Oral Traditions and Material Culture Changing the Role of a Gallery Exhibition
The word craft comes from the Old German word kraft (skill in planning, making, executing) and, by extension, “an occupation or trade requiring skills.” Therefore, crafts are the objects resulting from the application of that skill. Craft was “born” out of necessity, using materials that could be easily found in nature and varied as much as the cultures in which they were made. The oral traditions, which are widely known as being part of folklore, were also “born” out of necessity, with the need to explain natural phenomenon and to transmit knowledge. Oral traditions function socially as popular history and literature, depending on their specific cultural and socio-historical location.
Both craft and oral stories play a vital role in any community and are recognized as a distinctively cultural commentary. While both are universal in terms of existence, they are culturally specific to a region, a community or a time where they were created or initiated.
Craft, on its own, is an intricate process that sometimes draws inspiration from intangible oral traditions and surrounding environment transforming it to a tangible finished product. When curating an exhibition based on the spoken words of a people, the most complicated part is to make sure its translation to visual image stays true to the ideas and beliefs of the people’s culture and the makers.
“Exhibition act as the catalyst of art and ideas to the public; they represent a way of displaying and contextualizing art that makes it relevant and accessible to the public”(CLINE, 2012:3). Therefore, the aim of an exhibition is the cultural and educational growth of the public.
As an artist and curator, I believe that a more dynamic and socially relevant perspective on the nature of cultural heritage, focusing on its intangible qualities, is a vital part of a culture. This works towards redefining the idea of separation between art languages and static objects on display, to become a living and vital organism, constantly undergoing renewal and revision by the audience. It is possible to rethink the role of the gallery as a site of production that operates beyond the demands of the market and in relation to a wider social interaction.
Combining craft, folklore and storytelling, opens space for artists, makers and storytellers, to free their imagination and interpretation of the cultural tradition they are immersed in. Newfoundland and Labrador folklore has a rich storytelling tradition, especially when it comes to mythical creatures. Throughout history, Indigenous tales and Western European stories merged, changed and have been told over and over, leaving the shapes, colours and textures to the imagination of those listening.
The curatorial process for Crafted Beasts started from the desire to see the transformation of traditional beliefs, customs and stories that have been passed through word of mouth, into a physical object. Through the hands of skilled artisans, it began the process of materializing the traditions “that reflected the essence of a people” (POCIUS, 1994) through craft to “provide the tangible evidence of the everyday (…) [while] supplying visible proof of the beliefs and customs people hold.”(BRONNER,1986:219).
The selection of artists and writers involved in the process, were chosen for their understanding of technique, medium and their knowledge of the cultural background within the province and the intrinsic details pertinent to its folklore tales. From textile artists to metalsmiths, ceramicists to printmakers, the craft presented in this exhibition carries the symbolism of the maker and their relationships with the local folk tales.
Each of the artists selected have translated their chosen folk tale into visual imagery, in order to promote to the viewer “what the culture itself has considered important enough to transmit orally over several generations”. (POCIOUS, 1979)
It is with immense pleasure that I present the “Duckworth Cryptozoological Society” in Crafted Beasts – a Cabinet of Newfoundland and Labrador Curiosities: Anita Sing, Charlene Denief, Dale Gilbert Jarvis, Graham Blair, Janet Peter, Michael Harlick, Renné Holloway, Stephanie Stoker, Susan Furneaux, Tucker Ellis and Vicky Northey.
September 1, 2019
BRONNER, Simon J. Folk groups and folk genre, American Journal of Folklore, 1986
CLINE, Anna C. The Evolving Role of the Exhibition and Its Impact on Art and Culture, Trinity College, 2012
POCIUS, Gerald L. Material Culture Research: Authentic Things, Authentic Value, Memorial University of Newfoundland, 1994
POCIUS, G. L. Oral History and the Study of Material Culture. Material Culture Review, v. 8, 1979.