When if ever is it OK to work in the style of another culture? Can this work honour the native culture or is it always going to be demeaning and is there a danger of craft homogeneity with all woodworkers from around the globe taking what they like from Native American, Maori, Scandinavian or West African wood culture? If I as a woodworker inspired by these old woodworking cultures appropriate elements into my own 21st century work is that a good thing or bad? This is something I have given a lot of thought to over the years. I love vernacular craft. Craft that is embodied in a place and culture, that uses local raw materials to serve local needs. I was asked many years ago to join a program introducing green woodworking into rural Honduras. They wanted me to teach my foot powered bowlturning which on the face of it fitted with my ideals of intermediate technology and sustainable development. It was well funded and the scheme they had up and running already was green wood chairmaking, my problem with it was that they were making chairs using pole lathes and European technology. Actually they were introducing a technology which Europe cast off 80 years ago. What message does that give to the indigenous people? My position was that I would love to go, but my conditions were I would not go to teach bowlturning I would go and research local indigenous crafts and see if there was any way we could help develop something from the local vernacular that could be marketed in the west. That to me would honour the culture. I didn’t get the job. Native appropriation is a big issue, take a long hard look at this photo below and feel the emotions on either side.
How about this image?
I found both these images on a facebook page called Native Appropriations and there is a long and detailed discussion of the issues behind the image above from a Cherokee perspective here Basically they don’t like it when white folk appropriate bits of their cultural heritage.
So where does that leave us in the craft world? Should rich white folk not buy Native craft? That would be very bad news for native craftspeople. Should we never carve things that are not part of our own cultural heritage? What about if a tradition like spoon carving died out in England but continued in Scandinavia is it OK to reintroduce it in the way say red kites and ospreys were reintroduced? Having reintroduced the skills should we then continue carving Swedish designs or should we delve into our own museums to rediscover our own history? Am I any closer to a medieval English person than a 21st century Swede? Neither is truly my culture.
So let’s have a look at a few things I love. Scandinavian carved bowls particularly these ale geese. One day I will carve some for myself and I do carve kuksas but I don’t make them for sale. I feel they are not part of my tradition.
I also have huge respect for Native American carvers of the North West Coast bur again whilst I carve a few pieces for myself to help me understand this work better I would not be offering this work for sale.
Few folk have done more to spread the knowledge of NWC art than Greg Bloomberg of Kestrel Tools. We have corresponded over the years and several years ago I asked him for his take on Europeans carving NWC style bowls. This was his response.
“NWC art is a world class art and like other world class stuff like Beethoven, the blues, the art of Egypt, we can be drawn to these things, almost compelled to do them. To copy old work, respectfully is to take an apprenticeship with an old master. It’s the way we learn. Even the natives learn in this way. There is so much magic in the old work that it is often spirit that draws us in, that we really want to get close to. The really great artists here produce new work of form and spirit that approach and occasionally surpass the old work.”
I want to share two examples of folk that I admire. Both have learned to turn bowls on a pole lathe and in the early days made bowls in the same sort of style that I do. Both have then taken it on and worked on their own traditions to very satisfying effect.
My friend in Japan Tomio Imaru started turning in 2008 most of his bowls were European style. I was really excited three years later when he sent me a most gorgeous little bowl which blended pole lathe bowl turning with Japanese form and urushi laquer. I adore this bowl, it seems to me to be a perfect example of drawing inspiration from one culture but then making it entirely your own.
Another great example is my good friend Jarrod Stone-Dahl. Jarrod is in the US but of Scandinavian decent and living in an area rich in Norwegian heritage. Having started to turn bowls he went to the museums, studied old ale bowls and is now making some real beauties.
I am not sure what the answer is here, it certainly is not easy. I think it is just important to be aware when we dabble with other folks cultures, to ask whether what we are doing is respectful, whether we credit our sources and hopefully develop something that is entirely new and part of our own culture going forwards, lets not end up as the craft equivalent of the guy in the top photo.