The politics of community collaboration through craft

Joan Key questions the apolitical nature of many visual art projects involving community collaboration through craft.

Maria Nepomuceno, 'Tempo para Respirar' (Breathing Time) detail of installation at the Turner Contemporary, Margate, 14th September 2012-17th March 2013

Maria Nepomuceno, 'Tempo para Respirar' (Breathing Time) detail of installation at the Turner Contemporary, Margate, 14th September 2012-17th March 2013

My writing on the subject of craft was really limited to a certain period, around 1994-2000 and reflected particular discourses of that period about craft in the art gallery, which was the subject of the ‘Craft’ exhibition shown at Richard Salmon Gallery and Kettles Yard. In current practice such issues are less contentious because strategies engaging craft are more dispersed into a wide range of cross-generic fine-art practices. Even so, some residual observations may be relevant.

The communal ethos of makers/making craft artefacts can suggest a social context of the works’ production as a subtext to the work of art. At the period in which the Craft essay was written, I was thinking along these lines in an unpublished seminar paper about the Hohenbuchler Sisters’ work, seen in London at the ICA and at Camden Arts Centre around 1996. The communal aspect of the Hohenbuchler’s ‘sisterhood’ and their collaborative work with institutions lent a positive and attractive aspect to their practice, in spite of a darker side to the sisters’ therapeutic narratives. More recent examples could be Anthony Gormley’s clay works, ‘Field’ or Ai Wei Wei’s porcelain Sunflower Seeds, shown to popular acclaim at Tate Modern Turbine Hall and recently the subject of a purchase for the collection. The idea of community draws in viewers of such projects, not only as viewers of the artists’ work but as interpreters of the social construction that produced the work. The imaginative elaboration of this wider nexus of productivity may even be encouraged in documentation within the exhibition, as with this year’s exhibition of Alighiero e Boetti’s embroideries, Mappa Mundi, at Tate Modern.

Such histories of working collaboration may never be perfect. This was clear in the exhibition, also this year, at the Courtauld Institute, of ‘Working Papers’ drawings by Donald Judd which formed part of the history of his interactions with the professional metal workers who fabricated his sculptures. Judd’s historic example demonstrates the importance of understand the specific relation of the individual artist to collective productive practices. Craft’s relation to art-work offers opportunities to consider such issues, including contracts and conditions of employment, as questions to be made transparent within Fine Art. But the more general concern about this strategic and at times didactic approach to presenting craft in the art gallery is that art galleries contain their own historic narratives, and craft’s positive ethos within these contexts may not leave sufficient space for the viewer to consider such issues but supply ideological and methodological suggestions with too immediately positive certainty: the therapeutic relation in the case of the Hohenbuchlers exhibition ‘We Knitted Braids for Her’; creating projects that enhance local communities in Gormley’s widely toured exhibition of clay figurines; or engaging with positive aspects of volunteering in Maria Nepomuceno’s work currently on view at the Turner Contemporary Gallery in Margate,

Nepomuceno’s work is a case in point. Publicity about this exhibition suggests the beauty of the traditional Latin American craft techniques this artist employs: ‘woven forms made of rope and straw, along with beads and other objects, often in fiesta-bright hues, resonate on a fundamental level’. This presents a happy, mythic picture, both inclusive, ‘from the genetic to the cosmological’, and spiritualised, emphasising symbolic interest in spiral systems and natural rhythms. These works tend to support a primitivising Western anthropological account of the communities and work-histories of Latin America. Nepomuceno’s textile structures also resonate with forms and practices developed in historic feminist works relevant to celebration of the generosity of histories of women’s domestic textile labour reminiscent of the quilting groups of North American women in the nineteen-sixties, in the way a collective, the Maria Nepomuceno study group of volunteers and craftspeople, continues to extend textile productivity during the course of the exhibition, out of the museum and into the sea.

The gallery text invites the viewer to relax with Nepomuceno’s work ‘whether spreading across the floor, rising up or suspended like hammocks, the works’ relationship to the body is key’. The cultural relevance of craft and body may be strong but should be treated with caution. An apolitical benevolence in small scale art-world models of production may give permissions in wider but not unrelated contexts. The question ‘who is the artist or the maker’ can imply hierarchies, and opportunities for understanding the internal dynamics of craft and art collaborations be lost.

Joan Key’s article for 5.2 Readymade or Handmade is available for download.

Introduction to Issue 2.2

Editorial Introduction

We have not had themed issues as yet in Journal of Modern Craft, and this latest edition was certainly not planned under the rubric ‘politics’. Serendipitously, however, much of its content addresses craft’s fortunes under various political structures. Under the conditions of industrialism craft finds it hard to make a niche for itself – whether within a command economy in communist China or in the apparently lush pastures of neo-liberal North America. Small wonder that in early twentieth-century Britain, as studio craft was defining itself as something more individualistic and even more ‘handmade’ than the Arts and Crafts Movement, the hunt was on for viable craft politics. By the time of the 1930s, makers were paying close attention to the Soviet model, in which local councils of workers organized their own production. British craftspeople such as T. S. (Sam) Haile and Michael Cardew were inspired by the rhetoric of figures like the poet Stephen Spender who argued in his Forward From Liberalism (1937) that “the aim of communism is, as Lenin wrote, to create multiformity.” Home-grown movements like guild socialism, social credit and, for Roman Catholics, distributism (based upon the neo-Thomist argument for “just price”) all appeared to offer a place for the small-scale production that was studio craft. That was, and is, one problem – how to find a space for craft within overarching political and economic frameworks.

It is of equal interest to reflect on craft’s relationship to differing ideologies. Do craft objects, along with other works of art, offer visual evidence of a specific political moment? Yes and no. While our historical and critical understanding of craft would be greatly diminished if we did not ground it in its ambient ideologies, craft objects (more perhaps than other kinds of art work) can look exactly the same even as they are embraced or co-opted by very different political values. Tradition is the most potent of the political valences of craft, which can embody cultural continuity during times of drastic social transformation. This quality has been exploited by progressive and reactionary regimes alike—a fact often forgotten by advocates who see craft as essentially anti-authoritarian. It is therefore chastening to be reminded, in our review section, of the political history of mingei. This Japanese handcraft revival started as a fringe avant-garde movement, and was subsequently co-opted as a component of Japan’s plans for an imperial ‘Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere,’ only to be reconfigured after the Second World War as part of the visual culture of a peaceful democracy with strong Anglo-American affiliations.

Craft’s chameleon-like properties are also seen in Juliet Kinchin’s article about three potters who were trained in Hungary, more or less simultaneously. From that point their careers diverged. Eva Zeisel, the best known of the three, experienced a disastrous foray into the brave new world of Soviet production, only to become one of the friendly faces of American capitalism promoted in the Museum of Modern Art’s Good Design program. Margit Kovács stayed in Hungary and found success producing work that was ideologically correct within that Socialist context. Lili Márkus, however, slipped quietly into obscurity after she came to Britain—where perhaps the Cold War was not so closely fought as to require potters to be its standard bearers.

Elsewhere in the journal are further examples of craft’s course being set by the waves of politics. The Yixing potters described by anthropologist Geoffrey Gowlland have successfully adapted their working habits, and their understanding of skill, to the successive circumstances of pre-war, Communist, and now market-driven China. Jonathan Clancy gives us the turn-of-the-century example of Elbert Hubbard, who made the Arts and Crafts Movement safe for capitalist enterprise (or is it vice versa?) through an appeal to the individualistic ethos of Transcendentalism. And Jennifer Mikulay analyzes contemporary performance artist Alison Smith (also discussed by Julia Bryan-Wilson in the previous issue of the JMC), who weaves together political strands from the nineteenth century with those of the present day. In Smith’s work The Donkey, The Jackass, and The Mule, disparate ideological material is assembled in a way that would be incomprehensible, Mikulay argues, without the use of craft to make the associations.

Smith’s example suggests that craft’s flexibility as a common political language can be a strength as well as a weakness. This idea finds confirmation in Gabriela Gusmão’s Statement of Practice, a moving account of her investigations into the improvisatory crafts of the Brazilian streetscape. Gusmão’s images and words capture the irrepressible workings of human spirit in a city without an effective social safety net. She reminds us that craft happens not only from the top down at the behest of political powers that be, but from the bottom up as a form of the political vernacular. The inventive but fragile street crafts of Rio may be the most conclusive evidence offered in this issue that politics and experience are impossible to pull apart—a law equally applicable to craftspeople and their products. As Gusmão puts it, “the lifecycle of inanimate things should not be dismissed.”