RAW: Craft, Commodity, and Capitalism (on view September 29, 2019 to January 5, 2020) at Craft Contemporary offered visitors contemplative works that bring the global margins to the center, challenging our assumptions about what “craft” means in the contemporary art landscape as well as subjecthood in the late-capitalist Anthropocene era. Each work in the show draws the viewer to the tertiary spaces of capitalism, the spaces that the corporate gaze would prefer we overlook, the lands and bodies that produce the raw material of our endless consumption. We often associate “craft” with a certain fetishization of material and labor, the meditative process of a weaver or ceramicist is romanticized into a silent oracle whose labor exists in a liminal place between the mundane and the divine. But what if that oracle could speak? Could use their voice to trace the fetishized material back to its shadowy source? RAW offers up a range of responses from ten contemporary artists, often pointing to histories of exploitation and modes of resistance.
Atul Bhalla’s Immersions series is immediately arresting, presenting casts created with sand gathered from the banks of the Yamuna River in India. The casts represent various vessels used to transport water and are presented in vitrines filled with pristine water, far from the present polluted state of the Yamuna, producing a ghostly reliquary for an ideal (the unpolluted sacred water) that is lost forever. Globally, those that bare water are primarily women, and the piece transforms a mundane chore into a sacred, life sustaining ritual. In Hindu traditions, the color white is associated with death, the white ash of the cremation grounds before the remains are submerged in the river. The white sand casts point to death: the death of the river, the death of the environment - the bleached coral in the ocean, the whiteness of bone.
A very different kind of reliquary complements this piece, displayed like an object in a history museum: in Sugar Feed Sonia Clark utilizes sugar to recreate a necklace of a British soldier’s teeth fashioned by Nanny, a revolutionary who lead a group of Jamaican Maroons to freedom in the late 17th and early 18th centuries-- the material product of slavery transformed into a memento of resistance. From a distance, the object seems demure, but on closer inspection becomes shocking with its implied violence before slipping into the absurd as one is reminded of the candy-necklaces of youth. Other pieces also slide from the serious to the playful. In her interdisciplinary project Yuca_Tech, the lawyer-turned-artist Amor Muñoz collaborated with indigenous Maya weavers to develop products that fuse traditional weaving practices with solar cells to produce electricity for their community, reclaiming their fiber practices from industrialization and entering into a conversation with green tech, an emerging market more associated with Silicon Valley than traditional craftspeople. The objects are displayed with an ethnographic museum’s seriousness, but an accompanying video includes the laughter of women as one of them wears a pair of light-up woven sandals around their village, their voices adding much needed levity in a show that must contend with so much violence and loss.
As an exhibition, RAW opens up an important space for contemporary artists and critics to engage with material not just as a seductive surface on which we project our desires and emotions, but also as a point on an interconnected historical and economic network that permeates every art object with deeper, more complex significations.