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Features/Visual Art

The universal language of craft

18 August 2021

Ahead of the opening of the inaugural Indian Ocean Craft Triennial, Jaimi Wright caught up with craft advocates Paula Hart and Carola Akindele-Obe to talk about why its time for craft to receive the recognition it deserves.

What first comes to mind when you think of the word “craft”? Is it Pre-Primary projects with safety scissors and glitter? Or perhaps it is a weekly knitting circle reserved for old ladies in cardigans?

Despite the fact that every culture on earth has craft embedded in its traditions, the value of craft as an art form has not always been recognised in traditional Western visual arts.

Yet craft has both the capacity to to cross language barriers, serving as a form of communication between cultures, and to create intimacy and comfort, bringing people together in times of uncertainty and rapid change.

With this paradox in mind, two Perth-based craft advocates, artist Paula Hart and curator Carola Akindele-Obe, have each been busy raising the profile of craft makers and their work, Hart through an international award win, and Akindele-Obe in the creation of the first Indian Ocean Craft Triennial.

Paula Hart sits at her dining room table, at home. The room is brightly coloured, with accents of orange and yellow lifted by a vase of orange and yellow flowers in the foreground.
Paula Hart. Photo supplied

Paula Hart is an absolute firecracker of a human being, whose passion for art-making is awe-inspiring. The foundation of her oeuvre began with a textiles degree in the early 1980s, and even then there were tensions between the concepts of craft and art, she says. “I was getting a degree in craft, not a degree in visual arts. And at the time there was a real sense of ‘Oh, is art craft, and craft is it art?’ And we really wanted to get rid of all that,” she says.

Hart’s 2020 win at the prestigious CODAawards – an international competition for public artworks – proves the point that the distinction between craft and art is arbitrary. Her work Jacaranda (2019), a breathtaking façade of industrial scale lace, won the Commercial category in a field of 446 entries from 35 countries, and took fifth place in the People’s Choice Awards. Gracing the front of Woolworths in Mount Pleasant, Jacaranda (pictured top) is made from bobbin lace wire that has been woven into man-made industrial mesh fencing. The work’s lace patterns are sweeping and yet intricate visual studies of the jacaranda blossom.

In Jacaranda Hart has taken a medium that is usually considered small-scale “women’s work” and expanded it to an industrial scale, without losing any of its handmade qualities or accessibility. What has been particularly rewarding about making this work, she says, is that the feedback she has received has been two-fold.

“The recognition came in two ways: one part is ‘oh my god, I’m being recognised on a global scale by the big wigs, the design luminaries, the people who see lace as architecture’,” she elaborates. “And then it was found by the WA lace makers and the knitters and crocheters and the textile makers who recognised the different kinds of stitches and were excited to see textiles on that scale.”

You and I could be from completely different cultures, not speak the same language, but we could sit down and stitch together. 

Hart’s fans hail from further afield too, both geographically and demographically. “A favourite message [from an international fan came] from one young gamer,” she says. “He enjoyed the artwork so much that he had successfully submitted the artwork as a landmark location on Pokemon Go.”

As to why there is such a resurgence in appreciation for craft and handmade items in this day and age, Hart says she suspects that there is an irreplaceable value and connection that the community places on handmade items in a world subject to the rise of commercial technology.

“It’s amazing how much the audience recognised [Jacaranda] as handmade, and therefore how much they valued it in comparison to something that is industrially created. I could see that the soccer mum and the local bus driver had made comments [on social media] like ‘it makes me smile every time I go past it.’; … It’s that understanding of value within it.”

An image of a swimmer doing freestyle through the ocean, made of a collage of different fabrics.
Fremantle based artist Susie Vickery is one of 36 artists whose work will be exhibited in IOTA’s principal exhibitions. Pictured is her work ‘Swimmer’, 2021. Photo supplied

An event which emphasises the cultural value of craft making is the upcoming inaugural Indian Ocean Craft Triennial (IOTA21) to be held in Perth from September through to November. The festival, whose principal exhibitions will be held at Fremantle Arts Centre and John Curtin Gallery, celebrates craft as an art form and features more than 30 artisans from across the Indian Ocean, and includes exhibitions, talks, forums and workshops, and a fashion event.

Co-curator and festival coordinator Carola Akindele-Obe says that IOTA21 fills a void for professional craft-making appreciation and advocation.

A man of colour wears a mask that is made of strands of metal that fan outwards from goggle-like flattened metal that frames his eyes.
Kenyan artist Cyrus Kabiru is one of the 36 artists whose work will be exhibited in IOTA’s principal exhibitions. Photo supplied

“There [is] a lot of interest [in professional craft-making], a lot of burgeoning art markets, but we really don’t have a craft representative agency anymore in WA. There [are] lots of craft specific groups but nothing really holding them together.”

It’s understandable, then, that the response to the creation of this festival has been phenomenal. Akindele-Obe says that in addition to the main exhibitions, so many local galleries have created freshly curated shows responding to the Triennial’s theme: “curiosity and rituals of the everyday”.

“There was a massive surge of interest from the local community as well,” she remarks. “There were only so many local craft artists that we could select for the main exhibition. But this burgeoning festival of other satellite exhibitions emerged.”

The idea of community, not just locally but internationally, is central to the ethos of IOTA21. Akindele-Obe points out that craft as a common language brings us together, and provides us a voice with which to call out with across the ocean, which is especially timely given the current situation with COVID-19 and travel restrictions.

“We have Liz Williamson, one of the best-known weavers in Australia, based in Sydney. She has been working on a eucalyptus-dyeing project, and has been working with weavers and dyers in 10 different countries around the Indian Ocean. We can’t travel, but we are still connecting across the ocean.

“You and I could be from completely different cultures, not speak the same language, but we could sit down and stitch together. Craft exists in every single culture in the world, and bringing it back to the Indian Ocean, although there is a vast ocean, we are connected to all those cultures and communities across those oceans.”

The IOTA21 festival will be running from September – November 2021, with principal exhibitions at Fremantle Arts Centre and John Curtin Gallery running from September to the end of October.

The full IOTA21 schedule, including the opening party, talks, forums and workshops can be found on the IOTA21 website.

All IOTA21 exhibitions are free to the public. The conference, fashion event, the Makers Film Festival, and some workshops and tours are ticketed.

Pictured top is Paula Hart’s award-winning work ‘Jacaranda’, which is located at Mt Pleasant Woolworths, on Canning Highway. Photo supplied

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Author —
Jaimi Wright

Jaimi Wright is your friendly neighbourhood art historian. She has just completed a Bachelor of Arts (Hons) at UWA and dabbles in curating, local arts writing, and 19th century French history. Her favourite piece of play equipment is the roundabout even though her stomach should know better.

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