Making things–beyond the art/craft wedge

Reading Glenn Adamson’s and Tanya Harrod’s joint interview with novelist A.S. Byatt (or Dame Antonia Byatt, as she is known in her home context—to my American tastebuds, Dame, I must confess, feels funny on the tongue), I was struck by the nationalism of her project, and the utter Englishness with which she is grappling: the difficulties and aftereffects of modernization, and the audiences, personalities, and social roles made manifest in the material culture in fin de siècle British culture. Put another way, Byatt’s book magnifies the twin ideologies of modernism and capitalism. The myriad descriptions of paintings, pots, glazes, wrought iron, skirted sewing tables, and whale-bone corseted women offer a stupefying collection of stuff: the Edwardian domestic possessions that have now become coveted antiques and collectibles, their well-conceived forms, colors and intensities spawning an assortment of Victoriana kitsch that continues to proliferate well into the present day—just attend any Victorian Studies Association conference, or save yourself the trouble and invest in a pair of patent leather granny boots, dye your hair black (with a center part), and knit yourself a tea cozy (or cell phone cozy).

Nationalism seems to be a consistent issue in craft practices, one we can’t really easily get away from. Why is this? Because craft processes are not only linked with “tradition,” but also, intertwined with production: labor practice, economic recovery, and collective pride. No matter that craft is still, more often than not, inefficient and expensive, and a touch utopian. Hand-dyed, hand-spun cotton and wool from a knitting store—you know, those lovely ones, independently owned and run—often go for $9 or $11 a skein, versus the yucky acrylic stuff sold at chain craft stores that sell for $3 or so. Much like farmer’s market produce versus the conventional supermarket, there is no comparison, of course, in terms of quality, but the small, independent stores more often than not end up belly-up. The intent is there: to ignite a revival, a community of like-minded souls who turn up for knit class, or collective quilting sessions altogether, but such publics are usually made, and not found.

Adamson asks pointed questions about whether or not there is a utopian imperative inherent in craft. Byatt redirects her answer, positing that utopianism is “…actually dangerous. Certainly in the 1960s it was. I decided that a kind of rather flat skepticism, and making things, making things well, is better than a utopian attempt to reform society.” I found Byatt’s statement a very useful correlative in re-thinking the de-skilled artistic practice that exists broadly throughout visual art training—the idea that one acquires skill based upon the sorts of projects one decides to execute. This is an anathema to traditional craft practice, of course, but now that the two are mostly merged—I don’t really make a distinction between contemporary art, per say, and contemporary craft, they are one and the same—that is, both camps are working conceptually. Furthermore, craft-based processes have been co-opted by visual artists of all stripes invested in issues of design, labor, and community. Yet, when Byatt says, “I believe in making things,” she hits on a tender nerve in our community, the seeming wedge between conceptual art and craft practices, which no longer exists. All artists believe in making things, it is just that the definition of “thing” is imprecise, and always in flux. That is also the beauty of artistic practice, in that there are so many kinds of “things” to make, be it a book, a tea cozy, an installation, or a You Tube video.

African Craft: the Ghetto of the Village, the Penthouse of the Studio by Pamela Allara

Lestina Malatjie and Calvin Machlawaule, (Kaross Collective), Community, 1999. Embroidery on black cloth, 60 x 115 cm. Collection: Johannesburg Art Gallery

Lestina Malatjie and Calvin Machlawaule, (Kaross Collective), Community, 1999. Embroidery on black cloth, 60 x 115 cm. Collection: Johannesburg Art Gallery

Lestina Malatjie and Calvin Machlawaule, (Kaross Collective), Community, 1999. Embroidery on black cloth, 60 x 115 cm. Collection: Johannesburg Art Gallery

Shortly after the newly democratic ANC-led government of South Africa was installed in 1994, it issued a White Paper that announced a policy of using the arts for the purpose of social transformation and reconciliation. The paper asserted that “experiencing the creative expression of different communities of South Africa provides insights into the aspirations and values of our nation. This experience develops tolerance and provides a foundation for national reconciliation.” One outcome of this policy should have been to bridge the gap between art and craft in South African cultural property. Unfortunately, because government support for ‘craft’ was predicated on its ability to alleviate poverty– “to contribute significantly to the economy of the country by…creating employment,” its effect has been to maintain the hierarchical distinction between art and craft by reinforcing the divide between the aesthetic and the practical and between the rural and urban. The Department of Arts and Culture’s motto: “Design Feeds the Poor,” could hardly be expected to resonate with an international art market now free, after the lifting of sanctions, to scour the county for the next hot art star. Both the government and the museum/gallery system are driven by monetary concerns, but with radically different goals. In the end, one could argue that the gap between art and craft in the new South Africa is a reflection of the bottomless chasm between rich and poor.

When I first went to South Africa in 2000, I was exhilarated by the art world’s rethinking of the traditional categories of what constituted art. Universities were hurriedly revamping art history courses to include ‘traditional’ arts, and museums were not only purchasing the work of black painters, sculptors and printmakers, they were displaying both traditional and contemporary crafts along with the ‘high’ arts of painting and sculpture. The legacy of 19th century concepts of what constituted art and art history was quietly being buried, or so it seemed. For over a century, the avant-garde had advocated the destruction of the very idea of ‘high’ art, whereas the history of art was narrowly confined to the study of traditional media. In South Africa in 2000, it appeared as if the internal contradiction within modernism was going to be resolved in favor of the avant-garde. From the perspective of this newcomer, the history of art was being reconceived as the history of cultural production, and the former hierarchies among media were being leveled.

In 2003, in the exhibition, “Coexistence: Contemporary Cultural Production in South Africa,” that I co-curated with the former Director of the South African National Gallery, Marilyn Martin, we included the work of rural needlework collectives along with that of university-trained artists working in cities in South Africa or abroad. Our aim was to bridge not only the rural/urban//craft/art divide but also the gender divide. The needlework collectives had been established for the most part by white women artists who had identified traditional craft skills as a means of income generation. Among the most successful was and remains the Kaross collective in Limpopo Province. Founded by Irma van Rooyen in 1988, it employs over 600 people today, the vast majority of whom are women. (B. Schmahmann in the exhibition catalog). Even if the role of these white founders might be considered a form of colonialism, it anticipated government policy and moreover has given disadvantaged women new status in their communities, answering the call of the ANC Women’s League “for the right to fashion feminism to suit their own worlds.” I will use the example of a stunning embroidered cloth to illustrate the complexities of the art/craft divide in the South African context post-1994.

Community (1999) is a subtle interweaving of voices—a textile in the truest sense of the word. The cloth was commissioned by the National Paper Prayers Campaign for AIDS Awareness (1998-2000), initiated by artist Kim Berman and administered through Artist Proof Studio. In collaboration with AIDS educators, the Studio members went to community centers in all of South Africa’s nine provinces to help address trauma and loss through the process of making a print as a prayer for healing. During its second year, the program expanded to three needlework collectives, each of which produced large-scale hangings—a sort of surrogate painting– that could serve either to inform the local populace if hung in a community center or as a collectible art work to raise funds for treatment programs. Like a storybook, Community visually narrates the story of the impact of AIDS on a rural village. As drawn by Calvin Machlawaule, who is HIV positive, and then embroidered by Lestina Malatjie, it emphasizes the tragic consequences of denial and stigma in the era of AIDS.

Clearly the cloth is a hybrid in more ways than one. At the Kaross collective, the women’s needlework skills had been transferred from creating clothing for personal use to making place mats and tablecloths for the tourist trade. Once the government-funded Paper Prayers program provided a tool for AIDS awareness, the resulting narrative cloths had a powerful content that transcended both its educational purpose and its ‘craft’ designation. Signed by the embroiderer, Malatjie, in order to satisfy the predominantly white collectors’ expectations of authorship, it was exhibited at the Vita Craft Awards, where it won a top prize and was purchased by the Johannesburg Art Gallery. Neither the format of the wall hanging nor its content was the result of Malatjie’s individual inspiration, however. The work, as its title indicates, was the collaborative effort of several of the participants in the training, as overseen by the artists and educators. And despite the exceptional quality of the work, Malatjie has not emerged as a recognized craft-artist. As for Community itself, it remains in storage at JAG, its status as ‘art’ in limbo.

Of course, ‘community’ is the problem. In South Africa, ‘high’ art is still thought of as the product of an individual sensibility, despite every effort to rethink categories to be more reflective of the values of a democratic nation. The fact that the needlework collectives consist predominantly of women has only contributed further to locking the art/craft hierarchy more firmly into place. Until very recently, ‘high’ art, as defined in western terms, was considered a male-only realm within the majority black culture. Although this is rapidly changing, the continuing rural/urban divide—men in the city, women in the countryside– also contributes to maintaining the status quo.

The situation results in an impoverished picture of South African art, as exemplified by the recent publication, South African Art Now, authored by artist Sue Williamson and produced by HarperCollins in the U.S. In this broad survey, the craft traditions are acknowledged only in terms of individual practitioners employing handwork skills to make ‘art.’ The important work of the embroidery or pottery collectives receives no mention at all. Of course, in the United States, one rarely finds publications on community-based art or artists’ collectives; monographic studies of individual artists still predominate. Although it is hardly surprising that HarperCollins, owned by the conservative propagandist Rupert Murdoch, followed this established hierarchy, the book does distort the South African picture, in my opinion.

The arts will never be able to adequately contribute to social transformation and reconciliation in South Africa until the art/craft divide is finally and firmly bridged. The country has faced and surmounted far greater challenges, so the cause is far from lost.

Pamela Allara is Associate Professor emerita, Contemporary Art and Visual Culture, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA, USA