Thursday, 30 August 2012

Pietra Dura

I wrote recently about the delicate geometric carved marble screens of Mughal (Muslim) architecture in India. The painstaking craftsmanship of the marble screens is matched by the pietra dura marble inlay found in Indian Mughal architecture, one of the best and most famous examples of which is the Taj Mahal. If pietra dura sounds Italian, that's because it is. The technique came to India in the early 17th century, by which time smaller marble inlay objects from Italy were widely distributed through trade. Those that came to India were imitated and the technique was later adapted to local designs and purposes. In English the technique is known by the Italian name, but in Mughal India it was called parchin kari, which translates literally as simply inlay work.

 detail of pietra dura marble inlay at Akbar's Tomb, in Agra

It differs from mosaic work in that each marble piece is cut to fit the design, rather than cutting a number of modular pieces and assembling an image from these repeated shapes. So if the design is a rose, a rose is cut of coloured marble, with highlights, stem and leaves cut from other colours, and a rose-shaped recess is cut into the wall of a building, so the two can be fitted together.

 Pietra dura at Akbar's Tomb, in Agra

The main building of the Taj Mahal was completed in an astonishing 8 years, through the efforts of 20,000 craftsmen (and 1,000 elephants). In another 12 years the outlying buildings were also complete. On one side of the tomb, which has perfect symmetry on all four sides, is a mosque, facing west toward Mecca as all mosques do. In the interest of symmetry, another building identical to the mosque, complete with identical pietra dura inlay and marble carving, was built on the opposite side of the tomb. This building has no function, except to complete the desired symmetry.

In the 20th century air pollution had dirtied the facade of the Taj to such an extent that when President Clinton visited in the year 2000 and commented on the sorry state of what is widely considered the most beautiful building in the world, the city of Agra moved all its industry 100km away from the monument, permanently banned polluting vehicles like cars and rickshaws within 1km, and gave the Taj a "facelift", covering the whole building with a traditional Indian women's face-whitening recipe!

The entire Taj Mahal is a tomb, built by Emperor Shah Jahan for his wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their 14th child. Shah Jahan was also interred in the Taj Mahal following his death eight years after the completion of the monument. Overthrown and imprisoned by his power-hungry son Aurangzeb soon after the tomb's completion, he spent the last eight years of his life jailed in nearby Agra Fort, with only a distant view of the masterpiece from the window of his cell. 

The exterior of the main building is covered in prayers, written in Islamic calligraphy inlaid into the white marble. 

The interior of the Taj Mahal is home to even more technically challenging work: rounded archways are inlaid with floral motifs that wrap around the two curves of the arch itself and the rounded marble outlining the arch (photography prohibited). All of these pieces, and the recesses they fit into, have been cut along curves in two directions to achieve a perfect fit.

 The Tomb of Itmad-Ud-Daulah (aka Baby Taj), Agra

The Tomb of Itmad-Ud-Daulah, also known as the Baby Taj for its resemblance to the form of the Taj Mahal, is sometimes also called by a third name, the Jewel Box, because of its elaborate pietra dura decoration. This monument was the first example of Mughal architecture to make extensive use of pietra dura. The tomb is almost entirely covered in inlay, even on the round towers of its minarets.

Like other Mughal decorative arts, the pietra dura as it is used in India is mainly geometric, floral or calligraphic in its patterns, due to the Islamic prohibition against depicting human or anthropomorphic subjects in art. 

 Continuing our around-the-world trip, we visited Italy a few weeks after India, and I was delighted to see the pietra dura floors of the Duomo (cathedral) in Florence. As our travels took us from parchin kari in India to pietra dura in its original home in Italy, from Mughal architecture in India to Moorish architecture in Spain, it seemed we were retracing history.

pietra dura floors of the Duomo, Florence

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

It's Got Legs 2012

RMIT's Gold and Silversmithing Postgraduate and Alumni Award Exhibition It's Got Legs opens tonight from 5-7pm at the RMIT School of Art Gallery, Level B, Building 2, RMIT City Campus, Bowen Street. Congratulations to this year's participants and the award winners... to be announced tonight! The exhibition runs until 13 September.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Save TAFE Continues...

A big thank you to the estimated 2,000 + people who attended last Thursday's Rally to Save TAFE and marched from the State Library to Parliament to present the Ballieu government with petitions of over 7,000 signatures urging Victoria to reverse the TAFE funding cuts and commit to proper funding of TAFE education. If you were unable to join the rally, you can still take action by visiting the Tafe4All website to send an email to Premier Ballieu, Skills Minister Hall and your MP.

An noteworthy corollary to the TAFE funding cuts is that for the first time, private for-profit colleges will now receive the same funding as TAFEs. This brings up big questions about the regulation of the private training sector and the purpose of using public funds to subsidise for-profit organisations. The Ballieu government says that the TAFE cuts are addressing a spending blowout in the Victorian training budget, but unions, TAFE executives and others argue that the increase in spending was caused by the increase in funding to private providers and complications resulting from fraudulent practices in a poorly regulated private sector.

State government funding was only opened up to private registered training organisations (RTOs) in 2009, meaning TAFEs had to compete with private providers for government funding. A June submission from the Victorian TAFE Association to the Australian Education Union uses publicly available statistics taken from the Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development to show that from 2008 to 2011 the number of private RTOs more than doubled, and during that time there was a 308% growth in student enrolments in the private sector (166,586 additional enrolments), while the TAFE sector's growth was 4% (12,404 additional enrolments). With private RTOs receiving government funding, higher enrolments meant a blowout in government spending. The government blames unsustainable TAFE growth and calls the funding cuts necessary, but the numbers don't seem to add up. If the problem spending is in the private sector, cutting funds to TAFE won't fix it.

An information sheet from the Tafe4All campaign titled "Why We Must Save TAFE" states that while TAFEs are run with a commitment to their communities not shared by their for-profit counterparts, they are now forced to compete with private businesses. TAFEs have considerations other than the bottom line, including providing pathways for disadvantaged youth, running high-quality training in a wide range of industries, and addressing skills shortages. Tafe4All cites "an explosion of [private] RTOs, which rushed to cherry-pick popular, cheap-to-run courses such as hospitality and IT. Student numbers soared, but not in shortage skills such as engineering. The result was a massive blow-out in Victoria's training budget.

"Even big business like McDonald's and Crown Casino can become an RTO - meaning we are paying them to train their own staff. The system is also poorly regulated, leading to dodgy practices in the dash for cash. Some fly-by-night operators have run courses in days instead of months, or offered cash incentives to enrol. Some 'students' don't even know they are enroled in a qualification."

 The 7:30 Report recently highlighted the alleged misappropriation of government funding by some private training colleges, resulting in an immediate investigation into the allegations. You can watch the 7:30 Report's original and follow up stories of 8 and 9 August on the ABC website.

There may be a long way to go, but let's keep the pressure on. Let the Ballieu government know that our TAFE courses are valuable, in-demand, and not easily replaced.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Mughal Marble Screens

Another incredible sight travelling in India: the intricate, precisely carved marble screens forming windows in Mughal (Muslim) architecture.

The Mughal gardens are arranged in the same geometric patterns.

The marble screens at Fatehpur Sikri take the level of skill and intricacy to a whole new level. The palace at Fatehpur Sikri was built by the emperor Akbar, and served as his capital from 1571-1585. Akbar came to this place to seek advice from a wise man, and ask for the birth of a son. When this wish was granted, he returned to build his capital here.

Now this delicately perforated building is visited by childless women with the same request. The women tie a string onto the marble screen, and afterward, if they have a child, tradition dictates that they should return to this place and remove the string.

Many buildings are constructed with marble-screened windows facing each other on opposite sides of a room, so that the screens overlap in mosaics of light and dark.

The marble screens are replicated in miniature in this ivory jewellery box, on display in Mumbai's Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya Museum (formerly the Prince of Wales Museum), which also appears to be known as the Museum Mumbai. The whole box is only about 20 cm high, and each rhomboid window is perfectly geometric in shape, with only a thin slice of ivory left between the openings.

Tourism India's slogan is "Incredible India," and really, that's the only word to describe much of the country's craftsmanship, architecture and colour.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Paducah School of Art Jewelry and Metals Invitational

I've been invited to participate in an exhibition of American jewellers and metalsmiths in Kentucky this September, in celebration of the opening of a new gold and silversmithing course at the Paducah School  of Art in January 2013. With all the difficulties we're facing with jewellery education in Victorian TAFEs, I'm excited to be involved in a celebration of a new jewellery department at the American equivalent of TAFE.

The Paducah School of Art Jewelry and Metals Invitational is a survey of contemporary jewellery and small-scale sculptural and utilitarian works by leading artists from across the United States working primarily with metals. The exhibition will be held at the Clemens Gallery at West Kentucky Community and Technical College, 4810 Alben Barkley Drive in Paducah, Kentucky. It runs from 20 September - 12 October, with an opening reception at 5pm on 21 September.

**Correction: The opening reception will be held Friday 21 September from 5-7pm, not 20 September as original posted.**

If you're in Kentucky, stop by and support the opening of a new jewellery department!

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Made without nails

I wrote recently about my trip to the Okinawan Yaeyama-shoto archipelago and the traditional kasuri fabric dyeing and weaving technique of Taketomi-jima island. A sea-sickeningly 45 minute boat ride from Taketomi-jima is Iriomote-jima, an island so remote that the main road travels only half its circumference: the lush interior and the other half of the island are wilderness that can only be reached on foot.  


On Iriomote-jima I stayed in a cabin which, on closer inspection, turned out to be made entirely without nails.


You can see how the lower ceiling beams and the large beam at the front of the loft slot through the columns - this intricate joinery is repeated throughout the smallest details of the cabin, using traditional techniques.

When I lived in Japan I visited Kyoto several times, and always loved the walk through a gauntlet of snack shops selling cinnamon flavoured yatsuhashi cookies up to Kiyomizudera, one of my favourite Kyoto temples. Kiyomizudera is also made without a single nail: the entire temple was constructed in 1633 using wood joinery.

This incredible craftsmanship is surrounded in autumn by a sea of colourful leaves, and (along with its outbuildings, pictured here,) snow-covered in the winter.

Monday, 13 August 2012

So prazis. So gross.

I saw this poster at an exhibition about advertising at the Museum fur Gestaltung (Design Museum) Zurich, during my travels earlier this year. The ad is for a pendant created by IBM. It appears that as typewriters became obsolete, IBM collected their old letter keys and turned them into gold-plated pendants. The caption translates roughly to "So precise. So whole."

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Save TAFE this Thursday 16 August

Lots happening this Thursday 16 August:

Whatever you're doing for the rest of the day, join us at the Rally to Save TAFE on the State Library lawn at 12pm. Thanks to everyone for signing the petition to save TAFE. If you haven't yet signed the petition, visit the Tafe4All website before 14 August to sign. Now let's show the Victorian government how important TAFE education is to our state, and urge the Ballieu government to reverse this year's budget cuts of $300 million from TAFE. TAFE jewellery needs your help!

The rest of the day you might spend at Craft Victoria's Craft and Design as a Career seminar, part of the month-long Craft Cubed festival.

And later in the day, head over to the Nicholas Building for the annual Open Studios event, Thursday and Friday from 4-9pm. Some studios will also be open Saturday for Craft Cubed's Open Studios weekend.

Another big jewellery week in Melbourne!

Thursday, 2 August 2012

RMIT Gold & Silversmithing Jewellery Auction 2012

It's almost that time again - the RMIT Gold and Silversmithing jewellery auction is coming up on Tuesday 14th August at the Order of Melbourne, 2/401 Swanston Street, Melbourne. The auction is a fundraiser for the students' graduate exhibition at the end of the year. I'm donating one of my Bounce! rings in blue, size N.

Works can be viewed in advance at the auction blog or previewed on the night from 5:30 - 6:15pm, with the auction beginning at 6:30.  (**The above links have been updated to direct to The previous Tumblr link is no longer active. )

See you there!

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Craft Cubed 2012

Craft Victoria's Craft Cubed Festival begins this Friday 3 August and runs throughout the month. There are dozens of exhibitions, workshops, seminars, open studios, and other events running as part of the annual festival of experimental, skills and ideas-based craft and design. And plenty of jewellery-related events to look forward to this year!

Keynote events (which are ticketed) include the annual professional development seminar Craft and Design as a Career on Thursday 16 August at the NGV International. This year's program includes talks by jewellers Dr Susan Cohn, curator of Unexpected Pleasures at the NGV, Blanche Tilden, Phoebe Porter and Mark Edgoose, Senior Lecturer at RMIT, as well as a number of other craft practitioners and designers. Tickets are $90 for non-members / $40 Craft Victoria members. Book soon as places are limited and this seminar has been quick to book out in past years.

I'll Show You My Craft if You Show Me Yours is a collaborative project designed to bring together people from different craft areas to share ideas, processes and materials. 4 of these events will be held at Northcity4 during the festival:

Thursday 9 August 10am-1pm: Professional Development Seminar: Product Development and Legal Issues
Saturday 18 August 2-4pm: Talk: Pop-up Talks with jewellers Katherine Bowman and Caz Guiney (free)
Saturday 25 August 2-4pm: Workshop with Anna Davern: Jewellery from Everyday Materials
Saturday 1 September 2-4pm: Workshop with Anna Davern: Jewellery from Sublimation Printed Metal

Northcity4 is also hosting a number of other events in August:

Saturday 4 August 2-4pm: Creative Women's Circle (networking event) ($16.50 / $11 Craft Victoria members)
Thursday 9 August 6-8pm: Talk: Shaun Tan and Oslo Davis: In Conversation ($20)
Saturday 18 August 11am - 3pm: Open Studio (free)

Exhibitions include e.g. etal's How the Light Gets In, an exhibition curated by Emma Grace, opening Tuesday 7 August from 6-8pm and running from 6 - 18 August.

Besides the open studio at Northcity4, there are a number of open studios on the weekend of 18-19th August, including ceramic artist Bridget Bodenham's Hepburn Springs studio, the Windsor Workshop, home of Peaches and Keen, jeweller Victoria Mason in Fitzroy, Studio Seven Twelve (Natalia Milosz-Piekarska, Karyn Nankivell and Karla Way) as well as jewellers and shoemakers' collective Dead and Buried in the Nicholas Building, jeweller Gillian Hillman in St Kilda, and Harvest Textiles in Brunswick.

Looks to be an exciting month!