By Jasleen Dhamija
'The Object of Labor: Art, Cloth, and Cultural Production' ed Joan Livingstone and John Ploof, School of Art Institute, Chicago Press 2007
The Object of Labor is a publication, which brings out the very quintessential elements of creativity in a very wide sense, not only for those who create, but also those who use it creatively. My initial response to the publication was of dismay at the rather over-crowded cover, with a collage of unattractive images. The main title also struck me also as incongruous. In fact, neither the cover design nor the title does justice to the wide and excellent coverage offered by this publication.
The Indian theory of aesthetics is based on the rasas, the very essence of emotions and of creativity. The Rasik or Rasika, the one who derives the very essence of pleasure, is an essential part of the process of the act of creation. Thus art is expressive of the holistic view of life and the editors say so correctly. “Originating with the history of survival, cloth manufacture and its accompanying division of labor, expands to impact all spheres of culture and power” and go on to say “crossing between arenas of function, craft, art, and ritual, the meaning of cloth from its most banal to its most splendid form affects our daily lives and welfare in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, class, invention and technology, commerce and work”.
The book comprises of a range of articles written by people with varied backgrounds from folklorists, interdisciplinary artists, writers and curators, cultural activists, anthropologists, designers, media specialists, educationalists and community workers. In addition there are practicing artists, whose sensitive creative expressions are excellently reproduced. The most evocative is the work of Anne Wilson, entitled “Damask”. This is a sensitively created embroidery on the textured damask fabric with the use of hair. Darrel Morris “I mean this” is an extraordinary expression of contemporary art forms using embroidered forms and textures to make powerful statements. The two expressions are so distinct and yet each appeals to our sensibility.
The other interesting contribution is by practicing artists and researchers, who combine the knowledge of the practice and the years of research on the subject as in the case of Janis Jefferies and her article “Laboured Cloth: Translation of Hybridity in Contemporary Art”
The contributors span many cultures as does the location of the study. The article on Sujani of Bihar is written by a team of writers, including Viji Srinivasan, an Indian socio-economist and activist, Laila Tyabji, a designer and organisor of the crafts sector, who heads one of the most important NGOs of crafts in India, Skye Morrison, a Canadian folklorist, designer, educator and curator and Dorothy Caldwell, a texture artist, teacher and curator, whose work incorporates North American Stitching. It is an interesting study of the work of women who were initiated in this work by Viji, as a means of income generation. Viji used the Sujani tradition, which belonged to Dharbhanga, a culturally rich area of Bihar, which has very strong Maithali cultural traditions. They took inspiration from the Maithali tradition, but the women carried this tradition into the contemporary world interpreting their lives creatively.
Amazwi Albesifazane echoes the voices of women gathered together in an embroidery project. Peer groupings of women work together and speak of the hidden and repressed aspects of personal, cultural, and political history. This difficult process is facilitated by trained coordinators drawn from the geographic area of operation for whom the conditions and the culture is familiar. This historical information is written in the original indigenous language, then translated into creative work and is presented by Andries Botha, a sculptor and cultural activist.
Sadie Plant’s “Ada Lovelace and the Loom of Life” is a superb piece of research and writing, which looks at the origin of weaving and brings us to an appreciation of jacquard loom weaving being the origins of the computer, which has revolutionised the world today. It comes as a surprise that in the mid nineteenth century it was a woman Lady Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron, who was a mathematician and who made an extraordinary contribution along with Charles Babbage, who created the first fully automatic calculating machine. The publication is full of such gems of information.
The consistent theme of this books is the quest to retain identity following major upheaval. This preoccupation is not limited to those disposed and driven away from their original habitat, but also those whose land is always changing. Immigrants are very distinct from nomads. The immigrants initially negate their traditions, while nomads surround themselves with expressions of their cultural traditions, so as to demarcate their own space. The very fact that amongst the nomads of Iran the mobile tent has the same name as the women’s outer cover, the chador, indicates the importance of defining their own space with the use of a fabric.
This publication touches upon a number of subjects and is a pleasure to own. Every time one opens its pages some new insights enliven the mind.
Jasleen Dhamija is an Indian craft writer and author of Living Tradition of Iran’s Crafts, Handwoven Fabrics of India, The Woven Silks of India and Indian Folk Arts and Crafts