Thursday 1 November 2007

Good news for craft in South Africa

DSCF2632 The South Project had its fourth gathering recently in Johannesburg. A number of Victorians went over, including local designer makers Emma Davies and Sara Thorn. While there will be more details and images forthcoming on the South Project website, from a craft perspective the event seemed very fruitful.

We were joined by a large number of 'crafters' (as they are called in South Africa) from a range of backgrounds, including township residents, specialist makers, visual artists and arts workers. There were two specialist craft workshops. Fibre artists from our north and west (Thisbe Purich, Ivy Hopkins, Ina Scales, Jo Foster and Nalda Searles) ran a fodder workshop which was very successful. And simultaneously, there was a workshop on sustainability, which focused on strategies for increasing the value of craft by exhibiting it in galleries.

Exhibiting craft is something we take for granted (relatively) in Australia. But in South Africa, the idea of putting crafted works in the gallery is quite radical. This is despite the enormous strength of the craft sector in the country (it is the third largest source of employment). While Apartheid officially ended when Mandela came to power in 1994, the construction of a truly democratic society remains an ongoing challenge. Opening galleries to the work of crafters seems an important new frontier for democracy. But it needs to be done in a way that is not tokenistic. A major theme from the workshop was the need to bring the standards of work up to the level of exhibition -- going for one-off quality rather than mass production. It's a long road ahead, but the interest and willingness seemed there. It was particularly encouraging to have the Craft Council of South Africa as such as willing partner in the process.

So what does a organisation like Craft Victoria have to gain from being part of a project that occurs on the other side of the world? It's a good question that we have to confront honestly. There's a great danger that these kind of events become purely symbolic exercises that create a bubble of good will that subsides once reality reemerges.

It is probably too early to judge the real benefits of this event. There's certainly a strong sense of solidarity that was developed between craft practitioners in both countries. It's not that we in Australia face the same kind of economic challenges that a telephone wire weaver in a South African village confronts in getting food onto her table, but both our societies share a colonial legacy which privileges the individual painterly gaze above objects emerging from local traditions and materials. We can embolden each other.

But at the least, we can say that the 'water is safe'. The Australian visitors were made to feel very welcome in Soweto and none of us had any problems with crime or violence. It seemed in many ways more friendly than most Australian suburbs (I kept a journal on my private blog for more details). And we certainly weren't made to feel like neo-colonists.

So let's hope that this is the beginning. There's certainly willingness from the South African end to engage with Australian craft -- to learn from the way we have developed 'contemporary craft' and to share their own techniques and traditions. And I would certainly recommend the experience for any Australian makers who are interested in learning at first hand from the rich and vibrant craft practices in South Africa.

Members of Craft Victoria can feel proud that their organisation was able to take a risk and forge this new link. Our state has a very proud record of multiculturalism, and craft is a natural language of cultural exchange. And when it comes down to it, organisations like Craft Victoria are largely about creating links between people. We're a space where individual makers can feel part of a greater whole -- part of a scene, part of a culture and part of a humanity.

Kevin Murray

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