Editorial Introduction to 3.1

The replica is, in a way, the realm of pure craft … Its objectness, its materiality, its form absorb the force that would otherwise arise from its “content.”

So wrote Rachel Weiss in the second issue of this journal, in an article on the Cuban contemporary art group Los Carpinteros.[1]

It is a fascinating but contentious idea: What if creativity as such lies outside of the realm of craft? What if the act of copying, which requires skill in an unadulterated state in order to achieve success, is the truest version of this journal’s core subject? What if the notion of a successful copy varies according to culture or context? What are the differences between content and intent?[2]

This issue provides ample opportunity to test this idea, in two very different cultural contexts. First up is a pair of complementary articles about Japan, by Christine Guth and Kida Takuya. The articles bring us from the long-established customs of the tea ceremony (chanoyu) to the delicate politics of the nation’s craft world during the reconstruction period immediately following the Second World War. Together, the two authors show that Japan’s tradition of copying, while very different from the emphasis on individuality in Europe and America, is no less likely to produce confusion and conflict.

Later in the issue, we are off to South Africa where, as Anitra Nettleton shows, there is a more informal but equally widespread practice of imitation and emulation. This is an unsettled (and perhaps unsettling) craft landscape, in which authorship and creativity are difficult to fix with certainty. In the entrepreneurial stalls of Johannesburg’s fleamarkets, tourists are faced with a dizzying array of wares, and geographically rooted traditions are lost in a shuffle of stereotype and repetition. This process of market homogenization is itself of great interest, and Nettleton details its mechanisms at length. As she demonstrates through an ensuing analysis of South African basketry, the only way to combat such erasure is through the specifics of production. In this same spirit, we have commissioned a Statement of Practice in which the potters at Ardmore Ceramic Art (also in South Africa) speak of their experiences at a socially progressive craft enterprise. Here we encounter another form of repetition, as many of the makers voice similar attitudes (gratitude, pride, ambition). How close do we get to these men and women? As the proprietors of Ardmore note in their introduction, it is difficult to capture the “true” voice of a craftsperson who makes within a highly structured entrepreneurial context, even when he or she is sitting directly in front of you. (The statements were originally delivered as oral testimonies in Zulu; Ardmore’s shop manager, Happiness Sibisi, translated them for us. While there are grammatical inaccuracies in these translations, the Ardmore proprietors decided not to make corrections. This appeared controversial to us but we let their decision stand.)

Elsewhere in the issue we explore the linked histories of queer identity and craft-based art practice—a subject first discussed in our pages a year ago by Julia Bryan-Wilson, in her brilliant reading of the rug works of lesbian sculptor Harmony Hammond. Now Australian scholar Sally Gray gives us a glimpse of the elusive aesthetic rites of underground gay New York in the 1980s. Artist David McDiarmid’s leather garments evoke a time and place in which self-fashioning was so important that it became an all-consuming craft in its own right.

Finally, we are pleased to offer our most extensive and important Primary Text to date. Taken from the pages of Overseas Education magazine (an organ of the British colonial administrative establishment) and Arts of West Africa, this set of texts offers a window into interwar modernist attitudes to African craft. The authors were themselves educators, and it is disturbing to imagine them inflicting their combination of paternalism and enthusiasm on young African woodcarvers. Yet these previously unexamined texts have tremendous historical value. As Tanya Harrod notes in her Commentary, “Only in the field of colonial art education was the relationship between modernism and primitivism examined systematically and a dialogue set up between the West and its ‘others.’ It may have been an imperfect, impoverished dialogue, but it did at least take place.” The contents of Overseas Education also resonate uncomfortably with the present day. Imperial rule in Africa may be history, but the tensions between progressivism and tradition (even if we no longer think of it as “primitive”) have certainly not been resolved.

[1] Rachel Weiss, “Between the Material World and the Ghosts of Dreams: An Argument about Craft in Los Carpinteros,” The Journal of Modern Craft 1(2) (2008): 258.

[2] For further consideration of this idea in the context of contemporary art, see Glenn Adamson, “Analogue Practice,” in Mary Jane Jacob and Michelle Grabner, The Studio Reader (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2010 [forthcoming]).

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