A new deal?

Common Goods

The great powers of the world may have done wonders in giving the world an industrial and military look, but the greatest gift still has to come from Africa—giving the world a more human face.

Steve Biko 1

11 September 2006 marks the 100 th anniversary of satyagraha , the method of non-violence originally developed by Mahatma Gandhi to protect the rights of Indians in South Africa. In the one hundred years since, Gandhi's pacifist methods seem to be outmoded by terrorist activities such as the more recent 11 September in 2001.

However, with increasing suspicion towards foreigners since 2001, it is important to re-consider the humanist ideals that were forged last century. Ideals such as ubuntu , or humanness, enabled South Africans to vanquish apartheid while avoiding civil war. Their success offers an example for others.

Ideals of the ‘common good' held by countries of the global south provide the present context for cultural exchange. Common Goods draws in particular on the wealth of cultural capital enjoyed by southern countries. Though often isolated, these countries enjoy an abundance of unique craft skills. Such creative capacities are generously packaged with values and rituals that celebrate a common humanity.

When bringing representatives from traditional backgrounds to a country like Australia, it is difficult to avoid terms such as ‘developing' or ‘third world'. These words assume that the rest of the world must ‘catch up' with advanced Western nations. This contradicts the sense that in certain capacities, such as collective solidarity, public life and hospitality, these nations can be seen as more developed. Focusing on these cultural strengths enables countries like Australia to re-discover its own traditions of hospitality.

So how can we develop an exchange that is genuinely reciprocal, where both partners have something to give and something to receive ?

World craft

While in the political or economic spheres, we tend to see third world countries as catching up with the West, it is easier in the cultural arena to think otherwise. The recent ‘world' genre of arts promises a reciprocal platform for cultural exchange. ‘World music', ‘world cinema' and ‘world literature' offer Western audiences ways to engage imaginatively with cultures from less wealthy nations. What we might call ‘world craft' trades on creative skill as a lingua franca that enables people of disparate cultures to communicate with each other. It makes it possible for an artisan from an African village to talk with a designer-maker from an inner city apartment.

As with world music, craft skills can be exchanged in a way that leads to the enrichment of participating cultures. The history of modern ceramics is exemplary. The exchange of English values and Japanese pottery techniques was one of the most significant developments in twentieth-century craft. Australian potters such as Col Levy found Japanese wood-firing techniques to be a powerful language for expressing sense of place. Japanese potters like Shoji Hamada drew courage from the Puritan sensibility of the English ceramicist Bernard Leach. As a manipulation of the material world, craft techniques can be transferred across language and culture.

‘World craft' has mutual benefits. Relatively wealthy countries like Australia are experiencing a craft revival. With movements such as the knitting revolution, twenty-somethings are seeking an alternative to consumer culture. Craft offers a means of making one's own meaning from materials at hand, rather than acquiring a shrink-packed reality from a placeless brand. Australian craftspersons in particular have a reputation for travelling to remote traditional communities; they seek to imbibe a lifestyle whose rhythms suit the patient making process. And in more mainstream areas, handmade processes are becoming more popular in a variety of creative practices, including graphic design, photography and sculpture. Craft is a force of production in a world so bent on consumption.

While world craft is experiencing this increased profile in Australia, it can sometimes be taken for granted in its country of origin. Keen to find sources of economic growth, craft is often associated with labour-intensive cottage industries that have tenuous profit margins. Though in new democracies there is strong support for the traditional cultures of the 'previously disadvantaged', progress is often identified with more abstract forms of labour, such as design and technology. Government bodies like South Africa's Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research develop initiatives to ‘upgrade' craft skills to a more industrial scale of production.

In countries like Australia, there is an alternative path—to the art gallery. Australia has a contemporary craft scene that is growing in confidence, particularly as it transforms artisanal skills into aesthetic techniques. In Australia, we are seeing younger artists learning traditional needlecrafts practiced by the Country Women's Association. A new generation of makers is appreciating the unique local craft heritage at a time when it is in danger of dying out.

So how can we realise the potential of ‘world craft'?

The deal

Common Goods strikes a deal: traditional artisanal skills for a modern artistic license. During the course of month-long residencies, visiting artists bring skills that are rare to Australia. These techniques might have existed once, like darning, or have never been practiced here, like wire weaving. In Australia, these artisanal skills are interpreted through collaboration with a local artist. The idea is to transform a practical skill into something that can be viewed as a creative expression. In many cases, this opportunity offers a way for the guest artist to gain more value in his or her work and grow in confidence. For the hosts, there is the chance to learn a new technique that can add to their creative repertoire. A critical part of the collaboration is the negotiation regarding this exchange. It requires trust that skills and ideas will be treated with respect.

Some of the craft skills are traditional, such as the Maori weaving practiced by Te Atiwei Ririnui, lace-making by Mary Farrugia, darning by Rafoogars Zakir Hussain and Intekhab Ahmed and the stone carving by the Maldivian Ahmad Nimad. In other cases, traditional techniques have been adapted to new materials, such as telephone wire weaving by Hlengiwe Dube and the lei-making by Niki Hastings-McFall. And we see in Chandragupta Thenuwara's barrellism the development of a new ornamental language using local materialisations of militarism in Sri Lanka.

While each of these individuals produces works, their role in Common Goods extends to nurturing their culture's craft capital. During the month of February 2006, these foreign skills are matched with local artistic knowledge. The results of these collaborations will be an enduring legacy of the power of common goods.

What are the broader cultural concepts that underlie this deal?

The empire of common goods

‘Common good' is a standard of political philosophy. It is attached in our time to concepts of social capital, public domain and open source. Used here in the plural, it refers to a variety of shared ideals, each reflecting a belief in humanness but not reduced to a single concept. More specifically, ‘common goods' implies works made from ordinary materials—the stuff at hand. Increasingly, craft artists adopt an itinerant method that can turn whatever their environment offers into precious works.

Common Goods is an umbrella project of the South Project, designed to explore south-south dialogue over four years. At an initial gathering of southern artists and writers in Melbourne July 2004, South African writer Mbulelo Mzamane associated the project with a ‘rediscovery of the common'. During this talk, he also invoked the value of ubuntu , or humanness, which finds forgiveness in a victory over the oppressor.

As a circuit breaker to political revenge, ubuntu is a celebrated manifestation of the African Renaissance, which looks to traditional concepts to guide its path through modernity. The modern use of ubuntu is particularly noted in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where previous victims of Apartheid confronted their enemies. Reverend Desmond Tutu championed ubuntu as a way of giving non-violence a positive agency; it is not just submission to superior force. As such it is often identified with the Gandhian concept of satyagraha . This alliance between ubuntu and satyagraha has spread throughout the post-colonial world.

Cognate concepts have been developed in the struggle of colonies to overcome the legacy of violence. In Africa, the Swahili concept harambee (‘working together') was critical in Kenyatta's vision of a post-colonial Kenya. The other Swahili concept ujamaa (‘family') provided the mission for Tanzania's independence under Julius Nyerere. The Gandhian project spread to other countries like Sri Lanka, where s hramadana (the gift of labour) encouraged spirit of togetherness in poor villages. Outside of these developments, there are traditional values such as the Maori manaakitanga , Wurrundjeri tandurrum , Maldivian aogartherikan that reflect an identification of cultural confidence with generosity to guests.

To interpret these concepts, writers have been commissioned from each of the cultures featured in Common Goods . These are distinguished authors who have often chosen local activism in preference to international profile. Using their rich knowledge of local culture, they were invited to select a word from their own culture that enabled identification with people outside their own world.

Their essays mark the context for the exchange of crafts skills between Australia and eight other countries. We not only learn their skills, but imbibe their humanity. It is then up to us to repay this debt with our own knowledge and hospitality. A good deal, eh?


1 Steve Biko was a South African activist who was killed in custody on 12 September 1977. The quote is taken from a conference in Natal, 1971.