The path we took: Stewardship


11 March 2021

This issue is dedicated to the memory of Gladys Tybingoompa (1946-2006) who was a maker, weaver, dancer, warrior, intellectual and keeper of Law.

So begins the second journey. We started five years ago exploring the value of what is made across the wider world. This revealed a divided world.

As we know from traditional cultures, the binary oppositions, like moieties, such as wet and dry, structure rituals and give meaning to the world. But without coming into relation, these binaries can descend into a zero-sum game of tribal conflict, especially if amplified by social media algorithms that are tearing apart democracies.

Objects can bridge these binaries. The bowl brings wet and dry into relation with each other. Traditional designs can be made new. Our second journey explores the questions that have been raised and looks to the objects that may contain the answers.

The ideal of partnership with nature was a strong theme in the first journey. In the case of Abe Muriata, weaving the jawun baskets involved maintaining the rainforests where the cane grew.

This is a collective journey, guided by pathfinders who move from question to question. The pathfinders were Cara Johnson, Charlotte Haywood, Elliat Rich, Ilka White, Jenan Taylor, Josephine Jakobi, Jules Christian, Khushbu Mathur, Lee Darroch, Patrick Jones, Peta Kruger, Samorn Sanixay, Tessa Laird and Tyson Yunkaporta. We began by asking, How can we partner with nature?

This question addresses the core narrative in craft: homo faber. The Renaissance ideal of “man as the measure of all things” involved a story of species exceptionalism. In this story, craft was testimony to the exceptional capacity of humans, particularly in the unique power of the opposable thumb. This complemented the theology of dominion, which sees the world as divinely created to serve humankind.

Pathfinders discovered many objects made by humans for other species, such as the ceramic spawning habitats for fish by Jane Bamford. But this still presumes that nature is something distinct from humans, which they brought into question. This led to a broader question: How can species work together? A common move is to observe the number of foreign organisms that make up a healthy human body, particularly the biome: 10 times as many microbial cells in the human body as there are human cells. These relations are reflected in stories by Elliat Rich through the waratah, plant entanglements by Charlotte Haywood, the creative use of decay by Samorn Sanixay and the response to settler alienation by Cara Johnson.

Culturally too, humans can be considered multispecies organisms. The question from an Indigenous perspective was How do other species define who we are? Humans have turned to other species for their identities, from the Zodiac to totems. The positive psychological impact of being “in nature” is indisputable. This issue has a strong eel story, as a totem for Jules Christian and symbol of reconciliation for Neil Murray. Moon Yujin offers a psychological perspective from South Korea. Aunty Gail Koonwarra Dawson shares the story of Parbayin Betayil, the mother whale who created Nerrm (Melbourne). Birds also figure strongly, including the heron for Ilka White, Bundjil the eagle for Cassie Leatham and lorikeets for Elisa Jane Carmichael.

But should forgoing our anthropocentrism mean that humans should not attempt to control nature for any reason. The story of the anthropocene is of human presence becoming entangled with the “natural” order. Lockdown had many tragic stories of animals that had become dependent on human visitors.

The positive alternative of dominion is custodianship. In the latter case, the very purpose of humans on the planet is to care for other species and protect biodiversity. Rather than homo faber, this is homo curae the curator/gardener. We see this in many Indigenous regenerative soil practices such as fire farming that have sustained a fertile environment over millennia. For Tyson Yunkaporta a key role for humans is to increase the connectedness of things. Hape Kiddle‘s custodian object activates a connection to country. And we have two Dutch perspectives: Melanie Bomans’ day in the life of a linen steward and the material passport developed by Thomas Rau and Sabine Oberhuber.

In craft, the relevance of circular economy is articulated by Joseph Lo, as exemplified in Malaysia according to Zhi Yee. Jes Johns describes jewellery that works with nature, which demonstrates the biophilia outlined by Helen Ting.

Elsewhere in the world of makers, Maegan Black presents an exhibition of masks by Canadian first nation artists, Stefan and Magnus Danerek take us to an Indonesian island with a strong fibre tradition, Pamela See the dialogue between nationalism and western influence in Chinese papercutting landscapes and Sayumi Yokouchi shows the creative power held in three little words.

Yet the traditional and Indigenous frameworks for custodianship conflict with a liberal wariness of hierarchy, which would prefer an equality of species. We keep walking…

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