Thanks everyone who came, helped and participated in the Craft – The Australian Story symposium at the National Gallery of Victoria. We were deeply moved by the commitment shown to a strong craft voice in Australia. Please join us to help ensure that this voice is heard widely.
Almost one year ago I visited Nepal for the first time. On the advice of a wise friend I took a “Go-Pack” in case there was an earthquake. What’s a Go-Pack, I asked. Well, apparently it’s what all the NGO’s require their employees and volunteers to carry in earthquake zones. It’s basically a survival day-pack with emergency supplies to keep going for a few days: space blanket, first aid kit, muesli bars, water and purifier, solar radio, torch, that sort of thing. Not the usual contents of my travel bag for a holiday! It seemed like overkill – should I really worry so much? I was laughed at by plenty, including my nearest and dearest, for being too paranoid. But I took my Go-Pack, had the most wonderful holiday, begrudgingly shared the museli bars with my sceptical partner on the last day and quietly thanked my unknown angel that luckily we didn’t have cause to unpack the Go-Pack.
On one year, almost to the day, and I have been given cause to wonder if the Go-Pack would have helped us at all if we had been in the tragic earthquake on 25 April. If we had been inside any of the beautiful heritage buildings that we visited – which are now in ruins, crumbled like dry biscuits – a little Go-Pack would probably have been useless. But seeing the survivors struggling in the following days to remain dignified and patient whilst joining queues for food and water, perhaps it would have helped until the Australian Government helicoptered me out of there.
But the local Nepalis can’t fly away. It is their home and damaged as it is, they must stay and rebuild. They are spiritually strong, determined and compassionate people but they have a long journey ahead, probably years, to rebuild not just their physical buildings but their lives. And the government is disorganised and corrupt. This disaster has claimed over 7000 people and countless whole villages and towns in one of the poorest countries in the world. How can we best help? Not just now but ongoing and consistently into the future. Do we send donations to a big aid organisation? Yes, obviously we do. But what if we know people on the ground are not getting aid? What if we have connections to those communities and know individuals?
Let me describe one such connection to one of the communities most damaged, the heritage town of Bhaktapur and it’s neighbouring village Thimi. I was taken there a year ago by World Craft Council vice president, and a local Nepali, Pushar Man Shakya, to meet the local pottery cooperative members and to visit studios. I visited many potters, saw their wonderful crafts, their sublime skills and heard their stories. It was a privilege to have an insight from a local and I have maintained my connections to some of the potters over the past year.
Both Bhaktapur and Thimi are traditional pottery towns and Bhaktapur is listed as a World Heritage Site due to its ancient temples, woodcarvings and ceramic sculptures. Many of the traditional potters live in four story co-joined ‘terrace’ houses surrounding large courtyards. Yes, four story buildings in an earthquake zone built with no steel frames or concrete, just soft hand-made bricks and ancient hand carved wood. This unique architecture has developed around the needs of the potters: the traditional kilns are fired with straw and ash and would simply blow away and be a fire-hazzard if any wind got into those courtyards so the tall brick buildings are actually protecting the kilns whilst also providing a warm and sunny place to dry the pots and work in co-operative ways, sharing the firing and clay-mixing jobs. It is a peculiar architecture and, as far as I know, unique to the potters. It provides a practical and inspiring solution for a cooperative community that has been built naturally over time according to the unique needs of generations of potters.
And the pottery produced is equally inspiring. With no electricity (yes, despite having the best hydropower in the world, we were told that the government rations electricity to their own people due to archaic financial deals that were made with India in the 1970’s!) the potters work completely off-grid, using home-made wheels powered by hand and finished by a highly-skilled hand-paddling method. These sublimely-skilled potters making wheel-thrown and hand-built vessels and sculptures from local earthenware clay, low-fired in the straw and ash kilns, are sold to the locals for curd-setting, water-coolers, alcohol (Rakishi) fermenting vessels, general storage vessels, roof tiles and decorative architectural sculptures. With no chance of tourists supporting the pottery industry (the pots don’t travel well), the potters have a hard enough life without losing their homes and studios.
And that’s where we/you come in. The impressive Australian craft organisation Seven Women has started an Emergency Earthquake Relief Fund. More specifically, the ceramics community has a global reach and there are now many ways that we can assist Nepal in the recovery. Potters helping potters.
Already, there’s the Clay for Nepal on 15-17 May, where ceramicists have generously donated their works for an online auction, the proceeds of which will go to Oxfam Australia Nepal Earthquake Fund. It’s a great opportunity to help Nepal while acquiring a beautiful art work.
Oxfam are a credible organisation that deserves support, but there’s also the potential for donations that go to potters directly.
We have created a safe way to get our donations direct to the traditional potters through the World Craft Council – Australia. If you wish to help with this project directly, please join us. The World Craft Council – Australia will work closely with the Federation of Handicraft Associations Nepal, who will then distribute the money to the potters to help re-build so that they can maintain their strong links to their ceramic history. The vice-president of the World Craft Council, Pushkar Man Shakya, who is on the ground in Nepal will help advise the Federation of Handicraft Associations Nepal and ensure 100% of our funds reach the potters. We are very grateful to Mr Shakya and the Federation.
How much can you give? We realise there is a lot of giving going on but please know in this instance your funds will be given direct to the communities.
Donations can be sent to:
Account title: World Crafts Council Australia IncBank:
Commonwealth Bank Australia
Branch: BSB 063-111
Account number: 1086-1862
Be sure to label your transfer with the word ‘Nepal’.
Email us at email@example.com if you have any questions or if you would like to help out with organising future fund-raising activities. If you want to be updated about the Nepal situation or a future emergency affecting craftspersons, you can also send your details here.
Jane Sawyer (Slow Clay Centre director and a founding member of World Craft Council – Australia)
As a member country of the World Crafts Council Asia Pacific, Australia is involved in the development of the Encyclopedia of Crafts in the Asia Pacific Region. This volume is designed to promote living craft heritage in a rapidly developing part of the world.
This prompts the question – what are Australian crafts? Other countries of the Asia Pacific, such as India and Japan, are blessed by a treasury of unique craft traditions. Australia does not have the same depth of traditions for a complex of historical and cultural reasons.
Yet part of national identity is the understanding of what makes a culture unique in the world. In sport, Australia has a unique code of football, as well as particular prowess in cricket and rugby. Crafts are intrinsic to the idea of a civilisation, which involves the evolution of techniques for manipulating the material world. Different cultures have make distinct contributions to this, such as Japan’s understanding of textile dyeing, or China’s skill in porcelain ceramics.
But as part of our living heritage, crafts are also vulnerable to neglect. We are familiar with this situation in the Australian languages. The loss of Aboriginal languages in Australia is relatively irreversible. When a language is forgotten it diminishes our ways of understanding the world. In the same way, loss of skills in manipulating materials reduces our expressive capacity. If we lose the technique of weaving grass, we no longer have that material in our artistic repertoire.
Australian crafts represent what we make of the material world in which we find ourselves. As a settler colony, there has been pressure to limit our energies to materials used in the ‘home country’, such as fine European timbers, precious metals and gems, willow and porcelain. By contrast, Australian materials can seem crude and unwieldy. Rather than re-create an imitation Europe, the Australian challenge is to accept our environment and learn to appreciate its creative potential.
But to understand our crafts today involves consideration of our settler colonial heritage. Historically, there are three major trajectories for our crafts:
- Pre-contact crafts are tied to traditional Aboriginal practical and ceremonial needs. These involve purely Australian materials and are unique. The fibre fish trap is an example of this.
- Settler/missionary crafts involve the adaptation of indigenous traditions to the materials and techniques introduced by European settlers. These include the adaptation of fibre skills to basketry in central Australia.
- Modern crafts are more internationally engaged as part of the studio movement that began in the 1960s, where craft involved the production of original art works. There are practically no unique forms in Australia, though there are particular strengths and distinct trends, such as Susan Cohn’s aluminium metalware or Klaus Moje’s coldworking glass technique.
So what would Australia’s entry be in the craft encyclopedia?
A working list of crafts currently practised in Australia
- Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander
- Fibre: Bush jewellery
- Fibre: Eel traps
- Fibre: Bi-conal baskets
- Fibre String figures
- Emu shell carving
- Jewellery: Carved shell jewellery
- Wood: Boomerang making
- Wood: Didgeridoo making
- Wood: Poker work
- Leather: plaiting and whip-making
- Leather: saddlery
- Textiles: hats in fur and straw
- Wood turning
- Wood: Furniture
- Both – Studio crafts
- Fibre: Grass sculptures
- Jewellery and Metal
- Textiles and fibre
- Tapestry weaving
- Basket making
Is there anything missing? Comments are most welcome.
Featured image above, ‘Flowering cluster’, a brooch by Vicki Mason