Collective Craft in Global Contexts

Valéria Fülöp-Pochon, University of Bristol,

Courtney Schum, University of Bristol,

This session seeks to investigate modes of community art production by reviewing the role of folk art and folklore, craft and applied art in diverse social, historical, geographical or political contexts with the focus on the 20th and 21st centuries.

Cultural producers globally, working in traditional craft, design and applied art techniques through textile, clay, wood, glass, metal, paint, print and other media, have produced utilitarian and decorative objects for the benefit of their communities. From small everyday objects to large architectural spaces, made for domestic or public use, art-making has been essential in serving people’s physical, aesthetic, spiritual or ideological needs. Traditional folk art and its techniques have often been shaped or revived for social or political purposes. Rather than reflecting the ideals of institutions, collective art embodies the knowledge of the community and locality.  

This panel will address collective craft making with the focus on folk art, folklore, craft, design and the applied arts, discussing a range of topics from social art practices, cross-cultural, transnational or transhistorical engagement; intergenerational practices, preserving cultural memory and heritage; collective art expressing ethnic or national identity; community folk-art serving social or political purposes. Understanding participation as an intrinsic media, we intend to leave the interpretation of ‘collectivity’ open.

Speakers & Abstracts

Quilting for a Cause: First World War Canadian Fundraising Quilts

Heather Smith (Western University, Ontario)

From the Bayeaux tapestry to Gandhi's homespun cotton, textiles have been used to represent conflict, patriotic ideals, and the value of craftsmanship.  During the First World War Canadian women and children, coast to coast, raised a significant amount of money through quilting. Hidden away in bedroom closets and dresser drawers after the War, these visually graphic quilts reveal much about attitudes and activities on the home front. These quilting projects drew wide-ranging class and cultural participation, and women used the quilted surface to stitch the symbols, images and names that they felt could help to win the War. Many of these quilts contain graphic red crosses–the symbol under which humanitarian war work was conducted–even though not all funds were exclusively earmarked for the Canadian Red Cross. Churches, schools, and women’s volunteer groups such as the Women’s Institute and the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire (IODE) organised these quilt fundraisers. Yet, by mid-century, these quilts were largely forgotten. This paper explores the intersection of craft and war by examining quilts in private collections and in museums across Canada. What do these quilts represent and what can they tell us about the attitudes, activities, and lives of women and children during the First World War? Do these quilts reflect attitudes towards the War that were reproduced or contradicted in later memorialisation projects? Why were they forgotten despite their stunning visual characteristics and their obvious connection to an event of momentous importance to Canadian history?  

Communities of Memory: Collective Practices of Craft in Postwar Displaced Persons Camps

Alida Jekabson (Independent researcher)

This paper will address practices of craft within displaced persons (DP) camps in post-war Germany with a focus on participatory, collective modes of making and craft education. The DP camps, divided by nationality, each functioned as a small city. Spread across allied-control, many camps had elected leaders, schools, religious and cultural institutions. The transient, self-contained communities of the camps and the Eastern and Central European refugee populations who lived in them provide many valuable examples of collective craft-making practices. These crafts are particularly relevant to the maintenance of folk traditions within the shifting political and social contexts of the camps’ administration and organization.

Drawing from museum and private collections as well as photo archives, these collective crafts include the history of Anna Apinis, a Latvian student of folklore and textiles who continued to make work and teach in the DP camp in Memmingen. Ideas of participatory engagement will also be explored through examples of costumes and other clothing for theater productions, cultural and religious holidays and life events, especially in Jewish DP camps like those at Bergen Belsen and Landsberg. Creations of new mass-produced texts and objects, educational tools and materials for schools also serve to expand the definition of craft, intersecting with technology, materials, and displacement. Learning more about these objects within the short history of the camps demonstrates how craft in communal, participatory contexts can support the collective preservation and generational transfer of folk and craft knowledge.

Valuing regional crafts beyond folklorization

Elise Kleitz (Research Associate BTU Cottbus)

Trying to synthesize a place (such as a region, city or village) into a single symbolic object is an interesting task. Especially since tradition delivers a message–its purpose is to provide a strong image to the present. A way to affirm a difference, a singularity that characterizes a whole. This paper proposes to explore the region of Alsace, located in north-eastern France, through a selection of so-called traditional symbols –ranging from the kouglof mould to the Alsatian house. What are the criteria for an object to be defined as "traditional"? How is a tradition defined? Who decides what becomes or not an emblem? This paper observes how the aesthetic of these objects almost did not change in the past 150 years, even if they are the result of various collective craft making. It seeks to portrait the following dichotomy: these emblems, qualified as folk art, preserve the idea of an Alsatian culture –however, on daily practice, traditional techniques and know-hows are being lost and perceived as immutable or obsolete. Beyond representation, what should be the role of tradition and craftsmanship today? Does the fact, that these objects have become emblems of folk art prevent them from evolving? This paper pursues these questions by exploring the role of design in establishing new aesthetics. How would a participatory design approach open up regional crafts to a wider audience? How then could we perceive differently the imagination and personality of the craftswoman/craftsman?

Embroidering Histories and Experiences in Works on Covid-19 by the Mapula Project

Brenda Schmahmann (University of Johannesburg)

The Mapula Embroidery Project is a craft collective in the Winterveld, a peri-urban area about 40 kilometers north-west of Pretoria in South Africa that has long been home to people with limited opportunities to earn an income. Conscious that the project would find earning an income challenging in the context of Covid, when a full-scale lockdown meant that retailers were closed and there was no tourism, I organised that the Mapula project undertake a commission for my university -- a series of 14 artworks in cloth on the topic of Covid-19. and its impact on their community.

The relationship of the works to the actual lived experiences of project members turned out to be complex, indirect or even paradoxical, however. Members of the project sometimes represent their aspirations rather than their actual difficulties - and this is true of some of the Covid cloths which show the Winterveld community negotiating challenges posed by the pandemic more successfully than was feasible, given their immediate circumstances. Furthermore, while the works include imagery drawn from designers’ everyday environment, they also at times incorporate imagery gleaned from online sites and television broadcasts, and thus in effect record discourses about Covid-19 current at a particular historical juncture. Consequently, while not literal reflections of actual practices and realities in the context of the pandemic, the cloths made for the University of Johannesburg nevertheless have an important “truth” value: they invoke people’s fears and anxieties about Covid-19 while also suggesting their capacity to sustain hope in a time of challenge and uncertainty.



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