WHAT CRAFT IS MISSING: Conversation to Continueby Namita Gupta Wiggers
A longtime volunteer at our museum recently expressed discomfort with the content of the current exhibition. She explained that as a third generation American, the way in which America is represented in the exhibition disturbed her. Surprised at her reaction, I applaud her for expressing her own view. I do not agree with her position, but I appreciate how her dissension is challenging me to articulate concerns I have about the field in which I work, and is pushing me to reframe the questions that drive my own craft-focused curatorial practice.
The exhibition in question, This is Not a Silent Movie, features the work of four Native American artists from Alaska. On the one hand, the work could be categorized and presented in any number of ways: craft, contemporary art, indigenous art, Native American art, political, social folk, photography, sculpture, sound and video, mixed media, etc. Curated by Julie Decker, and organized by the Craft and Folk Art Museum, Los Angeles in collaboration with the Anchorage Museum, it has been framed by the organizers as a presentation of work by Alaskan Native artists who “question institutional methods of identifying Native heritage, examine their own mixed-race identities, and challenge perceptions and stereotypes about indigenous people.” When asked how he prefers to be introduced, Nicholas Galanin, one of the artists included in the exhibition responded, “It doesn’t matter to me. How you choose to define my work tells me more about you.” The work by the four artists individually, and the exhibition as a whole refuse neat categorization. Engagement with the work turns the contemporary craft lens into a mirror, requiring craft history to recognize a broader, shared past that is not adequately reflected in museums dedicated to craft at this time.
Let’s step back for a moment. In 2004, the craft world I entered was reeling from the removal of the word “craft” from the names of a museum in New York City and a college in California. Many of the scholars and curators recognized as leaders in the field right now were barely out of graduate school or just establishing themselves in museums. Faythe Levine hadn’t embarked on her DIY documentary Handmade Nation, and the idea of a leadership conference to bring together those working in the field was merely an idea in the workrooms of the American Craft Council.
Craft, at that moment, needed—and continues to need—a range of voices to convey the breadth and depth of the field, to extend the work of leaders in past generations who stubbornly refused to let it disappear from view. I am always ready to fight for craft—and for museums. During the past 10 years, I’ve challenged museum exhibition formats which restrict touch or confine objects within the museum, such as Touching Warms the Art (2008) in which visitors could handle, wear, and self-document themselves adorned in contemporary art jewelry from around the globe, and Object Focus: The Bowl (2013), which engaged artists to extend the museum experience beyond the brick-and-mortar location into homes, restaurants, and via the Internet. Others challenge the museum to serve as a platform to recognize shifts in practice, such as Manuf®actured: The Conspicuous Transformation of Everyday Objects (curated by Steven Skov Holt and Mara Holt Skov, 2008), which called attention to the permeable boundaries between art, craft, and design, and Gestures of Resistance (curated by Judith Leemann and Shannon Stratton, 2010), which explored craft actions and craft as an agent for change. Documenting regional craftspeople—overlooked women, in particular—opens a space for alternative methods of presenting primary research, resulting in, for example, Generations: Betty Feves (2012) and Nikki McClure: Cutting Her Own Path, 1996 – 2013 (2014).
This is good work, programming of which I am proud and which I recognize has pushed the limits of craft, particularly how craft is presented and experienced in a museum environment. But what I am seeing now is something I inadvertently dropped along the way. When we opened our newly relocated Museum of Contemporary Craft in 2007, the first exhibition was Craft in America, curated by Jo Lauria. The title immediately begs several questions: Whose America? What American identities are represented in this checklist? Does it engage contemporary craft traditions outside of Western art history and the hybridity of life in the United States? The exhibition included a number of artists from a range of ethnic backgrounds, each of whom make work that fits to a degree in what is now known as the American Craft Movement. My reaction to the project was to install against the norm. Rather than structure the work historically or by media, I created a subtly subversive message that entrance into Craft in America meant addressing ethnic and cultural diversity from the start: George Nakashima’s bench front and center, Native American baskets and Preston Singletary’s glass with Dale Chihuly’s glass cylinders based on traditional indigenous forms, and David Clemmons’s handforged chitlin’ servers, the de la Torre brothers soccer player, and Wendy Maruyama’s Mickey Macintosh chair in quick succession to the right.
The challenge I take on, as a curator of craft, is moving outside of the art versus craft divide in a different way. Making craft reach the “status of art” feels irrelevant when craft is being used as a brand buzzword by companies as diverse as Starbucks, McDonalds, Dominos, Ford, Hermés, and Louis Vuitton. For me, it will mean pushing myself to mine non-academically trained craftspeople who are far outside recognized cultural circles as much as from those for whom academic credentials are citations of lineage. Moving craft to understand that its power and strength does not come from the art world, but from its breadth and depth across cultural connections means stepping outside of a history of visual arts that prioritizes one discourse over all others. It will push me outside my comfort zone. It means more work, longer durations to prepare projects, and connecting with communities in exciting new ways. For me, this has the potential to move craft through the marketplace and value issues of the art industry, as well as through the seduction of the New Americana that looks like craft with Raleigh Denim jeans, smells like craft with every heritage brand sausage, and tastes like craft with hand-poured coffee.
Craft in America needs to embrace and engage the diversity of craft practices in contemporary culture right now. The field must move away from accidental primitivism where centuries old indigo dying techniques are appropriated as recipes, potters creating tea bowls in a Mingei style versus a Mingei tradition, and artists/craftspeople working through contemporary approaches to heritage crafts outside of Western norms are no longer relegated to pop-up ethnic exhibitions or ethnically-focused institutions, but are instead incorporated into the discourse of craft history. Craft needs to be a broader subject, one which makes space for diversity and difference. Because, truth be told, as an American born of South Asian origin, those Raleigh Denim jeans are as much a part of my history as Edward Curtis’s photos of the “Vanishing Indian” and my grandmother’s lessons on Indian embroidery techniques. The artists included in This is Not A Silent Movie are fully immersed in Western art history as much as their individual cultural lineages. I want craft to do the same—to simultaneously engage multiple viewpoints, perspectives, and histories happening outside of museums and academia as much as the brilliant work taking place within those arenas most comfortable for those of us in the craftscape. I want an American Craft Movement that has space for more.
ContributorNamita Gupta Wiggers
Namita Gupta Wiggers is the Director and Chief Curator of the Museum of Contemporary Craft in partnernship with Pacific Northwest College of Art, Portland, OR. She is the co-founder of Critical Craft Forum, and serves on the Board of Trustees of the American Craft Council.