Archive for September, 2018

Artful microcosms of cultural ecology

Sunday, September 30th, 2018


Fig 1 Logo of the Club of Rome: a microcosm of humanity on Earth.

In April 1968, a group of thirty individuals from ten countries,scientists, educators, economists, humanists, industrialists, and national and international civil servants, gathered in the Accademia dei Lincei in Rome. They met at the instigation of Dr. Aurelio Peccei, an Italian industrial manager, economist, and man of vision, to discuss a subject of staggering scope; the present and future predicament of humanity. Out of this meeting grew The Club of Rome, an informal organization that was aptly described as an “invisible college.” Its purposes were to foster understanding of the varied but interdependent components, economic, political, natural, and social-that make up the global system in which we all live; to bring that new understanding to the attention of policy-makers and the public worldwide; and in this way to promote new policy initiatives and action.  The predicament now is how to address climate change in order to live sustainably. With respect to new actions, this blog addresses the question, what is the role and the potential of the arts in bringing about the cultural change required to live within Earth’s ecological limits? That was the question pursued by Melita Rogelj as her Master’s thesis for the School for International Training in Vermont (graduated in 2000).

Rogelj set out to answer the following questions in her research:

  • What is the connection between the arts and sustainability?
  • What is a new way to think about the arts that would inspire and facilitate a transition to increased levels of sustainability?
  • What is the importance of art for sustainability?

Her approach was:

“…… to associate sustainability with cultural evolution.  In order to achieve sustainability, I believe we must become a society of artists, willing to take creative risks, attempting to make connections and leap across disciplines and cultures in ways previously not attempted, or even imagined.”

There is an urgent need to develop the underlying theory and principles of “sustainability science,” based on an understanding of the fundamental interactions between nature and humans. This requires a new research and education paradigm that embraces biocomplexity, integrates the physical, biological, and social sciences, and uses a coupled, human–natural systems approach.  For this purpose, a cross-cultural, interdisciplinary mindset is needed to enlarge the discursive space of museums, schools, universities, disciplines and collections of objects by pushing at their conceptual boundaries. The knowledge produced from objects such as works of art is quite distinct from textual knowledge. But while we would like to believe that sharp boundaries define the functions of knowledge objects each is really the tip of an interdisciplinary iceberg.  Objects are the basis for thinking about microcosms, where the object stands for much deeper thought. ‘Microcosmic’ refers to the idea that parts or relations that define an entity are discovered, summarised, or miniaturised, in some smaller unit, which thereby becomes a cultural object (Fig 1).

According to Rudolf Allers microcosmism may be defined in the following way:

“One vague and broad conception is shared by all authors who ever speculated on the microcosmus and its relation to the macrocosmus. The former, which the Latin authors usually call minor mundus, has certain features or principles in common with the macrocosmus or the universe.”  

Hence, the basic idea of microcosmism is that it is a movement to promote the study of  correspondence or similarity between two entities on the assumption that the smaller entity is easier to investigate that the larger.

Works of art are microcosms.  To meet Melita Rogelj’s objective, the universal language of art has to be harnessed to inspire individual action.  This means drawing attention to the current environmental crisis and to moving people to change the behaviours and habits that contribute to it.  This blog is a first attempt to explore the the role of microcosmic art to communicate an emotional experience.

Expressing artful spirituality

In previous blogs, Corixus addressed transformation, or metamorphosis, as the concept central to making and adding meaning in abstract art.

This blog is about art as a carrier of two kinds of intelligence required to live sustainably. These were defined seven centuries ago by the Sufi poet Rumi. The first he defined acquired knowledge or book learning. It is the kind of intelligence that helps us to manage our environment and is tested to see how well we retain information. Rumi describes it as “getting always more marks on your preserving tablets.” This is the intelligence of our schooling and striving to succeed. It is imparted by narrative art which is a microcosms of the outer world expressing situations and objects.

Rumi also describes another kind of intelligence: “one already completed and preserved inside you./ A spring overflowing its springbox.” This intelligence is not the kind that moves from the outside in, as in traditional learning. “This second knowing is a fountainhead from within you, moving out.” This intelligence originates from within us rather than from outside sources.  It is imparted by abstract art which is a microcosm of the inner world of thoughts and ideas expressing creativity and transformation. In this respect, creativity and culture are virtually interchangeable.

In earlier times spiritual messages were transmitted figuratively directly through stained glass. But abstraction has entered the interface between spirituality and people (Fig 2).

Fig 2 A microcosm in stained glass inspired by the cellular basis of anatomy

From the maker’s and viewer’s perspective transformation provides access to deeper aspects of ourselves, including the pre-verbal feelings and symbols that reside in our subconscious.  So, we make and pursue transformations in search of the one realm within which all things are connected. For painting, this realm is the canvas before us. In other words, producing and viewing an abstract work can be a meditative, almost mystical affair.   The work has aesthetic qualities expressing ideas and emotions in a two-dimensional visual language. The elements of this language—its shapes, lines, colours, tones, and textures—are used in various ways to produce sensations of volume, space, movement, and light on a flat surface. These elements are combined into expressive patterns in order to represent real or supernatural phenomena to interpret a narrative theme, or to create wholly abstract visual relationships.  

Despite being without a material reference point, abstract art nevertheless often carries deep messages from the artist and are also injected by the viewer.  In fact the beginnings of modern art, especially abstract art, have strong spiritual roots. This fact is not always obvious from textbook presentations, which are more likely to focus on the timeline of innovations of the twentieth century.  While these historical narratives are valid they omit what may have been the most central motivation of the pioneers of abstract art who shared common spiritual roots. For many of these artists art was primarily about spirituality, and was perhaps the most appropriate vehicle for expressing and developing that spirituality.  Kandinsky expressed this conviction in his 1912 publication “Concerning the Spiritual in Art”; Mondrian mentions it in many of his writings; and so do other painters, poets, musicians and dancers. Here is Kandinsky, in a selection from his influential 1912 booklet Concerning the Spiritual in Art:

“When religion, science and morality are shaken and when outer supports threaten to fall, man withdraws his gaze from externals and turns it inwards”.

“Literature, music and art are the most sensitive spheres in which this spiritual revolution makes itself felt. They reflect the dark picture of the present time and show the importance of what was at first only a little point of light noticed by the few. Perhaps they even grow dark in their turn, but they turn away from the soulless life of the present toward those substances and ideas that give free scope to the non-material strivings of the soul”. (Concerning the Spiritual in Art, p. 33)

This was also admitted by the painter Mark Rothko when he said in 1957:

“I am not interested in any relationships of colour or form or anything else, I am interested in the basic human emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on, and the fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I communicate with those basic emotions. The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.”

The more one looks at Rothko’s great monochrome canvases, such as the Rothko Chapel pictures (Fig 3), the more you see subtle shifts and nuances of brush marks and hue.  But what is the connection between seeing more evidence of the painter’s mystical handicraft and the emotional response? Emotional responses are generally regarded as the keystone to experiencing art, and the creation of an emotional experience has been argued as the purpose of artistic expression.  Research has shown that the neurological workings of perceiving art differ from those used in standard object recognition.  Instead, brain regions involved in the experience of emotion and goal setting are activated when viewing art.

Fig 3 A viewer in the ‘Rothko Chapel’.

The Rothko Chapel is a non-denominational chapel in Houston, Texas, founded by John and Dominique de Menil. The interior serves not only as a chapel, but also as a major work of modern art. On its walls are fourteen black but colour-hued paintings by Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko is classified as one of the early New York abstract expressionists, a group of New York painters of the late 1940s and ’50s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. Abstract expression blended elements of Surrealism and the first abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the postwar mood of anxiety and trauma. The movement embraced the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the colour field painting of Mark Rothko and others. Gestural abstraction, sometimes called action painting, is a style of painting in which paint is spontaneously dribbled, splashed or smeared onto the canvas, rather than being carefully applied.  The term colour field painting is characterised by large areas of a more or less flat single colour. Both techniques introduce random elements of form, tone and colour placement.

Small is large

Ruth Abrams (1912-1986) is a key artist of the time.  She also belonged to the New York group of abstract expressionists although her work remains on the fringes of the movement.  She may be described as a metamorphic artist in that throughout her career she moved confidently between figuration and abstraction. The more traditional scenes of painting offered a continual starting point for transformation. The most striking and successful example of this kind of metamorphosis is “Memory of My Mother,” a 1947 painting featuring an outline resembling a woman dissolving into a striking network of interlocking and interwoven colours  (Fig 4).

Fig 4 ‘Memory of my Mother’,  Ruth Davidson Abrams ca. 1959 Collection of Yeshiva University Museum Gift of the Estate of Ruth Abrams (2006.079)

However, it is believed by many that Abrams’s crowning achievement in abstract art is a series she produced in the 50s and 70s entitled “Microcosms.” The paintings describe the progression of an aesthetic journey —a discovery of a personal vocabulary based upon our unearthly perception of a universe distinctly different from familiar earthbound views and horizons.  These are works on tiny canvases, some as small as postage stamps, in which, through microscopic swathes and strokes of colour, she transcribed her thoughts about space exploration to produce imaginary interstellar meditative landscapes. Abrams chose the word microcosm to describe her artistic creations because they represented in miniature the characteristics of something much larger, namely, the cosmos as a place, or situation to which we turn when meditating on origins and futures.  In a strange way the very small pictures draw the viewer into interstellar space.

Fig 5 Andromeda nebula (1900)

With respect to the timing of these works, Abrams was responding to black and white photographic images of outer space that had begun enter the public domain through books on astronomy and space science at the beginning of the 20th century.  The Andromeda “nebula,” had been photographed at the Yerkes Observatory around 1900 (Fig 5). To modern eyes, this object is clearly a galaxy. At the time, though, it was described as “a mass of glowing gas,” its true identity unknown. Seventy-five years after this first image of Andromeda, NASA launched one of the most ambitious experiments in the history of astronomy: the Hubble Space Telescope, which has so radically changed and enlarged our pictorial understanding of the cosmos.  On April 1, 1995 Hubble captured a small region of the Eagle Nebula, a vast star-forming region 6,500 light-years from Earth. A colour version, called Pillars of Creation, was released from NASA in 2015 (Fig 6). Ruth Abrams died in 1986 and we are left to speculate about what her artistic response would have been to later space probes.

Fig 6 Part of the Eagle Nebula; NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

Abrams explaining how she came to paint this vast entity in miniature said;

“I realized I could never do anything as big as the bigness I was now aware of, and that paradoxically, in order to convey that bigness, I had to move away from it and paint small.”  

Her work is evidence of the paradox that a tiny canvas can convey the giant wonder of the cosmos (Figs 7-9).

Fig 7 Ruth Abrams microcosm; a cropped enlargement

Fig 8 Ruth Abrams microcosm; a cropped enlargement

Fig 9 Ruth Abrams handling one of her Microcosms

Transforming Mondrian

Like Abrams’ microcosms, Piet Mondrian’s paintings had no narrative content and represented a metamorphosis over a period of years  from his paintings of windmills and trees. His lines and colours gradually became the subjects and he argued that they were were the purest forms of expression.  He elaborated this belief in his long essay ‘Neo-Plasticism in Pictorial Art’ published in the first eleven issues of the journal De Stijl. He wrote:

“As a pure representation of the human mind, art will express itself in an aesthetically purified, that is to say, abstract form. The new plastic idea cannot therefore, take the form of a natural or concrete representation – this new plastic idea will ignore the particulars of appearance, that is to say, natural form and colour. On the contrary it should find its expression in the abstraction of form and colour, that is to say, in the straight line and the clearly defined primary colour”.

Mondrian’s art was not based on reasoning or calculation.  Intuition was central to his concept of the artistic process – but he always had a strong urge to position his art in a wider cultural and philosophical context. Crucial to Mondrian’s thought was the Theosophical notion of evolution, which required the transformation of old ideas to make room for the new, in life, in society and in art.

Using software tools comprising algorithms and digital filters, Corixus is exploring futures of the Mondrian abstract style, introducing anatomical curves, tones and textures at random to produce microcosms (Figs 10-12)  ).

Fig 10 Random composition in black blue and yellow (Corixus. 2018)

Fig 11 Transformation of Fig  (Corixus. 2018)

PaintShop Pro

Fig 12 Transformation of Fig (Corixus. 2018)

Topaz Simplify.

The responses of viewers to these three images are overwhelmingly to place the last transformation first.

Anatomical microcosms

The starting point for this research into the transformation of Mondrian’s style is the concept of cultural ecology in which artistically created microcosms are positioned to link environment with society,  In this context, Leonardo da Vinci was the first to apply the term microcosm to promote the idea that people are part of nature. He envisaged the great picture chart of the human body he had produced through his anatomical drawings as a cosmografia del minor mondo (“cosmography of the microcosm”). He believed the workings of the human body to be an analogy, in microcosm, for the workings of the universe. Leonardo wrote:

“Man has been called by the ancients a lesser world, and indeed the name is well applied; because, as man is composed of earth, water, air, and fire…this body of the earth is similar.”

He compared the human skeleton to rocks (“supports of the earth”) and the expansion of the lungs in breathing to the ebb and flow of the oceans.

Leonardo’s few full-body figures deserve attention because they reflect so well his remarkable progression as thinker and artist from medieval, through early humanist, to modern humanist ways of understanding and representing the human body as an integral part of nature. A careful look at these figures provides a visual framework for discussing the concept of a microcosm in the continuing emergence and development of Renaissance humanist ideas.

“In [the] figures there shall be revealed to you the microcosm on the same plan as before me was adopted by Ptolemy in his cosmography”.

In so designating these regions of the body, Leonardo incorporates a third medieval tradition: the principle of the microcosm and the macrocosm, which held that the structure of the human body, a small world in itself, reflects the divine order of the universe  (Fig 13).

Fig 13  A near-term human fetus. Leonardo da Vinci

This was no doubt in his mind when he urged us to contemplate ageing wall plaster as a stimulus to thinking about the bigger picture of patterns in and from nature.  Ever since Leonardo da Vinci urged artists to search for inspiration in the dirt on walls or the streaked patterns in stones, they have found that the accidental blot, the chance mark, or the naturally occurring stain can be a starting point for some extraordinary art (Fig 14)

Fig 14 Splash on the wall ?

Abstract drawing

In its blog for 15  Nov 2016 the online gallery ‘Ideelart’  showcased ten ‘unforgettable examples of  abstract drawing’

Drawing was introduced as is one of the simplest and most accessible ways to make in art.

“Almost anyone can do it. All it takes is a writing implement and a flat surface. Yet as simple as the medium can be, some of the most unforgettable abstract artworks are abstract drawings packed with ambiguity and storytelling that trigger questions about their meaning

Abstract drawings are immediately approachable and direct. They are inherently ambiguous and invite a certain amount of conjecture. Ambiguity is an attraction, because it allows for the unfettered participation of anyone willing to open up to a work of art.  Because they are produced in their least guarded moments they casually drew something that expressed the truest nature of their ideas from deep within. Many artists turn to drawing in order to express some essential concept they are struggling with, and suddenly a form, a gesture or a composition emerges that perfectly expresses the essence of their search (Fig 15).

Fig 15 Elaine de Kooning – Unused preparatory drawing from In Memory of My Feelings, Ink on acetate, 13 7/8 x 11 in, 1967

Picasso stretches reality and exaggerates certain features, distorting the form to better communicate the essence (Fig 16)

Fig 16 Less is more. Detail from page of a Picasso sketch book

Internet references

Artisan ecologies

Thursday, September 20th, 2018

Consumer culture

Consumer culture has been defined as an economic arrangement in which the lived cultural experience of everyday life depends on social resources, plus the symbolic and material resources on which they depend, entering households (Fig 1).  The environment is thereby brought into the home as part of a process of cultural ecology mediated through markets. Consumption, a set of behaviours found in all times and places, is dominated by the purchase of commercial products. The socio economic system is largely understood to be carried out through the exercise of free personal choice in the private sphere of everyday life. Social democratic actors are deemed to be individually free and rational.  Furthermore, consumer culture is also bound up with the idea of modernity, that is, it develops in a world no longer governed by the traditions of generation-on-generation stasis, but rather by year-on-year flux in fashion. Consumer culture denotes a dynamic ever changing global economy in which value has been divorced from the material satisfaction of wants and the sign value of goods takes precedence. The term sign value denotes and describes the value accorded to an object because of the prestige (social status) that it imparts upon the possessor, rather than the material value and utility derived from the function and the primary use of the object.  In this process of the global marketing mass produced goods the local artisan producer has become an ‘endangered species’.

Globalization is a process driven by multinational companies embedded in capitalism, which extinguishes old production systems to make way for the new.  It entails the free movement of capital, goods, services and labour around the world. Currently both capital and goods move freely, and services such as banking, telecommunications, media and advertising will do so increasingly. Labour mostly moves freely but the vast majority of working people in the world congregate in towns and cities where they are static.

Stasis used to be a feature of rurality which transmitted existing cultural values, norms and customary ways of doing things unchanged from generation to generation.   Its mainstay was access to the local countryside. Country folk were sustained by its biophysical resources within an artisan ecosystem defined as the creative interactions beteen a wide range of practices, organizations, resources, activities and connections.  The interlocking elements of this rural ecosystem enabled culturally significant designs, products and practices to flourish in small communities.

Artisan ecologies are focused on communities that are bottom-up and human centred aggregations of families embodying the craft atmosphere of a territory due to proximity of resources and a shared material cultural background. Such communities based on artisanship are engaged in giving form and meaning to local natural resources and managing the process of making culturally and socially significant products.

Clay is one such natural resource.  An abundant and accessible material, clay is sustainable. Humans have used it for centuries to produce ceramics. Easy to excavate from the ground, clay requires very little processing  .

Fig 1 Mind map of global consumerism

Ceramics is one of the most ancient industries on the planet. Once humans discovered that clay could be dug up and formed into objects by first mixing it with water and then firing, the industry was born. As early as 24,000 BC, animal and human figurines were made from clay and other materials, then fired in kilns partially dug into the ground.

In the present day, artisan ceramics is in decline in a world of global consumers fed by mass production.  From a 21st century perspective, where the cultural focus is now on the sustainable use of natural resources, there can be no doubt that an understanding of the cultural ecology of ceramics should hinge on the relationships of ceramics and their production to the rest of the sociocultural system and the broader ecosystem.  Frederick R. Matson first suggested the term ceramic ecology in the published papers of the “Ceramics and Man” symposium held in 1961 under the auspices of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. He expressed a desire to move ceramic studies toward a more human focus—ceramics and man—reflecting the symposium’s title. Matson thus coined the term ceramic ecology to represent   “… one facet of cultural ecology, that which attempts to relate the raw materials and technologies that the local potter has available to the functions in his culture of the products he fashions” (Fig 2).

Fig 2 A mind map of ceramic ecology

Invention of Eduardo Williams

Since his formulation of ceramic ecology more than half a century ago, Matson’s ideas have inspired a number of studies and the publication of several volumes. In particular, In 1985, Dean E. Arnold broadened the ceramic ecological perspective to include a systems paradigm and identified a number of systemic relationships between ceramic production and the physical environment, on the one hand, and the sociocultural system of which it was social focus on the other.  These relationships consist of basic feedback mechanisms that stimulate and/or limit ceramic production in a cultural-environmental system. Based on certain chemical, ecological, and social phenomena that underlie the nature of pottery itself, these relationships occur in many of the societies of the world and are isomorphous cross-culturally. Thus, it should be possible to explain the development of an ancient craft and the maintenance of a modern craft in a broad intercultural conceptal framework, which is applicable to all crafts.

In 1989  Lorette Mouat and Deane E Arnold, reporting on their research into the potters of El Porvenir, Honduras, revisited Matson’s ideas. They took a viewpoint that the concern with raw materials, technologies, and products in Matson’s definition implies a focus on ceramics as objects.  There is no explicit recognition of the relationships that exist between ceramic production and society on the one hand and the environment on the other. In their view, if ceramic ecology is truly one facet of cultural ecology, as Matson states, then one would expect a wide range of relationships among the production of ceramics, society, and the environment (like weather and climate), distance to resources, and sedentariness as well as the functions of the ceramic product in society.

Thus, the term ceramic ecology implies a broader relational paradigm beyond Matson’s narrow definition and represents an important conceptual change in the way that ceramics traditionally have been viewed.

With respect to choosing a suitable operational model to construct a cultural ecology of ceramics, pottery in the Indian subcontinent has an ancient history and is one of the most tangible and iconic elements of Indian art. Artisan family potters are one of the largest castes, spread across 212 districts of India, predominantly in the states of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Gujarat, Maharashtra, parts of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. They are known by different names in each state.  All are facing decline.

What’s in a name?

The castes and sub-castes of India are mainly based on occupations and the associated skill levels. The potter caste is very ancient and widespread throughout India and is concerned with the production of earthenware utensils and images of deities which are essential for domestic wellbeing and efficiency.. These terracotta handicrafts have been recovered in archeological excavations, particularly at the ancient sites of the prehistoric  Indus Valley Civilization.  This was an early example of urbanisation located in what is Pakistan and northwest India today, on the fertile flood plain of the Indus River and its vicinity. Evidence of religious practices in this area date back approximately to 5500 BCE. Farming settlements began around 4000 BCE and around 3000 BCE there appeared the first signs of urbanization. By 2600 BCE, dozens of towns and cities had been established, and between 2500 and 2000 BCE the Indus Valley civilization was at its peak.  Harrapa was one of these flourishing cities with a thriving population of terracotta potters. The glazed Harappan pottery is the earliest example of its kind in the ancient world showing a great inventive genious. Terracotta, taken from Latin terra cotta or baked earth, is the art of creating glazed or unglazed porous earthenware, figurines, and other decorative materials from clay which is dried and fired in temperatures of around 1000°C giving it a distinctly orange, red, brown, yellow, or grey colour. It is then covered in sand to allow it to cool down. This colour depends not only on the type of clay found in the beds of the water bodies in the area where the artist is based but also on the firing process. For example, if the smoke from firing is allowed to get out through the vents in the kiln, a red or orange colour is obtained. On the other hand, if the vents are sealed, it gives the items a black colour. Decorative pieces are either left with their original colour or painted in multiple hues to make them more attractive.

Polychrome pottery is rare and mainly comprised small vases decorated with geometric patterns mostly in red, black and green and less frequently in white and yellow. Incised ware is rare and the incised decoration was confined to the bases of pans. Perforated pottery has a large hole at the bottom and small holes all over the wall and was probably used for straining liquids.  Some pottery was ornamented on the outside with knobs. The Harappan pottery includes pans, goblets, dishes, basins, flasks, narrow necked vases, cylindrical bottles, tumblers, corn measures, spouted vases and a special type of dish on a stand which was an offering stand or incense burner.

The people of India who worked as family potters, making utensils, tiles or any related products from earth were called, “Kumbhkar.” Kumbh means clay utensils and kar means maker. Therefore, Kumbhkar later became,”Kumbhar.” Many of them belonged to the ancient “Jati” people of the mythical Prajapati community, named after Prajapati the Hindu god of creativity which positions potters at the heart of Hindism.  

Some Prajapatis/Kumhars trace the origin of their community to the beginning of civilization when humankind started using utensils to prepare and eat food. As potters they proudly consider themselves to be the initiators of the world’s first industry.  They also situate themselves in one of the most famous stories of Hinduism which is known as the great churning of the primeval ocean by the gods and demons in the quest for the nectar of immortality. This tale has deep dimensions, capturing insights into the nature of existence.  

According to a Hindu myth, the first Kumbh (earthen pot) was a gift from the Gods to collect the Nectar. Another mythological story says that when Lord Shiva was about to marry Parvati he realised he had forgotten the water carrier integral for the ceremony. Therefore, he gave a part of his skin for clay to Prajapati to make a pot and Parvati gave her blood to decorate the pot. That is when the first kumbh (earthen pot) was created and Prajapati became the first potter.

The classification of Kumhars in the Hindu social caste system differs from region to region. For example, because the making of a pot was the first creative act of HIndu mythology, in some temples in Rajasthan, only a Kumhar can lead the worship, not the traditionally priestly Brahmins.

The geographical location of pot-making is revealed by mapping the distribution of family names, such as Sorathia, Ladwa, and Varia. The potters who lived in Sorath were known as “Sorathia Prajapati.   Today, the Kumhar caste is mainly found in Pakistan and Punjab, Bijnor(U.P.).

The following surnames of Prajapati. potters have persisted  through the centuries;

Bhalsod, Bharadwa, Bharadwaj, Buhecha, Chandegra, Chavda, Chhaya, Chitroda, Chohan, Dabhi, Devalia, Dhokia, Dodia, Fatania, Gadher, Gadhia, Ghadhvana, Ghedia, Girnara, Gohil, Gola, Jagatia, Jethwa, Jogia, Kamalia, Kansara, Kataria, Kholia, Koria, Kukadia, Ladva, Majevadia, Mandora, Mavadia, Maru, Nena, Oza, Pankhania, Parmar, Pithia, Poria, Rathod, Ravat, Sarvaiya, Savania, Shingadia, Solanki, Taank, Vadher, Vadukul, Vara, Vegad, Visavadia, and Yadav.  Some of these family names are often spelt in a variation for example, Gohil is spelt Gohel and Ladwa is spelt Ladva, etc.

Decline and revival in artisan potters

Down to the late 20th century the Indian potters worked as families with division of labour between men, women and children, each contributing a particular skill.  At the beginning of the 21st century it became apparent that throughout India the art of family potting was dying in the face of mass production of factory glazed wares.   In recent years, the decline in artisan potters has followed the decrease in the number of artisans engaged in the handicraft industry using clay, metal or stone. These artisans are now employed in manual labour or are unemployed, giving up their high skills. One of the major reasons for this change is the commercially and machine-made cheaper alternatives available in the market. The limited exposure of artisans to the market, loss of urban consumer interest, and factory competition has also added to the decline of the handicraft industry. Today India adds only 2% to the global handicrafts market. Thus, many of these artisans are living in abject poverty and economic conditions.

The government, the private, and the non-profit organizations have played a major role in trying to revive the handicraft industry. However, the impact has been isolated and limited. Much effort is required to completely revamp the rural handicraft industry using local resources. Various organizations are helping by setting up exhibitions both domestically and globally to showcase the crafts produced by these artisans. These organizations are creating marketing opportunities for craftsmen and craftswomen, to sell their products at a better price to a wider consumer base. They are using unique business models to create these market linkages from artisan to consumer, thus being profitable to all involved, especially the artisan.

With the advancement of communication networks across the country, networking can be used positively to the artisan’s advantage. New designs, ideas, orders, and markets can be within the reach of the artisan with the right training. Educating customers too is an important part of revitalizing the handicraft industry. Today online marketing is a buzzword to buy and sell artisan products. Some organizations are already connecting buyers and sellers directly online.

The handicraft industry is very important for India as it is the second largest employment generator in the rural sector. Efforts are being made to revitalize and develop it to its full potential. It is also an industry that helps to showcase the rich cultural heritage of the country. New initiatives have the potential to boost the lives of millions of Indian artisans, not just the potters.  An estimated 7 million artisans according to official figures (and up to 200 million artisans according to unofficial sources) are engaged in craft production to earn a livelihood. It further states that the global market for handicrafts is $ 400 billion with India’s share below 2 percent, representing a tremendous growth opportunity. The report further adds that 39 percent of artisans incur production expenditures of less than Rs 12,000/ $ 215 a year and only 19 percent spend above Rs. 50,000/ $ 900 a year.


Because of their proximity to the prehistoric Indus valley, Gujarat potters have always been regarded as as continuity-inheritors of ancient terracotta working skills.  It was significant in this respect that in 2010 the Gujarat government funded a scheme to train artisans to fine tune their art to meet modern needs. The state government acted through the Matikam Kalakari Rural Technology Institute (MKRTI), with the help of the Central Glass and Ceramic Research Institute (CGCRI) and designers from National Institute of Design (NID) and National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), to impart training to potters in reinventing their products and designs so that they can be sold in the domestic as well as international markets


A large number of the potters in Delhi have migrated from the neighboring states of Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. They are located in Govindpuri and Hauz Rani: Kumbhar Basti.  A number have settled in the Prajapati Colony in A Uttam Nagar that was set up in the 1970 to house the potters coming from the countryside. As most of the potters had names connected with their caste occupation the colony was called Prajapati. Currently over 400 families practicing this craft in the colony and provide their products across Delhi and NCR. The methods adopted by the potters are similar to those employed in the pottery tradition(s) of their ancestral homelands. Black, red, and yellow clay in the form of small pieces is obtained from Rajasthan and Delhi. This is mixed and dried, after which water is added to it. The resulting mixture of wet clay is filtered through a fine sieve to remove pebbles. After the clay has been kneaded into homogenous flexible dough, the prepared clay is made into a variety of artifacts using either the throwing technique. Coiling techniques are used in making large products that are too big to be thrown on the wheel and to make those with shapes that cannot be turned on the wheel. After giving shape to the item and drying it in the shade, it is baked in the kiln.

Aruvakode in Nilambur, Kerala

Pottery making in Aruvacode is the story of Jinan, a rebel, activist, designer. Moreover this is the story of lives that he touched and changed positively for ever.

A news report on how the destiny of Aruvacode, from being a simple potter village had changed to becoming a hub of sex-workers, impelled Jinan to proceed to Aruvacode, a sleepy village by the river in Nilambur in Kerala.

According to Jinan,“the reason for such a drastic transformation in the village was the rush of cheap substitutes of steel, aluminum, and plastic products to pottery in the market. The rush had pushed the demand for earthenware off the edge and the artisans were left a troubled and distressed lot. Seized of their traditional labour, women of the village were forced into sex-work.”

Several years with the potters of Aruvacode had revealed to him that the issue of development lies deep in preserving the self-respect and creativity of the concerned community.  

In his presentation in “De-colonising the Aesthetic Sense: The story of craft revival in Aruvacode potters’ village”, Jinan argues that “any community, armed with an absolute sense of self-respect and untarnished creativity, is well able to sail through all their problems. It is a dilemma of the ‘educated’ and the culturally uprooted sections of our society that development is perceived more on an economic plane. It is these sections that genuinely consider the distressed community as incapable of confronting and solving their own problems”.

“The advent of consumerism had held out its stakes and the artisans failed to keep pace with the fancy needs of the new consumer. In earlier times the artisans had always responded excellently to the local needs of the people, as a strong cultural bond held the user and the producer in unison. But every nuance of modernity brought with it newer difficulties for the potters”.

Treading therefore very carefully, not to step on to the much-travelled path of the interventionist agencies, he took up work with the potters.  Honouring his own integrity, he ensured that the aesthetic quality of whatever they made was to be rooted in their own culture. He therefore limited his role to encourage the incorporation of novel utilitarian aspects into their creations. It was a slow process and the products that emerged were evolved at a natural pace  (Fig 3).

Fig 3 ‘Kathakali depicted in terracotta tiles

Designed by artisans and potters trained by social entreprenuer K.P. Jinan Posted by GP (The Blue Wonder blog:March 2011)

Jinan concludes ; “My journey into the world of the rural artisan communities was not with the intention of ‘developing’ them or educating them. I went to them to regain that which I had lost in the process of getting educated; to learn from them. Having escaped ‘education’ and ‘development’ they were still original and authentic and were holding on to the culture and world-view, which sustained them for centuries. I perceived the rural / tribal communities as being wise and evolved; and recognised that only by learning from them could we lead sustainable lives.

The basic ideas behind their training programmes were to help the individuals regain their wisdom and confidence which lies embedded within their own communities and culture, believing that creativity can and does solve many a problem related to self-esteem.  Jinans work has created a demand for the unique products developed at Aruvakode and products from this small ‘colony’ are being displayed in public places and privately in several cities in India”.

An ecological model of artisanship

In a recent debate at London’s Tate Gallery about when craft becomes an art, it was suggested that perhaps intention makes the distinction. If a maker intends to express something perhaps that makes it art.  However, makers often felt that it was the material they worked with that made it craft – textiles, ceramics, glass seem to fall into the craft category, never mind if their intention as maker might be an artistic one.  

On the other hand, ….”perhaps it’s how a maker learnt their skill. As an apprentice coming through a process of learning a skill, hand to hand, as it were? That’s craft. As a fully formed genius honing an expressive talent? That’s art.  Perhaps it’s use. Something wearable or useable – jewellery or furniture for example – seems to fit neatly under the craft label, while something that has no clear practical purpose might be called art. However, this doesn’t take into account the decorative crafts, nor the artists who produce practical items”.

Trying to answer such apparently simple questions misses the point that creativity arises in the maker’s environment.  Ceramics, for example, has a cultural ecology that presents an holistic, conceptual understanding of how people, craft and art connect in the environment through the creativity in families. The diversity of the artisan’s immediate landscape is an essential resource.  Instead of endlessly debating the question, what defines an artist or a craft maker, or even divides an artist from a craft maker, an environmental approach leads to a total understanding of artisanship as an expression of communities’ creative ways of organizing and triggering social interactions.  The broad aim of ‘making’ is to master local ecosystem services to improve livelihoods.

Increasing, global competition from mass production is leading many artisans to live in a precarious, fractured and marginalised condition.  Artisans are even more endangered in the developing world, where they often face subjection to large monopoly businesses, market corruption and unreliability, as well as lack of perception of international consumers’ trends. To face the complex challenges of the current and future world, the activities of planning and organizing people, infrastructure, communication and material components of production, described as service design, have to change.  They have to move towards strategies and systems that address social and environmental problems, particularly those associated with living sustainably.

Within this dynamic arena, there is a general upsurge of interest in artisanship. Artisanship is defined as the human-centred economic activity of giving form and meaning to local natural resources.  Hand work or the control of mechanised and digital tools, are applied to the process of making small, unique and flexible batches of culturally and socially significant goods. The new aim of service design is to improve quality of the products and the interaction between the service provider and its customers.  This is considered as a necessary resilient response to the increasing demand for flexible, customised and redistributed manufacturing that reconnects communities to their local material culture and reaches out to global markets. These ideas may be summarised in a concept map of ceramic ecology Fig 4).

Fig 4 Concept map of ceramic ecology

The map may be generalised for other expressions of artisanship.  For example, the textile sector has its own artisan ecology. It encompasses a high level of employment of skilled workers, has a wide range of applications and ever-increasing consumption trends.  These all cause urgent environmental and social challenges. Also, it is one of the most complicated productive artisan ecologies, involving many different actors (i.e. farmers, manufacturers of fibres, yarns, fabrics and apparel/carpet retailers), service sectors and waste management issues.

Several service design approaches could be adopted by textile artisanship to produce textiles which are environmentally responsible, socially just and economically fair, as well as culturally meaningful and enriching at a personal level. The weaver’s imagination could be summoned to encourage sustainable development, building resilient interconnections between environmental, technological and economic resources, social and cultural values. This could be achieved through the shared efforts of policy makers, NGOs, artisans’ communities and individuals, as summarised in Table 1.

Jaipur artisan weavers

Jaipur Rugs Foundation (JRF) is a non-profit organization that catalyzes sustainable livelihoods for people engaged in an entire carpet making chain by empowering them to establish collective enterprises through enhancing their artisanal and business skills. The overall work mandate of JRF is to reach out to remote rural areas of India and establish bonds with destitute communities, especially the women, enabling them to start weaving not just rugs but also their own lives.  NK Chaudhary established JRF to promote economic prosperity among marginal communities. Starting with two looms and an extraordinary vision, he has been able to connect people around the world with craftsmanship of Indian village weavers.

Most of the artisans are women and the JRF enables them to gain economic independence working at home. The goal is to bring positive sustainable change in the lives of artisanal communities ‘providing a life of happiness and dignity’.  To achieve this, the JRF concentrates on providing work for unemployed and unskilled women living in rural villages and seeks to give training in the craft of rug-weaving. Once a woman becomes a working artisan, she also gets an opportunity to integrate with the Jaipur Rugs inclusive development business model.  The subsequent phase is to deliver technical training and augment their skills and knowledge and release their artistic creativity (Fig 5). For the first time ever, weavers get to be the designers of their own rugs. Each rug is a masterpiece for the design inspiration it weaves. It is imbued with the individuality of the artisan who made it and evidence of the release of her unique artistry.

Fig 5 Developing creativity

To release this creativity every weaver is part of a grassroots network that requires specialised logistical support.  Raw material is dropped off at an artisan’s home where they work on the product. To ensure customers receive high quality products, quality supervisors inspect looms to help ensure a consistent output while tracking progress. These supervisors also ensure the artisans are serviced so they are not interrupted by the shortage of yarn or any other such factor limiting their earning capacity. When completed, the rug is picked up at the weavers doorstep and sent on to the next stage of the rug making progress. These visits also ensure that weavers are paid every month at their looms. At present, these networks stretch across 600 villages in five Indian states connecting 40,000 artisans.

Jaipur’s weavers thus have the ability to work creatively from their rural home in a more comfortable working environment than most entrepreneurs and corporate employees across the world!  However, one of the biggest challenges faced by artisans is the lack of awareness and knowledge regarding opportunities intended for them under various social welfare schemes. JRF has been playing an instrumental role in facilitating access to artisan cards. These are issued to the artisans by Development Commissioner, Handicrafts (Government of India) with support from District Industries Centers (DICs).  The cards recognise the recipient is a skilled worker and eables them to receive various benefits provided by the government. JRF also seeks to equip artisans with basic knowledge and skills that help them save money to shape a brighter future for their families. The focus is on improving well-being of artisans and their communities by providing access to various socio-economic educational and medical benefits. This entails assistance in formalities like filling forms, providing supporting documents and linking them with banks. In addition, a system of payment, ‘M-Pesa’ by Vodafone, has been promoted for weavers to facilitate their financial transactions.  M-Pesa means “m-money” in Swahili and is the global brand for Vodafone’s Mobile Money service. The service is now present in 10 countries. Mobile money is a digital representation of cash which Vodafone stores safely in a ring-fenced bank account (a “trust” account). The mobile money account of each customer is linked to their mobile phone account. M-Pesa is specifically designed to benefit customers who have no access to banks.

To summarise, the Jaipur Rugs project is a very successful process of engaging village artisans with the vision of a commercial organization with a charitable arm that promotes empowerment through instilling an entrepreneurial mindset. The purpose is to enable artisan weavers acquire higher responsibilities and take control of their lives with an owners’ mindset. The is realised in the last facet of entrepreneurship development that creates leaders at the grassroots who create more leaders as they spearhead the mission of enabling sustainable livelihoods to all those in need.  

Jaipor rugs are marketed globally with the motto ‘purchase with purpose’. In effect JRF is helping to shift urban wealth from the rich to the rural poor!

Internet references