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From Visibilising to Mattering

Nicola Dillon | Phd Candidate, Kingston School of Art & Crafts Council

Funded by the London Doctoral Design Centre, Arts Humanities Research Council

It has been over a year since I began this doctoral research. The original call and proposal for this doctoral project was titled ‘Diversity in UK Craft’ and asked questions around ‘how to make BAME and migrant makers more visible?’ With my background in visual communication and anthropology of material culture, it seems fitting to have spent the first year of the project asking questions about what visibility means, what it does, who (or what) is being made visible and for whose benefit?

Within the literature on African diasporic creativity and social practice, in/visibility is a reoccurring theme, but the journeys and stories of makers, artists, individuals and communities show visibilising as a contained activity does not address the deeper issues of inequality (here I am working with the rhetoric of equality as the cited aims of diversity policies and practices). What becomes apparent when looking at craft and the creative world is that, equality relates to aesthetic qualities, beliefs, everyday practices and values as well as economics, environments and infrastructures. Working through these questions of making visible helped to situate my practice within this project. As a researcher of material culture, it is the relationships with the material world that provide the spark to my research questions. In this research, it is the relationships between the in/visible, visual/material and race/matter where I begin to reframe thinking about diversity, exploring [1] the politics of making (particularly in relation to African diasporas) and [2] from a theoretical and methodological frame, how materials and making can provide a means to question, navigate, resist, and disrupt the way we engage with difference.

In 2018, the Crafts Council published Who makes? An analysis of people working in craft occupations. The report was shared with me as a space to reflect on diversity statistics, but actually became a point to push against in grounding my research direction and approach. The report was the first report in six years on the craft sector’s demographics. Aimed at policymakers and practitioners who want to understand craft, the report focuses on describing and analysing the demographic characteristics of people working in seven craft occupations within the creative industries. It begins considering who features in the occupational categories, analysing age, gender, ethnicity, health, nationality and qualifications. The summary of findings include: the absence of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) makers, of women as well as highlighting the potentially precarious nature of craft occupations, with workers more likely to have poorer health, be self-employed and earn less than the national average. 

In comparison to their 2012 report (Craft in the Age of Change), the Who Makes? report was explicitly approached with the aim to provide data in a way which could be comparable with the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport categories and build on previous work that demonstrates the value of the craft sector to the UK economy. However, in the desire to fit the report seems to undermine other work of the Crafts Council.

The focus on craft occupations highlights the fixation with particular practices and products as opposed to craft skills as sets of practices that can appear across and at the intersection of disciplines, occupations and lives. Particularly against projects such as the V&A/Craft Council's Power of Making exhibition where making is described as "the universal infrastructure of creative production,” it seems obvious to state that the narrow classification of craft hides the true information of diversity in craft.

To go further I would draw attention to the way research is framed, based on the way the problem is understood, to focus on ‘who’ through statistics only addresses the superficial politics of visibility and leading to tokenistic solutions that count bodies now rather than seeking long-term transformational change. Craft is often framed around ethnicity and tradition and cultural diversity is well represented within craft literature. However, to focus on framing craft through very particular products and skills can become a way of oppressing and excluding, because it closes down the space and recognition for different ideologies and practices of craft and making that unfold within different identities and different intersections of life.

So I close this blog and move towards field work reframing the question ‘Who Makes?’: questioning the ideas and beliefs that position black makers and makers of colour within certain frames; and to explore these questions through making and material engagement. I hope to use this blog space to share some of the happenings and questions these activities raise to create a dialogue with others interested in this space.