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Articles - 29 April 2006

Cultures meet through craft in Common Goods

Review by Wulan Dirgantoro

A review of the Common Goods: Cultures meet through craft exhibition in the Melbourne Museum as part of Festival Melbourne 2006, the Cultural Festival of the Melbourne 2006 Commonwealth Games. Common Goods: Cultures meet through craft is a Craft Victoria residency program, exhibition and publication. The exhibition, along with other cultural events presented in the Festival Melbourne 2006, aimed at having different cultures to find a way to work together through exchange and dialogue in cultural riches.

Image of installation at the Melbourne MuseumThe works shown in the Common Goods exhibition are an array of traditional skills, contemporary narratives and strong references to history and cultural memories. Under the umbrella of the South Project, ten artists from nine Commonwealth countries were invited as representatives of a craft particular to their culture. In over one month, they created objects which were not only made especially for the Commonwealth Games but also of special relevance to their host residency.

The term 'Common Good', used as a plural in this exhibition, describes a set of specific values or ideals which can be shared to the benefit of most of a given society. Moreover, it is also the thematic driving force of the exhibition: conceptually and visually as works are created from ordinary 'common' materials and transformed them from craft into art.1 The invited artists from South Africa, Samoa, India, Mauritius, New Zealand, Maldives, Norfolk Island, Sri Lanka, and Malta were selected for their unique skills that are rare in Australia but common in their home countries such as wire-weaving, lace-making and darning. Within the premise of dialogue and exchange, the artists worked together with local artists and Victorian communities throughout their residencies and created workshops to present their knowledge and skills.

The exhibition at the Melbourne Museum, from a distance - partially obscured by a flag installation of the Commonwealth countries, viewers will face rows of wooden stands with slanted roofing in red cloth offers an alternative display from the shining cases of the other exhibits in the Melbourne Museum. The distinctive display design could also be seen as a recognition of the utilitarian and market appeal of the objects. Individual or grouped works are presented within the stand and used netting instead of the normal glass covering. The quasi-covering is purposely designed to bring the viewers closer to the works,2 thus offering a more direct engagement between the objects and the viewer.

Inside the exhibition cases, the collaborative works are displayed alongside each artist's individual works which were also produced during the residency. Each stand is marked under a shared idea or value between each artist such as Ubuntu (humanness), Lakorite (agreement), El Mestednin (the guest), Oagartherikan (compassion). The display and the text also invite viewers to reflect the differences and similarities in each individual work and how these ideas are then translated into new collaborative works. The message of dialogue and exchange on many levels in this artistic collaboration is clearly underlined in most of the works, some complement each other in their tacit knowledge of technique and materials, or create a fused collaboration, such as Niki Hastings McFall and Kerri Ann Abbott's Floral Lei (2006, white orchid porcelain, shell lei). Nevertheless some of the works also presented a multilayered narrative both for the artists and the viewers to see.

Image of work by Ahmed Nimad and Lorraine Connelly-NortheyMany works in this exhibition challenge the way contemporary and traditional artists in this exhibition have sourced their material. It is also a chance for the viewers to grasp the breadth of the cultural contexts from each distinct craft skills. The work of South African artist Hlengiwe Dube and Lucy Irvine from Melbourne (Living Ubuntu, 2006, telephone wire, wire, plastic piping, clothes line, dried palm flower, acrylic and cable ties) for example, created an organic shape which takes its reference from the ponytail plant - Beaucarnea recurvata. The collaboration then erased the original function and meaning of the material, thus letting the aesthetic aspect dominate the object. The vivid colours of Dube's twined wire bowl and the organic shape of Irvine's plastic piping and cable ties now serve as the background for a new hybrid object.

Another work by Jennifer Bartholomew and Lewis Dick (Mauritius) also addresses a similar issue in terms of materiality. The glove dolls of Jennifer Bartholomew (Jim and Jav, 2005, mixed media) are extremely appealing in their much-loved, idiosyncratic appearance, yet when joined together with Lewis Dick's wood figures, the result is a strong work (A man that is / A bird that was, 2006, wood, boot polish, leather work gloves, found materials, ostrich feathers) that combines their skills and love of storytelling. Using found materials and second-hand fabrics, this collaboration again emphasised the layers of meaning in raw materials and also a way of looking into shared memories in one's culture.

Image of work by Lewis Dick and Jennifer BartholomewAhmed Nimad and Lorraine Connelly-Northey have collaborated to create a work that evokes shared memories of respect and compassion (One craft merges with the other, 2006, silicon block, found materials). An artist from Maldives, Nimad's practice revolves around visual art based crafts, functional objects and the environment. Lorraine Connelly-Northey is a Waradgerie artist whose installation works from wire mesh and corrugated iron has essentialized the displaced experience of an Indigenous Australian. Both have worked extensively with found materials to create their objects and deliver their message about the influence of non-Indigenous cultures into their own. For this exhibition both artists created a tombstone as a sign of respect for the deceased, decorated with floral design carving inlaid with rusty metal sheets and barbed wire. The result is a poignant work both traditional and contemporary in its execution.

While mutual exchange of values and beliefs is at the heart of this exhibition, it also carries an additional dimension of transformation on the positioning of the objects. Most of the works bear the mark of at least two domains, each with its own materials, meaning, makers and users. While some of these objects are strictly utilitarian in their origin they are transformed to be ornamental in the context of this exhibition. This is where the initial process of exchange was turned into a new positioning that reflects the alternative path of contemporary craft in many developed countries: a transformation of craft into art; from market stands to cultural institutions.

Nonetheless, whatever their ultimate function, each of the objects in this exhibition contains within itself a visual, material and conceptual references to multiple technologies, histories and temporalities. The prevalence of found materials and recycling processes in this exhibition illustrates that shared values on raw materials among craft practitioners are in fact dynamic and constantly changing. As many of these artists are no longer entirely dependent on traditional materials to produce their objects, this exhibition presents a challenge for viewers to see the complexity and breadth of 'world craft' outside the notion of exoticism and 'fourth world' fašade.

Common Goods: Cultures meet through craft exhibition also includes Tribal Expressions: basketry showcase featuring Victorian Indigenous artists - Sandra Aitken, Aunty Zelda Couzens, Treahna Hamm, Aunty Connie Hart, and Aunty Dot (Dorothy) Peters.

Wulan Dirgantoro, May 2006

Wulan Dirgantoro is a graduate of the Faculty of Fine Art and Design, Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB), Indonesia, and the School of Art History, Cinema, Classics and Archaeology in The University of Melbourne, Australia. She's a freelance curator and writer based in Melbourne with a focus on contemporary craft and visual art in South East Asia and Australia.

Footnotes

  1. K.Murray, 'A New Deal?' in Common Goods cultures meet through craft, exhibition catalogue, Craft Victoria, 2006, p.61.
  2. Craft Victoria, Common Goods
    Craft Victoria is a member of the Australian Craft Design Centres (ACDC) network. Craft Australia supports and actively promotes exhibitions, projects and conferences presented by ACDC.