If the notion of “diversity” suggests the fostering of a variety of expressions on an equal footing, then in the visual arts our scrutiny would have to be directed toward the situation of craft. Despite a more pervasive adoption of craft techniques and materials into the so-called fine arts in contemporary practice, there is a divide between craft/art that is still stubborn. Sometimes cast as “heart” versus “intellect”; or “hand” versus “mind”; or “skill” versus “concept,” theses dichotomous oppositions all serve to segregate the different aspects of physical functioning in the creation of art objects that should be considered together. Given the often loaded nuances of these words, and considering how vocabularies are enlisted by various professions, we also have to read issues of class, and at times ethnic culture and gender, into the dialogue around craft.
It was the “handiwork” aspect of craft that attracted middle and upper class individuals in the U.S. and Europe in the post-World War II era who were committed to creating lifestyles that were alternatives to the mechanized, consumerist lifestyle being touted in post-war visions of prosperity. This revived utopian ideals of personal creativity as an act of resistance to mass production. Because Modernism found its sources in the art and crafts of Africa, Asia, the Pacific, and Indigenous, Native, First People America, this has served over the years to bring the situation of craftspersons in non-Western societies right up next to that of those in the Euro-American nexus. Indeed today the model of the artist/craftspersons collaboration is almost a given in many scenarios for production all over the world.
While “craft” is an entity which is generally considered to be bound by tradition, thus stifling innovation and imagination, it plays an important role today in creating economic sustenance, particularly for women. As noted by Ester Boserup in her 1970 study of the role of women in economic development and by Jane Kani Edward in her 2007 study of the Sudanese refugee situation,* craft skills are often the default economic resource in communities when the global situation disrupts women’s traditional roles in society; situations such as apartheid, war, political displacement, genocide, and more recently HIV/AIDS. As these events have wreaked havoc on the infrastructure of communities, craftspersons have come together—under leadership both within and without the communities—to adapt traditional forms for a global market. Over the last decade these have included entities such as Ardmore Ceramics (South Africa); Bandaid (Haiti); Ba Ba Blankets (Ghana); Shompole and Brand Masai (Kenya); the Gahaya Links Weaving Association and Same Sky (Rwanda); the Chalky Mountain Potters (Barbados); the Gees Bend Quilters Collective and Alabama Chanin (United States); the Etsha Weavers Group (Botswana); Monkey Biz and Wire Women (South Africa); the Siddi Womens’ Quilting Cooperative (India); Pro Madre (Peru), and the international entities Aid to Artisans and the Fair Winds Trading Company.
We can also take note of fine artists who have collaborated with such craft communities all over the world starting with Tina Girouard and Ned Davis in Haiti in the 1980s, and today Liza Liu and the Brazilian artist Maria Nepomeceno. Certainly this reflects the fact that over the last decade the fine arts have seen a revival of “craftsmanship” as an alternative to the off-handed “deskillification” that marked the post-Warholian era. That artists as varied as Lynda Benglis, Beverly Semmes, Anish Kapoor, Mike Kelley, and Elizabeth Peyton have populated exhibitions of ceramics at the Gladstone Gallery in New York (2007) and the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia (2009), and that other individuals working in this medium such as Peter Voulkos, Betty Woodman, Ken Price, and Arlene Sheceht are finding venues in fine art contexts and galleries indicates a new slippage between genres and categories that is irrevocably changing the global artistic landscape. So as craft moves beyond function to entertain concept, idea, and aesthetics, and art actively engages materials and process, craft media and techniques have made the transition from a personal and local phenomenon to a global commodity, confounding skeptics who would dismiss it as mere perpetuations of long-forgotten, even destroyed, traditions.
But there are still a number of challenges that exist especially outside the art worlds of the U.S., Europe, and parts of Asia. Despite this explosion of interest in and fostering of artisan skills, there is still a paucity of recognition of the individual hands of artisans in the rest of the world. While a product might be fitted with an identifying tag or label attached, little effort is made to identify, codify, and promote individual skill sets and styles. The anonymity that still tends to accompany the largely female-based global artisan and craft classes speaks clearly of the lack of diversity and accessibility to recognition that these creators are yet to attain in the global art market. This has long been the case in traditional African art—also, American and European critics, curators, and writers have favored notions of a “communal” sensibility over the recognition of distinct styles and workshops in this class and genre of creativity. Whether one agrees with the “rules of the game” that govern the global art market, it is clear, however, that equality of opportunity and recognition for such craftswomen and artisans depends on the promotion of individual style and personality.
In addition, as the catalysts associated with the collaboratives mentioned above move on—as they inevitably will in the future—it will be quite interesting to see how those collaboratives develop. Will they outgrow the particular aesthetic orientation dictated by the founders of various groups? Will the communities begin to self-direct their creativity apart from outside influences? Will individuals in this class of art be able to continue to make direct contact in the global market to promote themselves and take charge of their destinies? They will certainly face many challenges—not only the prejudices and habitual attitudes of the tastemakers, decision makers, arbiters, and trendsetters of the global consumer sector, but also competition from sectors that appropriate craft skills and manifestations and produce “crafts” so that they are more inexpensive and divorced from the specialness of the individual creativity. And to say nothing of the real specter of digital production. This raises the question of how they can navigate those social and economic phenomena and protect their intellectual, nay, national, and cultural patrimony. Could craftspersons count on their governments on the ministerial level to dictate trade agreements, copyright, and licensing fees for these creators? Is this even viable or desirable?
This issue includes the perspectives of individuals involved in craft and craftsmanship that consider these issues from various perspectives: from that of the artists by Sheila Pepe, Aaron McIntosh and curator Allyson Unzicker; from that of the traditional craftsperson by Keith Recker; from that of the field itself by Namita Wiggers; to that of the community manifestations by Margaret Wertheim. It also considers the implications of digital technology by Ron Labaco; and a tribute to Aileen Osborne Webb, the catalytic founder of the American Craft Council and what would become the Museum of Arts and Design by Glenn Adamson. We are pleased to have also in this issue Danielle Mysliwiec’s interview with the legendary artist in fiber and other materials, Sheila Hicks.
* See, e.g., Ester Boserup, Women’s Role in Economic Development (London: Allen & Unwin, 1970); and Jane Kani Edward, Sudanese Women Refugees: Transformations and Future Imaginings (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).
ContributorLowery Stokes Sims
Lowery Stokes Sims is a critic and scholar based in New York City.