Craft & Beyond
Venturing into the domain of ‘craft’ is a complex undertaking. Some of us look at it with a fondness, clinging onto a nostalgic conception of it, while others are quick to dismiss it as archaic, regressive, anti-modern and the step-sibling of ‘art’. Between these poles, the scope of craft has evolved and our understanding of it today presents an interesting plurality. In common parlance, craft is either referred to as something that is made by hand or to the process of making. In actuality however, craft embodies a whole ethos that is intimately connected to life and in particular to creative practice. Craft is a rich, layered entity and thus eludes a singular definition.
This essay attempts to explore the multi-faceted dimensions of craft and how it has informed creative art practices in the past and continues to shape them in the present. The story of craft emanates from a time when an act of creativity or making had not yet been delineated into the broad categories of Art, Craft and Design. While this discussion may not be able to escape the trappings of terminology, it will endeavor to blur the boundaries between these disciplines or at least present them in juxtaposition to each other. This is not to deny them their individual significance but merely to underscore that these boundaries emerged much later and are of our own making.
Historical Context of Craft
As a region, we in South Asia lay claim to a vibrant legacy of craft. From the diminutive clay figurines and decorative pots that Harappan man made almost five thousand years ago to the ethereal textiles that made this region a hub for global trade; the sphere of handcrafting was prolific and diverse. It embraced all forms of making and materiality. Besides textiles and pottery, wood and ivory carving, metal forging and inlaying, stone masonry and building, miniature painting and enameling; all were the oeuvre of the Indian artisan.[i] Thus it would not be wrong to say that our visual and material culture from ancient times till at least the middle of the 19th century was contingent on the creative agency of the craftsman. His practice was an accumulation of inherited knowledge that was embedded within the constructs of social customs and societal needs. Collectively, these determined how craft evolved over millennia and what was to be transferred from one generation of craftsmen to the next.
To borrow a term from Shaila Bhatti, craft became a ‘cultural technology’.[ii] It shaped and defined the cultural identity of the people, carrying layers of latent meaning and value for all those who came in contact with it. Craft in all its genres, had its distinct visual, material and technological vocabulary. It remained timeless and enmeshed with the motions of every day life until the onslaught of modernity and industrialization displaced it. In the pre-industrial context, to borrow an analogy, the craftsman’s status was synonymous to that of the present day revered artist – they were one being. It was only post the paradigmatic shift from handmade to machine that the role of the craftsman, his craft and its relevance were called into question. It was around the same time that the figures of the artist and designer surfaced and began to be perceived as two separate entities, as did the definitive categories of their respective disciplines. In all of this, ‘craft’ (as in made by hand) gradually lost it’s status, and has predominantly been reduced to a decorative folk art or a hobbyist activity.
While craft may not have sustained itself in the traditional sense, it has taken on a new dimension by playing a role in art and design. Here I borrow two frames of reference provided by Glenn Adamson[iii] to look at this phenomenon. Firstly, the material experience of craft has enriched art practice and secondly conceiving of craft as an ‘idea’ or a mode of thinking has had an overall impact on the fields of art and design. I use these perspectives to draw parallels between the practice of the craftsman and that of the contemporary visual artist/designer.
Craft as Material Experience
Material was sacred for the craftsman and linked him to his creation. It was a mode of transference of the craftsman’s inner knowledge and the collective wisdom of his forefathers. When we think of material, we think of the sense of touch. Craft by virtue of being handmade ensured a physical contact between the maker, the material and the object. Each material had its own language and an astute understanding of its intrinsic qualities and how it could be crafted, dictated the nature of the artifact. This interactive experience taught the craftsman patience, critical contemplation and that to achieve beauty, material had to be revered. The latter was practiced with the ability to harness nature’s elements and work in harmony with them. The beautiful hand printed and dyed Ajrak, crafted with indigenous plant dyes, cured in the sun and washed in the mighty Indus River is just one example of the ‘material experience’ that the Indian artisan had skillfully mastered. It was an all-encompassing soulful process. But beyond these skill and process based experiences of material there was one additional dimension that the craftsman delved into; that of creating ‘meaning’ through material.
Critics of craft denounce this aspect and believe that handcrafted objects were chiefly utilitarian or the right mix of decoration and function and thus did not carry any meaning. They also discredit the craftsman of having any imaginative and creative agency to break with tradition and create something new. This of course is incorrect as one finds countless instances where intangible ideas found expression through the transformation of material to evoke memory, feelings, associations and synesthesia. The object or artifact by virtue of its materiality would carry layers of meaning both within it and beyond itself. The fact that the Indian artisan could fabricate a length of muslin that was as light as the wind (baft- hawa) or as ephemeral and diaphanous as a dewdrop (shabnum) points to a sentient, imaginative maker who was not simply engaged in repeating a skill but who aimed to craft meaning.
This background provides an interesting context to look at the artist’s ‘material experience’. As Octavio Paz points out, ‘art is a thing of the senses’[iv] and thus it is not surprising that ‘materiality’ has become one of the primal devices though which art is made by the artist and experienced by the viewer. More recently artists have adopted ‘hybrid’ practices that incorporate materials traditionally associated with craft. Additionally, in the present day scenario, we also have to think of materiality as a concept that transcends tangibility. Today’s visual art practitioners are like ‘bricoleurs’[v], often working with intangible digital materiality to create new meanings. So while the nature and form of the material experience may have changed, the conditions for making remain akin to that of the artisan and still require a deep reflective engagement from the artist.
Craft as an ‘idea’ and Mode of Thinking
To understand craft as an ‘idea’, we have to revert to a critical period in our history. The latter half of the 19th century marked a time when the British formally colonized India and the forces of modernity led to a decline in the standards of craftsmanship. In a bid to reclaim and promote India’s craft culture, the British began establishing a network of art schools and museums across India.[vi] An ideological debate was triggered with the British having to decide what pedagogical approach should be adopted to teach art. While the schools set up at Bombay and Madras, encouraged western modes of teaching and taste,[vii] the Mayo School of Arts (now the National College of Arts) that was established in Lahore in 1875, introduced a more indigenous teaching model. Unlike his peers, the founding principal of this school, John Lockwood Kipling was not dismissive of craft practices and stated that “the first thing to study is the actual work of the country, which alone can give a rational point of departure.”[viii] Thus he initiated a craft-based curriculum[ix] and the concept of the craftsman’s traditional workshop was formalized or adapted for instructional pedagogy. A survey of the annual reports of the Mayo School of Art shows that students were exposed to diverse subjects such as drawing (included ornamental and architectural drawing), geometry, modeling, painting, carpentry, blacksmithing and building and construction all in a bid to provide a holistic education that would be beneficial to the student in their onward vocations.[x]
Kipling’s ‘learning from craft’ idea had a far-reaching impact. Firstly, it shaped the visual vocabulary of the time, spurring an earnest revival of craft practices across the province of Punjab.[xi] Amongst the most critically acclaimed practitioner was Bhai Ram Singh, a graduate of the Mayo School of Arts who won much praise for his architectural projects both in Lahore and Britain.
Secondly and more importantly however, his pedagogical approach went on to influence the curriculums of subsequent art and design schools that were established in the region.[xii] Kipling’s emphasis on ‘learning by doing’ and observing craft objects, patterns and processes in order to create new designs was a form of ‘design thinking or ideation’ and laid the foundations for a holistic design pedagogy. Charles and Ray Eames later echoed similar ideas when they authored “The India Report” in 1958. They proposed a model of design education and training that linked practitioners to their cultural roots, nurtured an iterative practice and facilitated solutions to real world problems. In particular, they eulogized traditional artisanal objects such as the ‘thaali’ and ‘lota’ as a means to ‘think’ about design more critically. Since then vernacular design has increasingly emerged as a mainstream idea and has steered us towards sustainable and eco friendly design practices that take their inspiration from the ‘back to the basic’ craft ethos.
Today, contemporary design schools particularly in South Asia continue to offer craft-centric courses both in theory and practice. This is because its significance as a mode of learning and thinking has been acknowledged and recognized.
Beyond pedagogy, another instance where craft continues to manifest as an ‘idea’ is when contemporary artists have used it as a premise for art making. We find that the ‘canon of craft’ has provided a lens for artists to take on a wide-ranging critical dialogue with a host of themes such as history, colonialism, tradition, identity, memory, gender and politics. Aisha Khalid, Risham Syed and David Alesworth are amongst a handful of artists who have been appropriating various aspects of craft in their art practice.[xiii] Their use of distinctive imagery that links to traditional craft and their selection of processes such as embroidery, patchwork and quilting represent an intertwining of ideas and a conscious dismantling of the craft – art divide. Their practice has also served as means to reinterpret history and put forth a subaltern narrative. The fact that these and many other contemporary visual artists are driven to revisit and seek inspiration from the craft-scape, speaks of our need to continuously reflect on our common history of making and ideas that we share as people.
Almost two decades into the 21st century, it can be said that we are living in a post-disciplinary world where there will be a greater convergence between visual art and design, and these practices shall increasingly become a collaborative enterprise. Also as the Fourth Industrial Revolution[xiv] unfolds around us and ushers in a wave of cybertopia, we can at best only speculate what our future modes of making and creating will be or what kind of materiality we shall encounter. We do know however, that the fundamental significance of craft shall remain and that its ever-evolving conception shall continue to offer exciting avenues for creative practice.
[i] The term ‘artisan’ and ‘craftsman’ shall be used interchangeably.
[ii] See Bhatti, Shaila. Translating Museums: A Counterhistory of South Asian Museology. California:Left Coast Press, 2012, p.25.
[iii] Adamson, Glenn. Thinking through Craft. Oxford:Berg 2007.
[iv] Paz, Ocatvio. ‘Use and Contemplation’ trans. Helen R.Lane In Praise of Hands: Contemporary Crafts of the World. New York Graphic Society, 1974,p. 17-24.
[v] a term used by Levi Strauss to describe how individuals work with a set of materials to develop new ideas.
[vi] Tarapor, Mahrukh. ‘John Lockwood Kipling & The Arts & Crafts Movement in India.’ AA Files, No 3 (1983): 12-21.
[vii] Khan, Nadra. ‘Industrial Art Education in Colonial Punjab: Kipling’s Pedagogy and Hereditary Craftsmen’ in John Lockwood Kipling: Arts and Crafts in the Punjab and London. Bard Graduate Center Gallery, 2017, p.469 – 487
[viii] See Khan, Nadra (2017), p 474.
[ix] See Tarapor (1983).
[x] See Khan, Nadra (2017).
[xii] More recently, the Indus Valley School of Art & Architecture in Karachi, Pakistan and National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, India.
[xiii] Naazish Ataullah has examined the link between traditional craft and contemporary art practice. See Ata-Ullah, Naazish. ‘Turbulence in Silence: The Art of Aisha Khalid’ in Jamini: An International Arts Magazine, Vol 2, no 1 (Nov 2015): 134-141.
[xiv] The Fourth Industrial Revolution is a term discussed by Klaus Schwab and refers to technological revolution that will “fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another. In its scale, scope, and complexity, the transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before.” See https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/01/the-fourth-industrial-revolution-what-it-means-and-how-to-respond/