In many respects Chennai was an apposite spot to hold the World Crafts Council's International Summit. A city historically rich in making, it's also at the heart of India's burgeoning new economy, being the nation's second largest exporter of software, information technology and information-technology-enabled services. In other words it's a place where the new butts directly up against the old - a perfect environment for representatives from 39 different nations to meet and discuss the future of craft.
Entitled Kaivalam - literally translated 'hand/prosper' - the conference featured talks from a range of speakers, including South Korean curator Byung Soo Eun, French embroiderer Jean-François Lesage and Brazilian design writer Dr Adélia Borges. In many respects it also reflected the globe's economic tide. The reason we were all in Chennai is because India has held the World Crafts Council presidency for the past four years, but was to hand it over to China at the Assembly.
This rise of new powers was stressed in a talk given by Frances Potter of the New Basket Workshop, and Shimul Vyas, head of the lifestyle accessories department at Ahmedabad's National Institute of Design (NID), about a fascinating India-Africa partnership that saw students, professors and volunteers from NID go out to Zimbabwe to teach Indian basket-making techniques. Potter explained how she'd assumed she'd need help from a Western nation, before she realised the benefits of forging a relationship with India.
While there were striking differences between many of the countries in their perception of craft, in several ways the issues we are all confronting are very similar. As Kevin Murray, Australian academic, writer and editor, pointed out in his perceptive summation, the crafts world needs to know itself better. We can't just rely on good intentions to put forward our case to government and business. We need a statistical bedrock to prove the importance and popularity of craft.
It was also fascinating to note how the discussion I touched on in my last column - relating to craft, luxury and community - has resonance elsewhere. There seems little doubt that the sector must seek out new opportunities: the Rwandan basket-makers securing a deal to supply Walmart, for example. On the other hand, it should never forget its ability to bring people together - as demonstrated by the Self-employed Women's Association, which empowers women refugees through embroidery.
While there was undoubted solidarity between many of the attending nations, some of the most intriguing moments could be found in the conference's sheer diversity. Muji's art director Kenya Hara, for instance, spoke eloquently about the importance of 'emptiness' in Japanese culture, describing it as an invitation to the Gods. However, Kuwaiti scholar Dr Ghada illustrated how in Islamic culture the purpose of decoration is to keep the devil away. To those of us used to European arguments on ornamentation, as put forward by the likes of William Morris and Adolf Loos, this was eye-opening stuff.
Interestingly too, while there were a few quibbles about the use of technology and tools, that old chestnut What is craft? failed to raise its head. It seems that the argument might have finally had its day, amid the common acceptance that the word can encompass a spectrum of work and activity. What Kaivalam really proved, however, is that craft is re-energising and reinventing itself worldwide. Yes, there are issues we all still need to resolve, but there is always strength in numbers.
And bearing in mind where the presidency of the WCC will reside in the near future, it was fascinating to visit Hong Kong during the GREAT Week of Creativity, organised by UKTI at the start of November. While there were conferences, exhibitions, awards and installations, from the likes of the London Design Festival, Mulberry and the Walpole Group, what struck me is how this is a market on the cusp of change.
There was a very real sense that while China's high-end consumers remain obsessed with luxury brands, some are beginning to search out objects that express a sense of individuality. What is clear is that Hong Kong wants to learn from the UK's creative sector, and it remains a gateway to China. It may take years to mature but a market for British craft may well develop in time.
This blog post also appears in the January/February 2013 issue of Crafts Magazine
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