Unravelling Modernist Histories: Crafts since the 1800s

Ana S González Rueda, University of St Andrews, asg22@st-andrews.ac.uk

Elisabetta Rattalino, Freie Universität Bozen, Elisabetta.Rattalino@unibz.it

This session explores crafts entanglement in the making and unmaking of national histories and identities since the 19th century. More specifically, it considers how craft making has been employed to advance modernist myths and utopias or challenge these narratives and imaginaries in different geopolitical contexts. Where do crafts stand within the tension between local and global, centres and margins? How have they been summoned in state-led processes of appropriation of indigenous culture? Can craftivist work support groups or communities seeking social justice and engaged in processes of self-determination, decolonisation, and cultural memory? How has craftivism tackled gender and racial inequality? 

We invite interdisciplinary contributions that examine crafts as narrative tools to claim, perform, and enact subversive retellings that contest institutionalised and hegemonic historical accounts. The session contemplates a global scope from the 1800s to the present, and we particularly encourage paper proposals that examine practices outside of Europe and North America. Topics might include community-based, participatory projects; collaborative and cross-disciplinary projects between craft makers, artists, designers or curators; practices blurring the distinctions between art and craft, tradition and modernity; crafts museum and exhibition case studies; craftivism and feminist or decolonial approaches. 

Speakers & Abstracts

Patterns of Possession: H.R. Mallinson & Co.’s National Park Silks

Manon Gaudet (Yale University)

To commemorate a decade of the National Park Service in 1926, American silk manufacturer H.R. Mallinson & Co. debuted a series of dress fabrics inspired by the nation’s most defended landscapes. Alongside more explicitly appropriative designs, like the company’s 1928 “American Indian” series, these textiles have conventionally been understood as symptomatic of the search for a uniquely American style. This paper alternatively considers the active role they played in promoting and maintaining the nation’s territorial claims and the undergirding ideologies of private property. These fabrics did not themselves dispossess Indigenous land nor depict it; however, in reducing natural monuments to a gridded design, they reinscribe the boundary-making technologies of the colonial survey as pattern. Combined with a kaleidoscopic colour effect, the fabrics refract the singular, disembodied, and perspectival view of ownership common in nineteenth-century landscape paintings into one that is intimate, commodifiable, and recursive. I probe the embodied and racial dimensions of worn-silk, asking what it means for dispossessed Indigenous land to be transformed into portable pattern on sport silks ideal for touring white women. In examining the fabrics’ material and environmental entanglements with National Park land, I foreground global supply chains and the express transit of raw silk by the Great Northern railway. The railway and its oil-burning locomotives also played a key role in establishing Glacier National Park in 1910, promising their passengers scenic views uncompromised by smoke. Analyzing the design, transportation, manufacture and social lives of these silks reveals not only how they participate in a pattern of settler-colonial possession, but also why printed, woven textiles become an ideal medium for representing colonial power in the early-twentieth century.

Mud, Craft, and the Manufacture of Dissent: Architecture in 1980s South Asia

Shivani Shedde (Princeton University)

This paper is concerned with discourses of vernacular architecture in 1980s South Asia. With the emergence of self-build manuals such as Mud, Mud: The Potential of Earth-based Materials for Third World Housing written by the environmentalist Anil Agarwal or within contributions to the inaugural issue of the Delhi-based magazine Architecture+Design, ideas of local craft and vernacularism took hold as ‘suitable’ building techniques. If discourses on the provision of housing, for instance, vacillated between the role of ‘culture’ and the need for technical expertise for many nation states that were faced with the task of decolonizing in the 60s and 70s, mud and other locally-available building materials were increasingly being framed as integral to ‘radical’ architectural practice, particularly in the aftermath of the 1973 oil crisis. By focusing on the return to ‘traditional’ building resources—which sustained enquiries on the ways in which mud and other earth materials could play a role a meeting the housing needs of the poor—this paper questions why the documentation and exaltation of craft was being interpreted as an act of dissent.

Silver Rights (against Terricide): On ancestral rights, inter-ethnic politics and the practice of translation

Emanuele Guidi (Ar/ge kunst, Kunstverein Bolzano)

This paper delves into the project Silver Rights (2020 – 2022), initiated by Italian artist Elena Mazzi in dialogue with Mapuche spiritual leader and silversmith Mauro Millán and Argentinian artist Eduardo Molinari – a project in which I am directly involved as curator. Silver Rights unfolds around the role that silver jewellery play in the social, spiritual and political life of The Mapuche – the indigenous people inhabiting lands across Chile and Argentina. Accordingly, the central nucleus of the project consists of a series of six silver jewellery pieces crafted by Mauro Millán and designed in dialogue with Elena Mazzi following workshops on symbologies and current struggles, held with numerous members of the Mapuche community. Furthermore, the project confronts the Museum Leleque in Patagonia, established by Italian company Benetton; a museum that dismisses the Mapuche people as an extinct culture ‘musealising’ their memory and material culture.

The jewels, alongside a complex installation display with documentary and research materials, have been exhibited at ar/ge kunst, Italy, Södertalje Konsthall, Sweden, Bienalsur, Argentina in 2021. Drawing on anthropologist Viveiros de Castro’s writings (Castro, 2007), the presentation will read the dialogue between Millán and Mazzi, as practice towards “inventing of culture' and 'inter-ethnic politics'”. More generally, through the work of Azoulay (2019) and Acosta (2013), this paper will address how contemporary cultural institutions preserve separative and neo-extractivist practices; eventually to propose how exhibition-making and politics of display can activate forms of mediation, re- composition and healing against the perpetuation of colonial narratives.

Muriel Rose and Peggy Turnbull’s Little Gallery: Redressing the position of modern craft inside the interwar shop

Dr. Lotte Crawford (Arts University Bournemouth and the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art)

Muriel Rose and Peggy Turnbull’s London-based Little Gallery was a central site of craft-knowledge, exchange and support for artist-craftswomen between 1927 and 1939. This paper will illuminate the role of this space and its directors who played a unique role in facilitating the professionalisation of women artists and designers.

Through her selection of objects and curation of the gallery Rose sought to position handmade modern craft as equal to fine art. I aim to substantiate her assertion that the space had, ‘started to enable craftsmen to hold exhibitions of their work in the same way as painters or sculptors’. The problematics of hierarchical thinking in the definitions of modern art, craft and design in the interwar period are to be discussed. The position of interwar applied arts and decorative design will be examined through the materials sold and their display. These examples are intended to reveal intersecting principles of the Late Arts and Crafts movement with modernist aesthetics. I will then scrutinise the transcultural dynamics of a traveling exhibition curated by Rose in America in 1930 where British fabrics and ceramics were displayed alongside contemporary Japanese handicrafts.

Ultimately, my objective is to show that the values of this space and the materials exhibited complicate and overturn a core binary assumption that the artistic engagement with vernacular processes were antithetical to modernity and modernism.




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