Craft in Australia: let’s not forget the real value of the handmade

Bill Shorten said in his May budget response speech, “coding is literacy for the 21st Century.”

It is important to remember the importance of Australian crafts culture and the beauty of handmade products, especially in light of the potential of technology replacing our jobs.

Melbourne will host its first international jewelry festival, Radiant Pavilion, in September. This event is part of the state’s Craft Cubed as well as the national conference Parallels: Journeys Into Contemporary Making. The National Gallery of Victoria is delivering both events.

This conference is the culmination of the National Craft Initiative, managed by the National Association of the Visual Arts. The NCI’s 2014 report, Mapping the Australian Craft Sector, called for a review of sustainability.

Craft appreciation

In 2009, NAVA Director Tamara Winikoff used the following terms to describe the craft community:

The fact that the Australian community is so engaged in craft and design (over two million participants) speaks volumes about the satisfaction people derive from using their imagination and skills. The NCI’s ambition is to engage the Australian craft-and-design sector by introducing new ideas, methods of working, connections, and opportunities.

The recent publication of Susan Luckman, of the University of South Australia, on Craft and the Creative Economy, reflects the increasing interest in the handcrafted, spurred by the increased awareness of the exploitation of industrial production.

Craft as both an object and a process appeals to this time of increased environmental and labour consciousness as an ethical alternative mass-production. Craft also speaks to the deep human connection to and interest in making and the handcrafted as something that seems authentic in a world that appears to be inauthentic.

Internet businesses, such as (which has over US$2 Billion in transactions), promise to bring the intimacy of local markets to a global market, providing a sense that is missing elsewhere.

How does Australia compare to other countries in the World of crafts? Australia used to be a global leader.

The Birth and Death of Craft in Australia

In 1964, the Crafts Council of Australia was formed in response to an invitation by the World Crafts Council to attend their inaugural event in New York. The Crafts Board, which represents the arts at the Australia Council, was created in 1973. It joined visual arts, literature, and dance.

In 1980, Australian ceramist Marea Gazzard became the first president of the WCC. In the 1970s, political leaders sought to associate themselves with popular crafts. For example, Democrats founder Don Dunstan opened Adelaide’s JamFactory Craft Centre, and Rupert Hamer launched Victoria’s Meat Market Crafts Centre.

Australian craft, however, has virtually disappeared from the stage of national culture. In the 1980s, the Crafts Board merged with the Visual Arts/Crafts Board, and then, in the 1990s, it was incorporated into the Visual Arts Board.

Craft Australia has lost its last link to the national craft industry with the 2011 decision that cut funding.

The recent political leaders failed to use Australian craft to show their pride in Australia, except for John Madigan’s unsuccessful attempt to furnish Parliament House with Australian-made crockery.

In 2014, John Madigan (left) and Nick Xenophon (right) bought a complete set of crockery to replace a group that was made in the United Arab Emirates. Daniel Munoz/AAP

Craft Victoria, for example, and Adelaide’s JamFactory are state-based councils that have been corporatized. They generate a lot of local activity but do not receive any national funding or support.

Australia’s contribution to the global handcrafted footprint

Australian crafts are rarely displayed on the national stage. However, many objects have a lasting value. Craft is a material expression of a tangible appreciation for the land. Australian ceramicists use Japanese techniques to give artistic expression to the rich soils of Australia, which are glazed with ash made from native timbers.

In this year’s Venice Biennale, Aboriginal communities in central Australia used the unique plants from the desert to create fiber sculptures that told sacred stories. Woodworkers are adapting European techniques to our native timbers. Jewelers are learning how to create exquisite pieces using humble materials.

While other countries have tried to focus on manufacturing again, the “lucky nation” is more dependent on what it can extract from the land rather than produce on it. The “clever nation” of Hawke-Keating’s time made a virtue of the loss in manufacturing. It was a knowledge economy based on education and financial services.

The rest of the World is very clever.

Last year, in the US, President Obama personally hosted the annual Maker Faire, which rekindled a national pride for local production and featured neighborhood labs offering services like 3D printing.

Craft in the UK contributes A$6.5billion to the economy. The Crafts Council actively promotes art to the public, including the recent manifesto Our Future is in Making – which was launched at the House of Commons.

The Crafts Council of Ireland, located across the ocean, receives A$5.2 Million in annual government funding for craft initiatives like Future Makers that nurture the next generation.

China, South Korea, and Japan have all contributed funding and international festivals as well as infrastructure and services to help artisans towards the sustainability of locally made goods. This includes Narendra Modi’s commitment to support Khadi cotton production.

We are now examining the impact of this loss in productive capacity on our ability to sustain our future. What will the legacy of our success be, other than large holes in the ground?

The future of craft

Will this year be a turning point, or will we see more of the same in 2019?

The cult for the new has prevented us, over the last two decades, from building upon the traditions that we have made. Today’s art talk is contaminated with corporate terms, such as “disruptive technology,” “breaking barriers,” and “design-thinking.”

The desire to move on from the past undermines values of community and social life that give meaning.

Understanding our past can help us to navigate the future. According to Marian Hosking, President of the newly revived World Crafts Council Australia

Craftsmen today are able to draw on traditional techniques and new technologies while also understanding the historical and social context.

The end of Australia’s mining boom offers an opportunity to reassess the nation’s implicit direction. What will happen when Asian countries raise their wages and develop top-notch universities, as well as create their designs?

Crafts can help us answer this question. Arts show that we are aware of our place in the universe and want to do something with it.

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