Meeting the makers

Amongst South African art critics there is an ongoing debate about the difference between fine art and craft. With some quarters adopting a more secular view that the element of functionality distinguishes craft from art, others insist that all creative output must be considered as art and thus there is essentially no difference between the two disciplines. Meeting the makers, an exhibition of the craft of KwaZulu-Natal, which recently ran at the Tatham gallery in Pietermaritzburg, went a long way towards adding value to this debate.

Commissioned by the National Arts council of South Africa (NAC), the exhibition was initially conceived as a nationwide project but was quickly narrowed down, in order to make the project more manageable, and to focus with greater clarity on the diverse and extraordinary talents of crafters and artists based in the KwaZulu-Natal province. The result is a vibrant and eclectic compendium of crafted items, some of them very curious indeed. According to Brendan Bell who, the director of the Tatham Art Gallery, one of the most difficult parts of the process was finding the right artists who produced works with a unique craftsmanship that fitted into the exhibition criteria. “We took several trips throughout the province and we relied very much on our contact base in many of the areas. Otherwise we would not have been able to do justice to the people in the province”, said Bell.

One of the better known crafters in the exhibition is renowned Durban furniture maker Richard Stretton of Koop designs. For the exhibition Stretton designed a large minimalist wooden table that dominates one of the Tatham’s exhibition spaces with its restrained but gorgeous design. Speaking about the inspiration for his work, Stretton highlighted the significance of his relationship with the material as a starting point for every project. “The material that I am using, be it solid timber, sheet material, steel is where I get my inspiration” said Stretton. “Generally I work out how the material will be machined and joined and this has the biggest impact on what the piece will look like. I seldom start with an image in my head and work out how to make it”.

This is one of the first major exhibitions of this nature that has been funded by the NAC and will perhaps play a key role in serving as a pilot project for future commissions and projects of this nature. What stood out most about the exhibition is that it clearly signals a creative shift in the area of traditional craft manufacture. Although many familiar-looking items are included in the show, they are largely reinterpretations. For example, traditional bowls which might have been previously made of clay are now made of old telephone wires, and a table that would have conventionally been highly polished is now made of rough uncut bark, suggesting a kind of retro-rural approach to deconstruction. 

According to Marisa Fick-Jordaan, the director of Zenzulu, who represents several of the contributors to the exhibition, the works on display are a clear indication of the creative collaborations that are taking place in craft and art markets all over the province. “We, for example, work with around 100 weavers. Some are master weavers, whom I have mentored for close to 15 years. So I think the exhibition is a good reflection of the work of the best designers and makers of applied arts in our province presently, be they well known or new discoveries”.

One of the most interesting aspects of the exhibition is the way in which crafters and artists from the province tend to employ a curious use of texture and scale. Many of the items on display are produced at either in supersize or miniature acales. One of the standout items in the exhibition is hung right at the entrance. It is an almost two meter long ‘Nguni skin’ made by Juliet Armstrong and it towers over the gallery doors. The hanging is made from intricately woven porcelain. Perhaps one interpretation of the piece is that it is a sort of commentary on culture itself. A blurb on the external influences that are coursing their way through traditional norms. Through her use of the porcelain, Armstrong has rendered a reinterpretation of the role of culture and stringent norms and traditions in contemporary society.

On one level, the most valuable aspect of the exhibition is that it has, over a short amount of time, pumped a significant amount of money directly into the pockets of the craft makers. Over R400 000 was spent on purchasing various items for the show. According to Bell this will make a significant contribution towards artists now having the confidence and the funds to try and bring their work to other exhibitors. “Many of these craft makers have never even been to a gallery. So through this initiative they will begin to realize that there are also other avenues other than just selling their crafts at the local market” said Bell.

The exhibition will be followed by a book that will showcase many of the works that the curators discovered whilst putting the exhibition together.

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