“What is the meaning of the handmade in our world today?”, he asked.
The Garland journey involves uncovering new sources of interest in craft. China may seem an unlikely location, given its focus on being a factory to the world. But this is changing with rising incomes, greater confidence and a renewed interest in its traditional cultures. Much change is China is being led by the second and third-tier cities, each of which has a population equivalent to a small nation. Ambitious mayors are seeking to put their city on the world stage.
Qingdao seems an unlikely leader in world craft. This city of 10 million sits on the Yellow Sea opposite South Korea. It has been a centre for sea trade and was during the early 20th century under German administration. This has left a legacy of the famous Tsingtao beer and China’s first cinema, which helped it gain status as the UNESCO City for Cinema.
Under the guidance of the China Arts and Crafts Association, Qingdao has been developing a proposal to host a World Crafts Council International Cultural Centre. CACA has worked closely with many similar cities to assist in their nomination as a World Craft City. The city has put considerable resources into this proposal, even offering what was once Asia’s largest stock exchange as a potential venue for offices, galleries, studios and a library.
As a member of the World Crafts Council – Asia Pacific board, I have been involved in discussions at a government level. While there were clear political interests at play, I wasn’t sure to what extent this might represent the aspirations of the broader population. I offered to give a lecture to students of the Qingdao University of Technology, in the hope it might lead to an open discussion. They were reticent at first, but we had a good translator, which strengthened the dialogue. I was reassured to hear the searching nature of their questions. Of course, my intention was not to bat this question back with a definitive answer, but to open it up to other questions, such as the value of links to the past, the unique language of expression through materials and the development of stories that connect people together.
I have hopes that this kind of dialogue will continue as China seeks to unlock its own creative energy. With luck, and some political will, many craft practitioners from around the world will be visiting Qingdao to celebrate its cosmopolitanism and share their unique techniques.
One of the challenges is the different value of craft in China, where it is often associated with extreme levels of technical skill, associated with the label “exquisite”. This is not often the case in the craft cultures of other countries, such as Australia. My talk was an attempt to reflect a value of craft that drew on the artistic intentions of the maker. Here is the talk I gave in Qingdao: Telling stories through craft.
I asked the meaning of the banner that festooned the lecture hall. I was told it says, “Don’t forget your destiny.” It seems craft is very much part of China’s future.
Kevin Murray is Managing Editor of Garland and Senior Vice-President of the World Crafts Council – Asia Pacific.