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The HAT Project 2006/07 is supporting 20 exchange fellowships between England, South Asia and Australia

Jeremy Theophilus

1-15.12.05, 3 countries, 5 hotels, 8 flights, 13 travellers, 15 days

Posted by Jeremy Theophilus on 28th July 2006

Formally, a trip to introduce craft curators, writers and artists to South Asia for the first time, accompanied by agencies with a deeper knowledge of the region.

What to expect? What to look out for? How to see? How to remember what you saw? How to believe what you saw? What to say about what you saw? How to relate what you saw to what you’re used to seeing?

In the midst of the constant movement, the assault on the senses, and the wild difference of it all, I tried to find a place to touch ground, to earth the apparent hallucinatory state in which I awoke each morning.

We came as a group of Western people whose very presence was a statement: we stood for a colonial past, a complex present and an uncertain future. We shared an interest in craft practice with a view to interacting with and re-presenting the work of South Asian practitioners. We needed to extend our knowledge as well as confront the issues raised by our ambitions.

The cultural and practical difference is both releasing and disturbing. We clutch at the familiar, from which to establish a means of engaging with the novel and unfamiliar. But even the familiar is inflected with a different context: a cultural reaction to, and appropriation of the Western that makes it entirely and convincingly Eastern.

And we have to learn to let go, to relax that sense of unspoken possession that underpins familiarity in order to be able to understand and share in new perspectives on our own place in the world. The problem is a huge one, and to emphasise this, we should note the experience of the anthropologist Hugh Brody who has written about his 30 year relationship with people of the Arctic:

Something lay there that eluded not just me, but many who have experienced another way of life. We write about some facets of it, some surfaces that we make our business. But the gold we find is transformed by the reverse alchemy of our journey, from there to here, into lead. Not into nothing, not into worthlessness, but into a substance that has more weight than light, more utility than beauty, is malleable rather than of great value.

For me, the most overpowering impact has been that of reaffirming the presence of the hand as an essential cultural force. Here in South Asia it is a presence that is both vital and necessary: it reflects a means of survival in a very complex and competitive environment. Because of this it generates an energy that seems to be free of a Western self-awareness; it helps us to see through accumulated layers of displacing perception and analysis.

Reading the evidence of the hand in South Asia means reading with eyes wide open: this is not about craft for craft’s sake, (or ‘self-conscious craft’ as it was described at BNU) but a far more serious engagement. It is about an appreciation of fine technique and a sympathy for the material, and about traditional skills and their continuity; but it is also about the necessary relationship with markets and the ways in which the hand can turn itself to adapt to new and challenging expectations.

This raises the issue of the place for, and function of, innovation within tradition, and just how that event manifests itself. There is an inevitable relationship here with national identity: the need for evidence of continuing tradition that emphasises a national continuity. At the same time, adaptability to new technologies is also felt to be an essential part of a developing national characteristic.

From a Western and, in this case, particularly British viewpoint, the experience of South Asia stimulates a re-visioning of tradition within craft. To many the word craft embodies the notion of tradition; hence the move to ‘object’ in Australia, and ‘designer-maker’ in the UK. But what we see in South Asia is a far stronger presence of tradition in the everyday, in the contemporary life of people.

Clinging therefore to a mind half-released by the experience, I am heartened, indeed charged-up, by the different kind of relationship there appears to exist between/amongst/within contemporary tradition. It enables me to look again at our own traditions in the crafts: not to make similar conclusions, but at the very least to challenge some cosy assumptions about the hand-made and its potential.

January 2006