As Marian Hosking does for nature, Marsland uncovers a phenomenological layer to things that exists independently of their use or history.

Another Australian jeweller to make the journey to Germany, Helen Britton, has also gathered inspiration from the contents of opportunity shops. She has drawn extensively from outmoded jewellery in a process she calls ‘re-manufacture’. Her recently Lauscha project using German glass-blowers finds a way of incorporating otherwise kitsch ornament into contemporary jewellery. These kinds of collaborations challenge the disdain that is normally associated with popularist kitsch.

Anna Davern has established a strong body of work that draws nostalgically from the world of lost objects. In recent years, she has made jewellery from biscuit tins, sourced in opp shops. Davern counters their kitsch quite literally by physically extracting figures from the Australian scenes. In others, she cuts out kangaroo shapes from the generic imagery on the tin. Davern confronts the same demon of graphic literalness as other jewellers; her escape is to recover its materiality through the detritus of consumption.

The low road seems to be spiralling into itself. For some, it returns us to the natural world harboured in suburban backyards. For others, it directs us to the quotidian world of the street at our front door. And there are those who find a way into their basement filled with a hoard of leftover things. But what of that other road, leading somewhere beyond…

The high road

In contrast to the realism that characterises such a strong thread of Australian jewellery, there is a remarkable minority of artists who embrace the speculative. Particularly notable is Robert Baines. As Susan Cohn managed to combine design and craft, so Baines has been able to follow a career as an artist while at the same time adhering closely to the ethic of making. However, in contrast to Cohn, Baines draws inspiration from the past traditions of his craft, goldsmithing.

While other jewellers were seeking to dispel illusions about Australia, Baines was pursuing those very fantasies. His 1982 international show Misteri Antipoidei featured indigenous materials like mulga wood and granite. The continuing antipodean adventure of Adventures of the ARCHEGOS in 1992 most directly referenced the deep traditions of jewellery. As he wrote for the catalogue,

Archaeological investigation allows insights into the visual language of the ancient goldsmith with correlation of material process and expressions of eternality. These precepts are available to the contemporary goldsmith for restatement as a personal affirmation in the present context.

This restatement was conveyed powerfully in the 1997 exhibition, The Intervention of Red. Here Baines reached back into the archive of jewellery form and technique, with reference to the crown jewels. For Baines, the object is to find a way of manifesting this ancient art form in the present. One technique is the use of the colour red, which he introduces through otherwise profane elements such as the Coca Cola can and reflector lights. More recently he has used red as a way of signalling his authorship in works whose virtuosity of historical reconstruction might cause them to be seen as literal historic artefacts from a lost world. In the case of the 2006 series, Java-la-Grande, this is the speculative Portuguese colonisation of Australia. In these ways, Baines comes close to the other baroque mind of the south, Jorge Luis Borges.

Despite the way Baines cleaves to the sumptuous nature of jewellery as a reflection of wealth and prestige, he leavens his work with demotic culture, filled with celebrities and brands. Behind it all is the artificer, concocting forms that can realise the impenetrable mysteries of our world.

There are echoes of Baines’ approach in a number of other Australian jewellers. Stephen Gallagher is drawn to the elaborate style of Elizabethan jewellery, yet uses contemporary materials such as polymers to replicate their effects. Pierre Cavalan engages with classical themes such as the seven deadly sins, though he illustrates these with found elements. Their work strongly contrasts with the realism of most others, yet still in their use of seemingly worthless materials they continue the story of contemporary jewellery as a triumph of imagination over inherited wealth.

The lonely high road leads to mysterious worlds in other times and places. Yet despite this difference, it is hardly a yellow brick road. The ascending macadam is still made of the common materials that have paved the way below.


The pull of the contemporary jewellery scene resists any singular narrative about national style. In many senses, it is a world of its own.

Despite this, we find a story emerging from Australia that seeks to reflect what it is to make jewellery at the bottom of the world. There are two paths. There are those who seek a modernist path to invent a new jewellery that draws from the elements distinctly at hand in Australia, whether from rural or urban or suburban environments. And there are those who seek to recover lost secrets of jewellery tradition in the very artificialities of contemporary life.

These two paths go far beyond Australia. They weave a way across the South. Next door, in New Zealand, there is the attempt to invent a new tradition with local materials and techniques, while a few take the speculative turn. And we are seeing new paths beginning to emerge elsewhere in the antipodes, particularly in South Africa and Chile.

There are some significant Australian jewellers we have not located on these two paths. The much lauded Mari Funaki has developed a distinctive personal aesthetic that resists localisation. Others are at the early stage of their journey, like Christopher Earl Milbourne, whose baroque quotation indicates an upward trajectory. Any narrative contextualisation of jewellery need to be understood as a provisional framing rather than an expression of national essence.

As contemporary jewellery weaves its path around the world, it continues to grow as a project for finding ourselves anew. We can feel part of a conversation that is growing throughout the world. But that doesn’t stop us knowing where we are.

With this ring… in poverty or wealth.

Reference: ‘The low and the high road in Australian jewellery’  ed Robert Baines, The Treasure Room – Australia Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing (2010)

[1] Peter Fuller ‘Modern jewellery’, in Images of God: The Consolations of Lost Illusions London: Chatto & Windus, 1985 (orig. 1983)