Section of The Melbourne Tapa: Lose Matala Koe Kilisital by Sesilia Veamatahau Wardell, 2012, feta’aki, cassava paste, acrylic, 150cm x 150cm

When I think of the word ‘craft’, a range of images are conjured, from construction paper glued to Paddle Pop sticks with Clag, to the finest, hand-made timber furniture or a hand-knit jumper or beanie. Despite the different skills (and skill levels) involved in each of these projects, they seem equally valid in their association with the idea of craft. For there is something about craft that encompasses the work of both highly skilled practitioners and the average person or child: it is something one can have a go at, a process in which one can become involved; an engagement with materials and body that can be cast as art, design, clothing, ornamentation, a household or everyday item, or whimsy.

This year’s Craft Cubed festival (3 August–1 September), facilitated by Craft (formerly Craft Victoria, a store and gallery space in Flinders Lane, Melbourne, that features the work of local designers) brings all of these facets of craft together through a multitude of exhibitions, seminars, lectures, hands-on workshops, open studios (where you can view artisans at work) and a craft market, as well a series of professional development events for those wishing to make a career out of their craft.

Tatau, an interactive exhibition and demonstration of Polynesian tattooing at the NGV Studio, is one of the festival’s keynote events. Visitors were able to book in to receive a tattoo in the space from one of three renowned artists (Tricia Allen, Pat Morrow and Simon Wilson), and the tattooing process actually formed the exhibition. The live-tattooing sessions were complemented by lectures delivered by the artists, focusing on Samoan tattooing practices, the cultural significance of the tattoo across the Pacific Islands and the evolution of Polynesian tattoos. Tatau emphasises what is also seen through the festival’s Open Studio events: that both process and final product are equally important in craft, and that the external viewing and appreciation of the process are integral to valuing craft holistically.

It is ‘the power of craft to help us understand each other’ says John Pascoe, Craft CEO and artistic director, with regard to Tatau and the festival’s other keynote exhibition, The Melbourne Tapa, and demonstrating this power is clearly one of the festival’s aims. Adorning the walls surrounding the Tatau exhibition are twelve photos exploring contemporary tattoo design, and the stories of the people photographed, their tattoos and their artists are profiled on the Craft Blog throughout the festival. The pictures are striking and colourful, and highlight the varied nature not only of contemporary tattoos but also of personal taste: the online profiles add context and understanding, and connect the photos to real people with real stories.

Fleur Dow, From Tatau to Tattoo, 2012. Photo by Beth Nellie.

The Melbourne Tapa, a 20-metre-long tapa cloth curated by Loketi Niua Latu and painted by 13 Pacific Islander women now living in Melbourne’s north-west, was for me the clearest example of the way that personal stories can be translated through craft. Tapa cloth is a traditional Pacific Island fabric, made by hand from the inner bark of the Paper Mulberry tree and often decorated and presented at significant life events.

Up close, each painting is brightly coloured, a mix of detailed Samoan and Tongan patterns and simple shapes, some of which also integrate Australian Indigenous patterns. The pictures are intensely personal, and this became clear for me once I’d read through each of the artists’ statements. The paintings are symbolically rich and specific: every curve, shape, pattern and colour represents a family member, place or feeling, and although the tapa is a beautiful and profound object in itself, hearing the stories behind it generated a certain intimacy with its creators, a sharing of voices that often aren’t so easily heard.

While many events at the festival are free (Tatau and The Melbourne Tapa; the Open Studios; and most of the seminars, lectures and pop-up talks) the cost of actual participation in the festival was quite expensive. Hands-on workshops could cost as much as $200 and a tattoo through Tatau $190 per hour. I’m not for a minute suggesting that these rates are unreasonable. As a knitter myself, I appreciate that, for example, charging $200 for a handmade scarf makes for an impossibly low hourly rate once you’ve accounted for store commission, the cost of good yarn, and the time taken to distribute or exhibit stock. Rather, I am raising the broader problem of the fact that sustaining a culture that values and participates in craft is dependent on the preferences (read: wallets) of the well-off. I don’t have any solutions, but it’s worth thinking about if craft is a powerful as Craft Cubed believes it to be – and I think it probably is.

Julia Tulloh is a Melbourne-based writer and Killings columnist. Her essay ‘Lana or Lizzy? Vintage Videos and the Del Rey Debate’ appears in Issue Ten.