It's hard not to be envious of craft in South Africa. Craft is everywhere. It's on the side of the road and in the foyers of trendy restaurants. It's the principle language of cultural identity, is a key platform of national arts policy and has the passionate advocacy of the President's wife, Zanele Mbeki.
Craft embodies the values of the new South Africa: enterprising, creative and proud. Yet despite this profile, there is a 'thin black line' that remains to exclude craft from the official realm of art. Walk into any of the major public galleries and you will see near the entrance an enclosed area, normally closed to the public, which contains works of craft for sale. Beyond that line, though, in the gallery spaces, there will only be art, mostly two-dimensional paintings or recently videos. Such a division seems timeless and is little questioned, however, it harbours divisions within society. For craft/art division entails other divisions -- rural/urban, female/male, and black/white. Why should one section of society be still deprived of the high prices and prestige that comes with the art gallery?
Of course, this predicament is not foreign to us here in Australia. The line may not be as clearly defined, but it does still exist. Dialogue with South Africa offers us the opportunity to shed light on our own cultural divisions.
Craft Victoria has developed a partnership with three levels of South African government: national department of arts, provincial government of Gauteng, and the city of Johannesburg. We will work towards a gathering as part of the journey of the South Project in Soweto, October 2007. Over three days, artists and writers from across the south, including southern Africa and Latin America, will meet to discuss their shared struggles, share information about modes of cultural sustainability, exchange skills and consider what models of art might be appropriate to our social contexts. This gathering will hopefully inspire new energies in craft and lay the foundation for ongoing exchange. Expect notice of dates very soon.
Australian craft has shown a capacity to grow with influence of other traditions such as the Japanese and Indian. Here is an opportunity to adds to these influences with the traditions and energies of Africa.
The image above is from a spoken word event outside a trendy bookshop in Newtown, which included an open-air exhibition. It's an interesting example of how genres of visual and music art are beginning to blend in South Africa.