Blog Post - September 2019
Global perspectives on craft
In this post I reflect on how the tension between creative practice and income generation manifests in different countries. The blog draws on my experiences of researching craft in a global context over the last six months and observations in my PhD research, in particular the issue of whether makers are seen as selling out by making commercial products. This opportunity emerged from my involvement in two international research projects - one investigating the creative economy in Africa and another exploring the pathways of creative graduates in Australia - and a craft research workshop at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice.
The dynamics of each of the countries I visited (Australia, Nigeria, South Africa and Italy) vary dramatically in relation to craft. Although the furthest away, the UK context is mirrored most closely in Australia. Here craft, as taught in universities, engages with art and design practices with an emphasis on narrative and creative expression through materials. A similar opposition to market-driven production was observed here, although sector organisations such as Craft Victoria (Melbourne), the Jam Factory (Adelaide), Craft ACT and Canberra Glassworks (Canberra) offer different opportunities and models of business development support for makers.
In contrast, craft in Lagos, Nigeria had a much stronger relationship with market demands and was positioned as a tool for economic empowerment, particularly for women and marginalised communities. Historically government initiatives were established to alleviate poverty through small scale craft enterprise and philanthropic initiatives have been established with this goal by individuals and arts organisations such as the Nike Art Centre. Here I observed how craft entrepreneurs, some university educated, had developed new product ranges that draw on traditional craft production processes and patterns such as Adire and bead work in order to appeal to tourists and international markets.
In Cape Town, South Africa there was a stronger contemporary craft and design sector, with several prominent organisations supporting, promoting and developing national craft. A dedicated craft market also capitalises on the tourist trade in the city. There was an emphasis on both promoting national cultural heritage but also on new product development and the adaption of traditional techniques to create new, contemporary craft products which could compete in international and luxury markets. However, craft was also practiced as a means of poverty alleviation, especially in the Townships. A philanthropic initiative also provided a craft apprenticeship programme as a means of training creative workers.
Although much closer to home, the Italian perspective on craft is still distant from the UK’s. Craft in Italy has retained a strong alliance with heritage, skilled artisanal production and trade practices. Here skill continues to precede concept and the dualism between creative production and income generation has not been embedded in the way that it has in the UK and in Australia. In Venice in particular craft producers have capitalised on their craft heritage through tourism, with the islands of Murano and Burano acting as living museums for their respective crafts of glass and lacemaking. Clusters of craft-specific businesses can be found on these islands. In Italy museums also play a central role in preserving and promoting a diverse range of highly specialised and often regionally specific crafts.
I was particularly interested in how the relationship between craft and the market played out in these different contexts and how local and national socio-economics influence perceptions of and engagement with craft. These experiences have also highlighted the importance of considering the dynamics of the Global South when researching and theorising about craft entrepreneurship and crafts’ position in the creative economy as a reliance on the Global North perspective appears to create a stronger disconnect with the market than may be observed in other contexts, especially in developing economies.