“Perhaps New Holland be” the ceramics of Stephen Bowers

Elliott, a wire sculptor from Mpumalanga, witnessing the solar eclipse

I was once in a Zulu village on the day of a solar eclipse. Feeling self-conscious of my skin colour, I asked my host what they called a white person. He smiled and pronounced a mysterious word, ‘Umlungu’, explaining that it meant ‘magician’. With something like admiration he then described the fantastic devices Europeans brought when they first came to South Africa. With a few curious contraptions such as gramophones, cameras and books, white people seemed able to capture the entire world. ‘They could persuade a chief to give away a whole valley for a piece of mirror, for in that mirror seemed to be the whole world.’ While those European saw natives as beholden to primitive beliefs, they didn’t realise that they themselves were bearers of their own magic.

Acquisition of land by colonisation is no longer the source of celebration it once was. But there is still fascination in the original scene when two halves of the world met for the first time—not just when first peoples met mysterious white people, but also when Europeans initially encountered those whom they had previously only imagined. Today, to reflect on those original encounters is to renew the sense of possibility that fate has closed off.

Adelaide based ceramicist Stephen Bowers is adept in the sense of conjunction, contact, overlap and possibility. His works – detailed and richly decorated, crowded with familiar images – are also edged round with shadows, overlaps and shards. They at once evoke a whimsical, topsy-turvy sense of wonder, while hinting at the breakage and fracture central to all forms of encounter.

Dreams of a counterbalancing netherworld can be traced back to the origins of philosophical thought itself. The early Greek philosopher Pythagoras posited that if the earth was a sphere, then it needed an antipodes to underpin or support oecumene, the known world. In his complex works, Bowers continues the imaginative preoccupation with the antipodes as a speculative mirror and source of possibility. At a time when Google Earth exposes all corners of the world to instant perusal, it is especially important to retain the space that once was a playground for our collective imagination.

Pythagoras’ notion was given more concrete form by Pliny the Elder in the first century CE. What was for the Greeks a theoretical postulate was, for the Romans, a source of wonder; imagine a world that could never know of the splendours of Rome! Pliny populated the South with imaginary creatures – antichthones that invert biological order, like the Blemmyis who hid their mouths and eyes in their breasts.

Classical authors presumed an antipodes that was radically separated from the known world of the north. A ring of fire was supposed to prevent travellers from venturing below the equator, a belief not dispelled until the age of exploration, when navigators braved the latitudes and discovered the riches that lay below.

Anxious to claim Terra Australis – the South Land – for their empire, the British imbued their own new antipodes with a mellow neo-classical turn in which the decorative arts and pottery in particular played an early role. Wedgewood, using a sample of dark grey clay from Sydney Cove collected by Governor Phillip and given to Sir Joseph Banks, created a medallion to commemorate the 1789 poem by Erasmus Darwin, ‘The Visit of Hope to Sydney Cove’. It was here that Darwin dreamt of that…

‘…some isle

Might rise in green-haired beauty eminent,

And like a goddess, glittering from the deep,

Hereafter sway the sceptre of domain

From pole to pole, and such as now thou art,

Perhaps New Holland be’.

Reflecting similar evoked icons of dignified nature, Bowers draws on the specimens and representations brought back by the navigators and naturalists. He often incorporates into his work the engraved copperplate image of the kangaroo painted by George Stubbs from remains brought back by Captain Cook in 1773, and includes the animated banksia by the Endeavour’s illustrator Sydney Parkinson as well as the technicolour birds by the contemporary artist William T. Cooper.

Stephen Bowers, plate

But it was not until Sydney of the late 1960s and early 1970s that the antipodean adventure seemed to reach its zenith. ‘It was time’ and culture, it seemed, had awakened; Australia was coming of age. Sydney was then a cornucopia of writers, wits, artists and creative eccentrics. On TV, the Mavis Bramston Show, followed by Aunty Jack, celebrated distinctively Australian variations from an increasingly remote English norm in content, accent and attitude. It was within this encouraging scene that we can locate much of Bowers’ formative creative inspiration.

Between 1970 and 1973, and inspired by van Gogh who had sought to escape Paris by starting a community of artists in the south, Martin Sharp developed an artist’s collective, The Yellow House, in Macleay Street, just down from King’s Cross. Sharp, with his incisive illustrative involvement with the satirical and incendiary OZ magazine and recently returned from creative years in London, was ready for a focus for his vision of creative evolution. Membership of the Yellow House was casual and diverse; at any time one might find the likes of Aggy Read, Dick Weight, Brett Whitely, Bruce Gould, Peter Weir and George Gittoes. Thanks to Sharp’s cultured affability it was not an exclusive club; anyone who strayed into the house was invited to work on its walls.

One day, a young Stephen Bowers wandered in and discovered Sharp engrossed in work at a large table. Looking up, Sharp said hello and pointing to some money on the table, asked if Stephen wouldn’t mind going to the hardware shop to buy some black and white paint. On return, Sharp asked Stephen if he knew the work of surrealist painter Rene Magritte. Soon, Stephen was assisting in painting an entire room according to Magritte’s ‘stone room’ painting (ceramicist Joyce Gittoes later produced clay figurines to complement the setting). It became a legendry trompe of a trompe l’oeil.

Stephen Bowers, Surf Board, 2010Vestiges of the Yellow House can be seen throughout Bowers work. We can discern the word ‘Eternity’, which Sharp had discovered chalked through the streets of Sydney in copperplate handwriting by the illiterate soldier, Arthur Stace. Sharp had an eye for locality and identity and championed Luna Park, as a kind of psychic key to Sydney’s identity. In the same vein, Bowers developed his own take on Australian culture, adding to the carnival of images such characters as Boofhead and the Bondi lifesaver.

Bowers however is not limited to the Australian menagerie. He continues the long ceramic traditions of depicting whimsical, imagined and fantastical realities, as can be seen in his interpretations of the idealised harbour, archipelagos and floating islands of the willow pattern. Under Bowers’ exacting brush, this pattern unfolds as a map of imaginary voyage, migrating even onto the iconic forms of Staffordshire dogs.

More than just a conduit for the past, Bowers has inventively developed his own graphic language. His ceramic plates use the eye of the cockatoo as a centrifugal centre which focuses the storm of energy that circulates around it, which can be either integrated and connective or chaotic and fragmented – or both. As a cockatoo can shred human shelter with its beak, so too it seems to unbind decorative art history, leaving shreds of wallpaper and shards of Chinoiserie. The bird’s eye provides a powerful fulcrum for this energy.

Among the many techniques in Bowers’ work are layers of marbleised background and other faux surfaces, fine brushwork detail, on-glaze enamels and gold lustre, stencilled reserves, air brush and drop shadow. Thanks to Photoshop, this last feature has been a ubiquitous effect in digital graphics. In his ceramics however, Bowers uses it to enhance the sense of floating fragmentation and the drift and vertiginous flow of elements in his compositions.

These and many other pictorial devices contribute to a visual feast, to which he continually adds new ingredients. But Bowers is not only a skilled graphic artist; he also knows how to bring out the best in those around him. Concentrating on glazed decoration, he has long collaborated with the highly skilled Adelaide potter Mark Heidenreich, who throws all his large blanks for decoration.

It is hard to find peers for Bowers. To my mind, his closest comparison comes perhaps not from ceramics, but from gold and silversmithing. Like Bowers, the Melbourne artist Robert Baines has persisted with a strong interest in the antipodes. Baines has enjoyed a similar mix of sacred and profane in his ornate metal sculptures, and is certainly not shy to exhibit his prodigious craft skills. Both Bowers and Baines offer a rare classical aesthetic in Australian craft culture. They are drawn to the wisdom of the archive while remaining true to their place in a contemporary Australia.

Today, the Yellow House is as unreal to us as the yellow brick road in the Wizard of Oz, and as distant as the legendary antipodes once was to the ancient Pythagoras. It is thus even more important to retain the horizon of wonder and play on which imaginations flourish. We are fortunate to have such a dexterous hand as Bowers’ to guide us back to the lost world where we live today.

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

From Gold to Grey: Flora for the 21st century–exhibition by Marian Hosking

By the stream the mimosa was all gold, great gold bushes full of spring fire rising over your head, and the scent of the Australian spring, and the most ethereal of all golden bloom, the plumy, many-balled wattle, and the utter loneliness, the manlessness, the untouched blue sky overhead, the gaunt, lightless gum-trees rearing a little way off…

D. H. Lawrence, Kangaroo.

Installation from Marian Hosking Beyond Flora

Over more than forty years of practice, Marian Hosking has continually found new ways to distil into ornament the ‘wide brown land’ on which she lives. As a contemporary Australian jeweller, she inherited a decorative arts tradition that celebrated the graphic images of local flora, particularly in textiles and ceramics. The particular challenge of jewellery is to give this seasonal organic life a timeless sense of preciousness when cast in metal. One of Hosking’s significant achievements is to forge a link between the showy nationalism at the birth of Australian federation and the fractured connection to the land sustained into the 21st century. At a time of heightened urbanisation and increasing remoteness from nature, Hosking helps us re-connect where we are with where we have come from.

Early in the 20th century, Australian jewellers such as Rhoda Wager borrowed the English style of foliation to celebrate verdancy in nature. This lens identified aspects of Australian nature that were familiar to the English eye, particularly green ivy-like forms. Rather than reproducing traditional styles, Hosking has been able to create her own language of place through individualised techniques of drilling, sawing and casting silver. She has forged a style appropriate to the dry southern continent.

In her career, Hosking has been able to apply this technique to extreme ends of the scale of representation. With the Tall Tree Project, she celebrated the epic scale of Australian bush. The monumental silver ring for the Errinunga Shining Gum travelled Australia with her Living Treasure touring exhibition. With the works in Beyond Flora, Hosking zooms in to the opposite limit of representation in the fine detail of our world.

For this exhibition, Hosking draws on her recent expeditions, ranging from the far horizons of Ormiston Gorge in Alice Springs to the world at hand in generic suburban scrub. Despite these wide distances, Hosking settles on a humble ecology that is common to both coast and desert—heath. While characterised by poor soil and stunted growth, the variety of plants in heathland often lend a distinctive identity to their nation. We think of the moors in northern England, or the delicate fynbos of the Western Cape in South Africa. Not suitable for agriculture, these spaces are often preserved from development.

The dominant material, as always, is silver. Silver seems a particularly appropriate material for heath. Not only does it reflect the grey colour of its vegetation, it also occupies a secondary status to the more mercantile gold in the hierarchy of metals. Hosking’s silver works for Beyond Flora include a cast brooch, embossed rings, and her signature kinetic brooches. But this time she has also included stones in her work. She has combined cast silver with complementary stones in necklaces—ruby with boronia, black cubic zirconia with wattle, and carnelian with gum nuts and leaves.

Beyond Flora does something quite particular to our understanding of wattle as the national emblem. In Australian decorative arts, particularly the period inspired by Art Nouveau, the dominant feature of wattle has been its bright yellow blossom. This is particularly the case in the graphic designs on ceramics and textiles. Jewellery also attempted to capture the brilliant colour of wattle, such as the enamelled works of Deakin and Francis, Birmingham, produced for the Australian market in 1910.

Hosking takes a contrary approach to illustrative history of wattle decoration. Rather than reflect its distinct golden blossom, she renders the flower into grey metal. Avoidance of colour releases other dimensions of the blossom, particularly its delicate outline. To achieve this, Hosking has developed a method almost photographic in its capture of form. She impresses the specimen in silicon from which a wax form is cast. The wax impression is then sent to the casting foundry, Len Rose, in order to produce the silver form. By this means, Hosking has been able to produce an exceptionally precise silver version of the wattle flower.

This casting process has opened up a new dimension in Hosking’s work. The flower provides a motif that can be repeated, like the cotton baubles sometimes found on the base of curtains. Previously, Hosking has worked mostly with unique forms. By turning the blossom into a motif that can be reproduced, Hosking connects her work to the decorative art tradition, transforming nature into ornament.

The wattle was originally taken up in the late nineteenth century as a symbol of the native-born Australian. Previously, the bush had been a source of dismay, reflecting Adam Lindsay Gordon’s view of Australia as a land of ‘scentless blossoms’ and ‘songless birds’. Wattle became the focus for a new pride in the young nation. The value of the wattle as a national flora was buoyed by the dramatic events at the start of the twentieth century – Federation, the granting of Dominion Status and the First and Second World War. Wattle as a national emblem provided Australia with a proud motif in its coat of arms, and a symbol of its distinct identity alongside its commonwealth cousins, including the South African protea, the Canadian maple and the New Zealand silver fern.

But it was more than just an official emblem. At the beginning of the twentieth-century, wattle clubs were formed in all the state capitals. Since 1908, the first day of spring has been celebrated as national wattle day, as city folk venture forth into the countryside to enjoy the ‘golden-haired September.’ In 1912, the first ‘wattle train’ took 980 passengers from Melbourne to Hurstbridge to admire and often souvenir the bloom, sometimes to the chagrin of farmers.

Though the wattle lost popularity after the Second World War, there have been recent attempts to use it at times of national importance. In 1999, the Governor General Sir William Deane cast sprigs of wattle into the waters of the Swiss river gorge in memory of Australians who had lost their lives there in a recent accident.

The wattle has shown resilience in the face of globalisation. But in the turbulent waters of rapidly changing culture, it is critical that we find fresh ways of honouring the wattle. This is one of Hosking’s great achievements in Beyond Flora. Previous incarnations of wattle seem locked in nostalgia for naïve nationalism. Hosking’s more scientific method connects wattle to our time. In honouring our flora, we create a language to respect the lives that are spent here.

This is a catalogue essay for the exhibition by Marian Hosking Beyond Flora at Workshop Bilk, 2010