Island Welcome review (Craft, Melbourne)

Jewellery can have significance beyond the aesthetic. It can say: this is who I am. It can say: this is my affiliation. A string of cultured pearls can signify the group that you belong to, or that you hope to belong to. Likewise for a studded black leather choker, or a low-slung double-thread of handmade beads.  Jewellery is one way in which people announce their tribe.

This coded social messaging is explored and exploited in Island Welcome, an exhibition of contemporary Australian jewellery. Each of the 15 participating artists has created a welcome garland in response to Australia’s current immigration and refugee policies. The great diversity of the work is matched by its quality.

The exhibition curator, Belinda Newick, states that Island Welcome is a way to ‘acknowledge our shared humanity’. Her own contribution, Hope, wrings beauty and dignity from uncompromising silver and stainless steel. She subverts the visual syntax of razor wire, shaping it into a recurring pattern of teardrop loops and replacing the cruel barbs with origami butterflies wrought from steel mesh.

Almost all of the exhibited pieces exemplify the circularity inherent in a garland.  Displayed as they are on walls, the viewer’s eye starts at any point of the work, follows around the circle, and starts again. It is redolent of the life cycle, of circular political arguments, of islands we imagine to be circular in not-so-distant seas. It reminds us that the nature of circles is to delineate between what – and who – is inside, and what and who is on the outer.

Crossing the shore line by Alice Whish is a standout piece, a memorable marriage of technique and substance, comprising a string of exquisitely sculpted white porcelain pieces, fine as bird bones. Whish has created an uncomfortable garland offering a cold welcome to Australia, this chill unrelieved by the conventionally pleasing natural forms of leaves and barnacles that she has chosen to replicate.

A secret to the power of the exhibition is the implicit invitation to imagine placing each garland around your neck, in a literal sense making the political personal through bodily intimacy.

The largest piece, Maree Clarke’s Black river reed necklace with crow feathers, commands the entry to the exhibition space. Clarke is a Yorta Yorta/Wamba Wamba/ Mutti Mutti/Boonwurrung woman, and her regal construction of crow feathers and dyed river reeds is a reminder of the long tradition of ceremonial neckware in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. The international focus on Indigenous painting often distracts from the longer traditions of jewellery making across the continent, from the famed shell necklaces of Tasmania to the egret feather garlands of Arnhem Land.

Some of the most effective works are those that reveal the potential inherent but hidden within materials. Nicky Hepburn’s Seaweed Lei uses dried seaweed that is as bleached and twisted as Russell Drysdale’s fallen trees. Kath Inglis’s Lei from the welcome mat (pictured above) creates something charming out of faceted segments hand cut from an old pair of black thongs. There is pleasing use of colour in Michelle Cangiano’s embossed paper piece Welcome, and in Liv Boyle’s artful Welcome Swallow, which showcases gradations achieved through dyeing silk with native plant material.

A secret to the power of the exhibition is the implicit invitation to imagine placing each garland around your neck, in a literal sense making the political personal through bodily intimacy; an invitation to ‘try on’ the ideas being expressed. While the political standpoint is obvious, most artists resist the slide towards didacticism. The message-making is allusive rather than reductive. This balance is subverted in the artist statements, which lay bare the concerns both political and personal.

It is invigorating to see Craft (formerly Craft Victoria) engaging with an overtly political theme through a thoughtful and well realised exhibition. Craft (the activity, not the organisation) can communicate across community boundaries. It is traditionally inclusive, the preserve of hearth and table rather than studio or gallery. The decision to conduct a discussion of our national policies on refugees at this level and through this mechanism should be applauded. At the same time, Island Welcome expands the possibilities of jewellery as an art form, a corrective to any notion that it is mere adornment without greater meaning.

Most of all, this well-staged exhibition provokes further thinking about the tendentious approach to refugees promoted by the Federal Government and acceded to by the broader populace, and what role art and craft can play in critiquing public policy. Some of the 56 mesh butterflies on Ms Newick’s garland have been printed with two articles from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They are words that should be read and read again, and hung forever around out national neck:

Article 1: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 14: Everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.

Island Welcome is at Craft, Watson Place, Melbourne, until 30 June, 2018.

(Image: Kath Inglis, A Lei from the welcome mat, 2017, used thongs, silk thread, sterling silver, patina. Photo: Kathe Inglis)

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