Centrepiece for a Peripheral Nation



'Centrepiece for a peripheral nation' Craft Victoria Autumn 25: 7-10 (1995)

In Adelaide last year, I was walking past a railway station when a figure came out of the shadows asking for small change. We chatted about nothing for a while and as I was departing he asked me `Are you nunga?' For a split second I wasn't sure--perhaps there had been a little aboriginal mixed with the Irish blood in my veins. No, that's a romantic fantasy, I'm simply a... I hesitated for a moment. To reply that I was an `Australian' implied that he was not. In the end I said `No, I'm European'. It was an uncomfortable compromise. I never think of Europe as a place where I belong. I found out later that I could have replied `No, I'm balander', but I can't carry that word into daily life. In the aborginal gaze, my identity seems fixed as a descendent of the British colonisers.

The idea of a republic hardly features as news of the day any more.  Inevitably, the economy has pushed this more symbolic issue to the sidelines. When it does re-emerge with the Sydney Olympics and the anniversary of Federation, it will hopefully be responsive to these everyday problems of national identity. While events in the former Yugoslavia should caution us about the wish to cleanse ourselves of an ethnic group, there is a time in the history of a nation to form a common contract, independently of interests elsewhere.

But is it that easy? Will it be enough simply to take the Union Jack from the corner of the Australian flag? It would be a mistake to pluck the English rose while leaving the plant firmly rooted in Australian soil. What's needed is a cultural `stocktake' to ascertain how much of ourselves is cast in an English mould. Where would the crafts fit in this?

British to the core

The range of British influence is demonstrated by the extremes of public and private life. A walk down Melbourne's William Street, between Lonsdale and Bourke, provides a readily identifiable set of British symbols in Australian public life. The formalities of the court--the wig and gown, legalistic phrases, deference to the judge--differ little from those in Old Bailey. It would seem a relatively straightforward matter to identify these public trappings of British rule for review.

At the other end of the range, however, it may not be so easy to discern where Britishness begins and ends. If you had to summarise the Australian disposition, what would it be? The virtues of a `quiet achiever'--lack of fuss, efficiency, down to earth manner, getting the job done--place pratical value before the expression of feeling. In 1859, the best selling English moralist Samuel Smiles attributed his nation's colonising talents to a similar shy and practical character:

The English are inartistic for the same reason as they are unsociable. They make good colonists, sailors and mechanics; they they do not make good singers, dancers, actors, artistes, or modistes.1

Likewise, Australian public life is mostly calm and orderly. When people gather on the street, they form queues rather than mobs. It is difficult to fathom just how far the Anglo love of order reaches in our unconscious.

The tea ceremony

The national identity of the decorative arts comes somewhere between the public and the personal spheres. We can look to domestic life for evidence of the role that the crafted object plays in keeping up English appearances.

As an example, take a cup of tea. Imagine a guest invited to share tea in a Camberwell home on a Sunday afternoon. She is ushered into the lounge room and offered an upholstered armchair in which to rest. During preliminary conversation--remarks on recent weather or the purple azaleas--the housewife begins preparation of a pot of tea. Unlike the Japanese tea ceremony, the drink here must be steaming hot--`bring the pot to the kettle, not the kettle to the pot'. The pot is fitted with a tea cosy and turned in a ritualistic sequence.

The tea is then brought in on a tray with china cups and saucers, sugar bowl, strainer, teaspoons, small plates, cake forks and a light flour cake, such a sponge, lamington or scones.2  While all drink from the same pot, the guest is granted a circumscribed choice--`How do you take it?' `White with two sugars, please'. Conversation then turns to family, home renovations, health and holiday plans. There is no room in this ceremony for fault or recrimination. The only disagreement will come as the guest refuses the offer of a final cup of tea to depart--`no thanks, it's getting late, I must be off'.

The character of this ritual becomes more distinctive when contrasted with ceremonies which await guests in other cultures. At the south-east edge of Europe, the entry of a guest into an Albanian home begins on a very different footing: shoes are removed before entering the home. In doing so, the guest sheds the means of individual mobility. Before settling on a rug with his hosts, it is customary for the guest to attend to the fire and request more wood. While this occurs, a grandmother sits in the background grinding coffee to a powder in a Turkish-style mill. Once ground, she places the coffee on a pot with water and sugar and boils it three times. This brew is then poured into small cups without handles or saucers.

Without asking, the guest is given one of these cups, often with a cigarette or an anise flavoured spirit called raki. This is received with thanks--`I pray to your honour'. After information is exchanged about families, the conversation turns to politics, particularly the trustworthiness of certain candidates. If the meeting goes favourably, the guest will often leave with a spontaneous gift.

The event can sometimes, however, be marred by insult. According to an Albanian proverb, `Hospitality honours you, but also creates problems for you.' If hospitality has been violated, the guest will be offered coffee with the left hand. In an extreme situation--when the guest is in a state of dishonour due to an unavenged crime--the traditional code (Kanun) prescribes that the host offers coffee from under his knee.

There aren't that many Albanians in Australia. At the most, those of Albanian background represent a third of a percent of Australia's population. Yet the presence of customs such as theirs is important in defining the peculiar Anglo strains that persist in the Australian way of life. At the heart of this difference is the production of objects which orchestrate the rituals that bind people together at an intimate level.

Is local colour enough?

In the late nineteenth century, arguments for a national decorative arts focused on the presence of Australian motifs. A stained glass maker, Lucien Henry, argued in 1889 that crafts are essential in laying the foundation of a new culture. Henry had been sent to New Caledonia for his role in the Paris Commune and afterwards settled in Sydney. By contrast with the fine arts, Henry saw crafts as integrated into the practical business of establishing new civilisations.

The result of their [archeologists] patient and ingenious work has been not only to supply history proper with reliable facts of immense value, but also to assign their true place to the Decorative Arts, which have been proved to constitute the substrata of civilization, the rich soil from which the other arts draw their sap, without which they could not rise above the ground and grow and tower into the blue sky.3

Henry's agricultural metaphor for the decorative arts--`the rich soil from which other arts draw their sap'--suggests a need for a culture which springs naturally from Australian life rather than one artificially grafted onto a native plant.

To today's thinking, there are two obvious limits to Henry's argument. First, his push for a proud and independent culture is limited by European models: he looks to the epic of western civilization rather than the hybridised connections possible with south-east Asia. And more than that, his challenge is restricted to the decorative features of objects rather than the nature of the objects themselves. Henry seems Australianness in the presence of local flora and fauna as motifs of tea sets, candlesticks and illumination.

An example of the kind of work Henry would celebrate is the Saint Testimonial centerpiece, featured by the Women's Weekly (November 1985) as the leading illustration in their review of Treasures of the Nation.4  The centrepiece was made by the Viennese trained and Hungarian born silversmith, Ernest Leviny. Leviny travelled to Australia in 1853 with the hope of finding gold and, like Eugen von Guerard, failed at the diggings and so returned to his artistic skills. He opened a flourishing watchmaking and jewellery business in Castlemaine which gave him the leisure to produce a number of complex ornaments that eventually became presentation pieces. The Saint Testimonial silver centrepiece was presented to the proprietor of the Mt. Alexander Mail on his leaving and can now be seen in the National Gallery of Victoria.

The centrepiece was read at the time as an allegorical work. At the top is a woman representing Victoria, with a wreath in each hand and gold at her feet. On the next tier are models of Australian bush scenery including native fauna. Sitting on the base are four figures: a woman representing commerce sitting on a train with a chart in one hand and the Caduceus in the other; a husband with a scyth; a digger panning successfully for gold; and an aboriginal figure in the act of throwing a spear.

One of the striking features of the Saint Testimonial is the contrast between the bush scenery and the mannerist devices--dragons and grapes--which grant the piece a theatrical air. This is the kind of contrast celebrated today in the film, Priscilla of the Desert, except that it is Budapest extravagance that finds itself at the billabong not Las Vegas camp. These mannerist devices reflect the formalities of a presentation ceremony with its rounds of toasts and testimonials.5

The presence of this ornate object in the NGV is useful for a number of reasons. As a device for measuring the distance between the gold rush years and today, it asks a number of questions. Is retirement now something celebrated purely by accountants as they negotiate redundancy payouts and superannuations? And if such a piece were to be produced today, using that same allegorical structure, what kinds of figures would it display? Perhaps it would be identical figures linked in a network of  mobile telephones and computers.

Here we reach a limit. In craft--just as in television--each medium has its message. A centrepiece befits a hierarchical society in which individuals contribute to the glory of the ascendant. It ideally suits a world of empires in which meaning turns centripetally to England. Nowadays, with the rapid circulation of capital, it is difficult to identify where the centre is.

One reaction against the imperial showcase is to replace the European forms with aboriginal artefacts. The boomerang and didgeridoo, however, speak more for an abnegation, rather than reformation, of culture . It says: let the colourful aboriginal groups take care of a national image so us balander can get back to work. The challenge exists to go more deeply into the mine of national identity.

The time is ripe to hear from those whose parents travelled to Australia from lands beyond the Commonwealth--those who are Vietnamese, Greek, Sicilan, Chilean and Somalia at home, yet become Aussies out on the street. But there's a similar danger in pushing these `hybrids' to front stage as evidence of diversity and colour. Imagine if the situation were reversed. Rather than an Anglophone country opening its doors to people beyond the commonwealth, what if Australia had been colonised by the other country? What kinds of crafts would distinguish the Australian decorative arts if we were one of the French colonies, part of the Spanish empire, a southern island of Indonesia, or a portion of greater Vietnam?

Once the republic comes into focus again, we can expect a hunger for distinctively Australian objects. In order to know what they might be, it seems critical to seriously consider a range of alternatives. The new and confident generation of children from non-English parents are just the people to come up with the goods. Their contribution is essential to `turn the soil' so that a new society might be cultivated. With due care, it may be a society where nunga and balander can share a cup of tea knowing what to call each other.

Special thanks to Terrence Lane at the NGV.

1 Samuel Smiles Character London: John Murray, 1859 p. 259

2 A keen observer of the tea ceremony, Patrick White, noted that the status of a home was correlated with the number of tiers on a cake tray.

3 Lucien Henry `Australian Decorative Arts' in Documents on Art and Taste in Australia 1770-1914 (edited by Bernard Smith) Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1975

4 `Australian's museums and galleries are full of unique and precious artefacts, some the finest of their kind in the world, and all of them a record of the skills and people who helped build out country' (opening paragraph).

5 The Melbourne Post reports of the presentation at Theatre Royal, Castlemaine, that `a large number of ladies were present' and `a large number of leading burgesses and professional men occupied seats on the stage surrounding the Mayor'. (25 February 1864, p. 10)