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

Jane Webb

Residency at MIRIAD

What could the HAT project offer (initial thoughts as offered in the seminar in Dacca)

Posted by Jane Webb on 24th July 2006

Though on the surface we do not reduce work to categories, the institutions in which we work invariably demand that the research we are funded for should be of a certain form, and most of us have come to Bangladesh to explore the contemporary crafts of this country. But immediately, we have had to re-evaluate what we mean by that phrase. In Britain, craft became a self-conscious activity, arising as a response to the social status and living conditions experienced by workers because of the development of the factory system and the way that capitalism made people into little more than components of the machine – living beings as cogs. Craft as an activity was adopted by certain artistic leaders, to give people back their control over the objects they made, and to regain their identity as human beings.

Later in the 20th century, this ethos of forming a relationship with an object, through making it from start to finish, was developed into studio practice so that craft emerged as a specific practice, akin to that of the artist, though for some there was still a difference – for some makers their products were meant to be humble and functional, to be used everyday, while for others they were fine art pieces. Today craft practice in Britain can be anything from an installation of woven three-dimensional forms to a single pot or a film of someone folding laundry. Art and craft are intermeshed alongside design, yet still institutions define their differences. As a lecturer on a contemporary crafts course, I cling to one difference between art and craft which is that craft practitioners use the language of the materials to communicate through other means, such as through tactility… but I’m not even sure that this is true – as in Britain there are so many different types of craft practice. Yet one true definition remains – craft costs less than art.

With this as our background, we have come to Bangladesh and have inevitably tried to map our experience of the relationship between art and craft onto yours. But this clearly does not work. Perhaps firstly because craft has not been seen in the utopian way that it was in Britain, craft is industry here in many respects. It is not a rest from industrial society and we have seen that craft is split into the division of labour that was fought so much against in Britain. Yet in Britain, there are also makers of craft who produce work that is more akin to industry than art and individual expression. And we have workers for the tourist industry who either work in a division of labour system or who produce the same object so repeatedly that they can think of it in no way as expression or experiment. Contemporary craft in Britain, this hybrid, struggles with craft of this kind. Here in Bangladesh though, there is a powerful and meaningful art practice that is full of experimentation and the attempt to form new visual languages. In some ways, like craft in Britain, this art practice seems to have emerged in Bangladesh as a political act of resistance and empowerment and in some cases is still driven by some form of this. There is also a clear dialogue between tradition and experiment. My questions to you are numerous and are presented only so much as to begin a dialogue:

 • Is it even appropriate to use these definitions of art and craft in Bangladesh?

• What do I mean by craft – do I mean the use of certain materials or am I going back to that hazy concept of making through the use of materials? Is so, much of Bangladesh’s contemporary art practice could be understood in this way.

 • Would it be inconceivable that craftspeople would become more involved with artists – I know Britto’s work is doing this in some of its projects?

• But overall, how can we come to a mutual understanding of a way forward where our institutional requirements do not dominate the way that we work with you but rather help to re-shape both our countries’ and individual futures – we want to exchange ideas, not enforce our notions.


Jane Webb's talks to during cHAT week at Sanskriti, Delhi, India. March 2007

Click on image to open QuickTime movie