Crafts| Meaning of Materials: The Contemporary Value of Crafts
Updated: Jan 25, 2020
To merely include "craft" as "art" is a common but problematic practice in art academies. The key issue lies in this question: Why do we need to identify something as "art" to assure its value? Craft in itself has a lot that the "art" of Western canon lacks. This art review reflects on the value of crafts seen in the relationships built through collaboration, local and natural materials applied and time involved in the hands-on process.
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I came across Rangitahua (Fig.1) in an exhibition called Siu i Moana: Reaching across the ocean by chance during a weekend visit to National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in 2016. All the works were made by a collaborative women’s group based in Haveluloto, Tongatapu, a Pacific island, led by printmaker and artist Robin White (Maori/New Zealander, 1946-) and artist Ruha Fifita (Tongan/New Zealander, 1990-).
I am reflecting on the meaning of materials in Rangitahua (Fig.1) through two aspects: firstly, the visible – the aesthetics experience of its direct physicality and the visible fragments of making process, and secondly, the invisible – the stories behind-the-scene, the happenings and the intangible materials. In order to demonstrate the effect of materials, its making process and the enriched context of Rangitahua, a comparison with a Maori Minimalist screenprint Red on black (Fig.2) will be elaborated.
The visible physicality of the materials and the level of handmaking process with the community that is evident in Rangitahua (Fig.1) altogether created a transcendent meaning. This transcendence (a certain existence beyond its materiality) is a sense of poetic quality, warmness, inclusion and life or fluidity. The exhibition was of a series of huge ngatu, a kind of Tongan barkcloth paintings on launima (immense scale barkcloth) that extended from the wall and rolled onto the floor.
I stopped in front of Rangitahua (Fig.1) – possibly the simplest yet most mysteriously attractive work in the room. As a kind of tapa textile, it shows warmness, care and time taken in the making, a close association to nature and an almost feminine quality of softness, homeliness and inclusiveness. We can observe the uneven colour of earth pigments, natural dyes, and cracked candlenut soot (tuitui) on ngatu, the handmade paper mulberry tree barkcloth. By looking at the twisted lines and the crumpled surface of handmade texture, we can almost hear the beating, joining, pasting and rubbing in the making of the ngatu plain without knowing much about the actual process. We intuitively know from the scale and delicacy that these works were not made in silence out of a single hand. The gathering of local materials and the collaborative making process had generated this transcendent meaning – a meaning derived from imperfection, connection and motion, from the time taken and, finally, from the relationships it represented or created. These features reflect the underlining theme of the whole project of Robin White involving the Tongan Women – movement and interconnectedness.
This visible physicality also created a subsequent aesthetics experience of immersion in sublime. Looking at the work was an immersive moment in sublime of the mysterious black, the sea. On the wall close to the ceiling, reads a beautiful line of poem by the Tongan and Fijian writer and anthropologist Epeli Hau’ofa:
The sea is our pathway to each other and to everyone else, the sea is our endless saga, the sea is our most powerful metaphor, the ocean is in us.
I turned and raised my head and read the poem. The ceiling seemed higher than usual. I looked at the work again, then read the poem once more. I sunk into this unknown darkness, this endless sea, this sublime. This large black void was a special form of Tongan barkcloth called the ngatu ta’uli, which was formed by layers of tuitui derived from burning candlenut, a precious black pigment (the signifier) that signifies unknowability - an ideal representation of the mysterious sea (the signified). I was woken up by my accompanies and walked away, lingering. This poem, as well as the title “Siu i Moana: Reaching across the ocean” were successful curatorial attempts by the artists which resonated perfectly with the appearance of the work. Since that immersive moment, the image, among many intriguing works that had stayed within me, has come back to me in my unconscious dreams or conscious ruminations many times. This immersion was caused by the sublime rooted in the transcendency described in the previous paragraph which derived from the material and its making.
By identifying the invisible – the stories behind-the-scene, the happenings and the intangible materials we can add another layer of material meaning to the work. Rangitahua is the name of the main island of Kermadec Islands, a six-island volcanic arc significant in Maori migratory history as a stepping stone between Hawaiki and Aotearoa (New Zealand). From the NGV label of Rangitahua (Fig.1) we learn that the red vertical band indicated a fracture in the earth’s crust, which could suggest “the heat and friction of two forces confronting each other or evoke the calmer processes of coming together”, and commemorated those who died on Raoul Island including Tokelau slaves buried there last century and Department of Conservation workers who died in the 2006 eruption. This background knowledge demonstrated the complicated relation of this work with its geographical, historical and social past. Moreover, the triggered happenings (conversations and connections) and the implied intangible materials (ideas, knowledge, imagination etc) in the work affected the present and future. In an interview, both Robin White and Ruha Fifita had recalled the relationships developed and the conversation triggered being the most significant part of this collaborative project. Fifita, whose family had been closely involved, recalled the time of cracking tuitui with her father and teaching her sister to draw. Naturally, we can imagine, even without reading the label, groups of folks sitting together all day, loosely yet with an implicit order, processing the barkcloths and patterns and having conversations about life; the elders pass on their knowledge, the younger ones listen and re-connect to their past. All these aspects, even only visible to makers and the learnt viewers, had provided the work, as Judith Ryan writes, ‘layers of meaning, stories, sounds, textures, resonances’, which animates the ngatu with its timbre and depth.
Understanding Rangitahua (Fig.1) as a commemoration of its making process which involved participation and community engagement, paralleled a key feature of contemporary art, which showcased the value of craft. This is elaborated using a comparative analysis between Rangitahua (Fig.1) and Red on black (Fig.2) by Maori Minimalist artist Ralph Hotere. While both works were made by artists of Maori descent with similar colour combination and seemingly non-representative and geometrical composition, they are fundamentally different. Even if we change the positioning of the red lines in Rangitahua (Fig.1) to the middle to form a cross, there would still be something different in these two works. Likewise, the very fine Minimalist feature of the red cross is only a minor element of this divergence. Compared to Rangitahua (Fig.1), Red on black (Fig.2), while withholding as well a sense of sublime, is cold, powerful, rejecting and static. The materiality of Rangitahua including its underlying collaboration beyond a mere commission means a context open to all possibility and conversation, which is arguably a major feature of contemporary art according to Relational Aesthetics and its subsequent theories, instead of one that is generated by the imagination of a single man. Whereas modernist Minimalism can feature a fear of death that was rooted in our complex history since industrialisation and urbanisation, Rangitahua eulogised the acceptance of the infinite unknowability of ocean and death using its black tuitui. While this essay is neither about the judgement of modernism versus contemporary art, nor about the valuation of these two works, it is clear that Rangitahua has created something that the minimalist lacks.
In conclusion, the materiality of craft highlights its value in contemporary cultural and social practice. In Rangitahua (Fig.1), the visible materiality and evidence of the collaborated hands created a transcendent meaning and a sublime experience, whereas the invisible aspects implied a connection to the past, present and future of the involved community and people, adding extra merit to the work. Being compared with a Maori Minimalist work of similar visual elements, this beautifully composed piece has manifested its value in the contemporary art world as a craft.
March, 2018 in Canberra
(This article was submitted as an assessment piece for Issues in Contemporary Craft & Design, a course run by Christina Clarke, SoAD, ANU. All Rights Reserved.)
All the images are from original sites of the galleries or organisations mentioned. Please contact the author for any copyright issue.
 “Siu i Moana: Reaching across the ocean,” NGV, accessed 11 March, 2018, https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/exhibition/siu-i-moana/.
 NGV website, “Siu i Moana.”
 “Siu I Moana Artwork Labels,” NGV, accessed March 11, 2018, https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Siu_I_Moana-Artwork-Labels.pdf.
 Poems on the exhibition wall in Siu i Moana at NGV, originally from Epeli Hau’ofa, ‘The ocean in us’, in We Are the Ocean: Selected Works, University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu, 2008, p. 59.
 NGV, “Siu i Moana.”
 “Rangitahua,” Pasifika Media Association, accessed March 11, 2018, http://pacific-media.org/pasifika-regions/rangitahua.
 NGV, “Siu I Moana Artwork Labels.”
 Meliame Tauali'i-Fifita, “Interview with Robin White and Ruha Fifita,” interview by Meliame Tauali'i-Fifita, SBS Tongan, SBS, June 8, 2016, audio, 12:16, https://www.sbs.com.au/yourlanguage/tongan/en/audiotrack/interview-robin-white-and-ruha-fifita.
 Tauali'i-Fifita, interview.
 Judith Ryan, “SIU I MOANA: REACHING ACROSS THE OCEAN,” NGV, accessed 11 March, 2018, https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/essay/siu-i-moana-reaching-across-the-ocean/.
 Christina Murdoch Mills, "Materiality as the Basis for the Aesthetic Experience in Contemporary Art" (Graduate Student Theses, Dissertations, & Professional Papers, University of Montana, 2009). 1289. https://scholarworks.umt.edu/etd/1289.
 Nicholas Bourriaud, “Excerpts of Relational Aesthetics,” in Participation, ed. Claire Bishop (Cambridge: Whitechapel Gallery Ventures Limited and The MIT Press, 2006), 160-171.
 Carolyn Steel, Hungry city: How Food Shapes Our Lives (New York: Random House, 2013), 263-266.