When is Housework Art?
I was fascinated to explore these sorts of ideas whilst studying for an MA in Art History with the Open University. Indeed my final dissertation explored the problematic identities of Western and non-Western art production and consumption…Off the back of this research, I wanted to challenge my Extended Diploma in Art and Design students’ assumptions about art.
When is housework art? The makers of kolams (designs rendered in rice flour or chalk powder on the streets of Tamil Nadu, India) consider their efforts housework. As a routine daily activity, it certainly has a resemblance to housework. However, to our Western eyes, it seems more like art. It has many of the elements and values we might look for in art such as sensitivity of line or composition and structure; values that are shared by the makers too. It is what separates kolams from a Western perspective of art that reveals our entrenched restricted ideas about art. Those ideas include notions such as: art has an artist, art is special and separate from daily life, and art is made to last. I was fascinated to explore these sorts of ideas whilst studying for an MA in Art History with the Open University. Indeed my final dissertation explored the problematic identities of Western and non-Western art production and consumption. I am indebted to Renate Dohmen, whose research into kolams was an inspiration for this study.
Off the back of this research, I wanted to challenge my Extended Diploma in Art and Design students’ assumptions about art. After introducing them to the traditional dotted grid structure and abstract designs, the technique of pouring the flour, the street, path or doorway location and the ephemerality of the work, students set to their own kolam designs.
We used salt rather than rice flour or chalk, but otherwise students were asked to undertake the task in as ‘authentic’ way as possible. Mindful of their assumptions and previous training in art, it was interesting to see how they responded. The technique was the first deviation. Granted, the students hadn’t been practicing since childhood as the makers from Tamil Nadu would have. However, that the students felt at liberty to fashion cones out of paper to help apply the salt and use brushes to keep stray salt in line, indicated their sense of creative freedom to do things their own way. As they neared completion they became precious about their designs and wary of them being walked over, despite this being an integral part of the kolam’s function. This seemed to indicate their acquired understanding that artistic successes needed to be conserved.
Resigned to the kolams’ fate, one pair of students walked carefully and with purpose arm in arm over their completed design, as if in reverence of the work. This felt like an act of activating the work. They insisted they should be the first to do this which suggested a sense of ownership by the artists. This idea was accentuated by another pair of students who initialled their completed work. This seems to allude to the Western notion of the artist as a genius, whose unique vision rises them above other humans; a notion that many of the students would be aware and accepting of. One of the students went beyond the traditional abstract design to create a fish. This deviation was also inspired by a Japanese design. That this fish was depicted on a speedbump gave it a three dimensionality and an implication that it would be worn away by a vehicle rather than by foot. The combination of these variations illustrate an arguably Western preoccupation to drive creativity forward.
Why is it all right for a Western artist to appropriate imagery from other cultures when practitioners of other cultural traditions are denied that opportunity if they are to escape accusations of inauthenticity? In other words, why does Western art seem to have a monopoly on creative progress and divergence?
A discussion on authenticity followed. I showed the students how kolams evolved to include animal designs, the use of colour and even the use of cartoon characters from Western media. Although these additions seemed to be diluting the authenticity of the kolams, are they really inauthentic? Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon seemed an appropriate comparison. Picasso borrowed imagery from African masks. Does that make his work any less authentic as a piece of Western art? Why is it all right for a Western artist to appropriate imagery from other cultures when practitioners of other cultural traditions are denied that opportunity if they are to escape accusations of inauthenticity? In other words, why does Western art seem to have a monopoly on creative progress and divergence?
Of course artists of any nationality can and do create work which might reference traditional practices from their own global region in a new way, but often it is only in a Western, gallery centred context where this becomes innovative rather than an affront to tradition. One of the reasons for this is the mismatch of functions. Regardless of contemporary art’s all-encompassing spectrum of practices, the function is still tied to Western traditions and values. True, Picasso did speak of the magic of the masks that inspired him and sought to feed that function into his art, yet it remains that gallery focussed art has different functions from housework.
Post-kolam, I set the students a challenge: Inspired by a non-Western cultural tradition, they had to produce work that went beyond merely appropriating imagery. They had to respect the function, purpose and values of their inspiration whilst still making something relevant for a UK gallery audience. The various results included: an Ancient Egyptian inspired body bag referencing the relationship between Egyptian art and the afterlife and a contemporary Western utilitarian way of dressing the dead; rubber masks inspired by the transformative power of African masks and the physical and emotional transformations offered by cosmetic surgery; and a set of stamps referencing the dynastic similarities between North Korea and the UK and each culture’s apparent blindness to the propaganda to which they are subjected.
Why does Art History Matter to Mark? Watch this short film here:
-Mark Fearbunce, Course Leader , Creative Arts , Bridgwater & Taunton College, MA alumnus