What are Australian crafts?

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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
  • Non-indigenous
    • Leather: plaiting and whip-making
    • Leather: saddlery
    • Textiles: hats in fur and straw
    • Wood turning
    • Wood: Furniture
  • Both – Studio crafts
    • Ceramics
    • Fibre: Grass sculptures
    • Jewellery and Metal
    • Textiles and fibre
      • Tapestry weaving
      • Basket making
    • Glass

Is there anything missing? Comments are most welcome.

Featured image above, ‘Flowering cluster’, a brooch by Vicki Mason