Harewood Biennale showcases craftsmanship as a force for social change

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Craftsmanship has a certain set of associations: traditional, time-consuming, unique, even expensive. But “radical” may not be one of them, even if the craft has been exploited as a tool throughout history to express dissent – from embroidered fabrics made by imprisoned suffragettes in 1912 to depictions of the racism of Faith Ringgold in her 1980s “History Quilts”.

But what role does craftsmanship play today in radical change, and how should we value it?

The second iteration of the Harewood Biennale, an exhibition which opens this weekend at Harewood House, just outside Leeds, hopes to answer that. Radical Acts Titled: Why Craft Matters, the event brings together 15 contemporary practitioners – spanning fields from furniture and homeware design to textiles and metalwork – whose work shows how these crafts can be used as a force for social, cultural or social good. environmental. The event is curated by design critic and consultant Hugo Macdonald, who also oversaw Harewood’s first biennial in 2019.

The projects on display this year, including eight specially commissioned site-specific works, are positioned around the rooms and grounds of the 18th-century country house.

This setting, while beautiful, adds an unsettling historical context to the event – ​​a context that is directly addressed in one of the projects commissioned by furniture designer Mac Collins. Harewood, designed by architects John Carr and Robert Adam and set on 1,000 acres landscaped by Capability Brown, was built for Edwin Lascelles (1713-1795), who owned plantations in the Caribbean and derived his wealth from the slave trade.

The estate is still owned by Lascelles’ distant relatives, David and Diane Lascelles, Earl and Countess of Harewood, and was once home to Queen Elizabeth II’s aunt, Princess Mary, who married into the Lascelles family.

Harewood, home of Edwin Lascelles (1713-1795), who owned plantations in the Caribbean and derived his wealth from slavery © Lee Beel Photography

In 1986 the Harewood House Trust was established to maintain and develop Harewood for the public good, and the Grade I listed house – filled with family portraits by Joshua Reynolds and ornate furniture by Thomas Chippendale – was opened as a museum with a program of exhibitions and events.

Trust director Jane Marriott says programming uses Harewood’s collections and other works to address societal issues – from the environment to well-being and diversity – as well as to respond to the past of the House. Already so present throughout the house, craftsmanship was chosen as the relevant medium to address these issues in the biennial.

“There was an opportunity to do more than just showcase beautiful objects,” says Marriott.

The theme of the show has evolved throughout 2020, a year of seismic change. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and a growing awareness of the history of slavery and colonialism in Britain’s historic country homes, the trust knew it had to do more to confront the origins of Harewood – including clearer public messages around the genesis of the house, and a push to diversify audiences and the board.

Nottingham-based Mac Collins’ project confronts Harewood’s heritage and seeks to refocus the narrative by celebrating Caribbean communities. In a large living room, his “Open Code” installation consists of a domino table with four stools, inspired by the popularity of the game of dominoes in Caribbean culture.

Through the work, Collins – who also draws on her own Afro-Caribbean heritage – makes room for, celebrates and highlights people whose ancestors were forced into slavery by figures such as Edwin Lascelles.

'Kioskö' by Michael Marriott in the Spanish Library

‘Kioskö’, by Michael Marriott, at the Spanish Library © Edvinas Bruzas

“Harewood House was funded through the exploitation of the communities whose descendants now live in this country as British citizens,” says Collins, who has visited the house on several occasions and undertaken extensive research into the archives for the project.

“There is a direct path between the transatlantic slave trade and the migration of people from the West Indian colonies to Britain,” he says. “I see the Caribbean community as intrinsically linked to contemporary British identity.”

“Open Code” is in visual, as well as symbolic, contrast to its surroundings. The black-stained oak table and stools have a minimalist appearance, “conflicting the estate’s finely carved mahogany Chippendale furniture,” says Collins.

Another of Collins’ pieces on display, a pink lounge chair named after his uncle Tenroy, offers what the designer describes as “a moment of contemplation” in the biennale; visitors are invited to sit in the chair and consider “the inaccuracy of romanticized ideas of contemporary Britishness which omit the Caribbean influence of imagery and literature”.

In the former dressing room of Princess Mary, the work of ceramist and activist Bisila Noha also performs a gesture of decolonization. Noha’s “Reunion IV: Burning Curiosity” (2022) is an anthropomorphic two-footed terracotta vessel – a contrast to Harewood’s collection of delicately painted 18th-century porcelain. The piece is part of Noha’s ongoing project embracing the little-known history of women potters.

“My project is to give visibility to all women in the South, especially African potters, whose work – including art – has been belittled and ignored throughout history,” she says. “A history that has been ruled by Western, patriarchal, colonial and postcolonial views.”

In addition to tackling deep-rooted socio-cultural issues, many works in the biennale seek to address the growing climate crisis, including through the reuse of materials and circular design. A specially commissioned project from Retrouvius recreates the leaves of Harewood’s Victorian walnut dining table with salvaged materials, while Michael Marriott’s gazebo installation is filled with objects made from found materials that had been discarded. Outside, modular seating from Swansea-based Smile Plastics and Parisian design studio ACAD is made from recycled plastic bottles.

'Sylvascope', by Sebastian Cox, on the North Lawn

‘Sylvascope’, by Sebastian Cox, on the North Lawn © Edvinas Bruzas

Eunhye Ko’s work, “Crafting Industry” (2019), addresses the problem of discarded household electronics – part of the more than 53 million metric tons of electronic waste generated worldwide each year. The South Korea-based designer has designed devices in which elements are replaced with more durable materials.

At Harewood, she is displaying a hair dryer reconfigured with a ceramic rather than plastic housing and a vacuum cleaner made with a wicker basket base. These items are displayed against a large-scale photograph showing a landfill full of household appliances.

“Home electronics are around us all the time, like furniture and tableware,” Ko explains, “yet we still don’t think about the products we use, how they’re made, or the materials they’re made of. are made.”

Eunhye Ko's handicraft industry combines wicker basket and vacuum cleaner rod and foot

Eunhye Ko’s handicraft industry explores environmental issues

Ko’s project questions what we consider and value as craftsmanship. Indeed, one of the goals of the Harewood Biennale, Macdonald says, is to “broaden people’s perceptions” of craftsmanship.

“Craftsmanship isn’t just something nostalgic,” he says. “It’s something that impacts our lives in different ways and adds value.” One example is the work of Good Foundations International, which helps produce ceramic water filters in countries without sustainable access to safe drinking water. Cheap colloidal silver clay vessels – one of which is on display at Radical Acts – can decontaminate water, showing how craftsmanship can be used as a tool to support people’s health in a practical and transformative.

Many other biennial projects, from designers such as Ilse Crawford, Fernando Laposse and Celia Pym, make their way through Harewood House and its grounds. Although the works on display are indeed beautiful, this aesthetic consideration is not in the foreground; rather, it is the narrative – the people, processes and intentions behind these objects – that dominates.

Here, craftsmanship moves from stories of extraction and exploitation to championing an inclusive, resourceful, and circular future. Tackling the past is presented as vital to making progress – which Macdonald underscores by pointing out the etymology of “radical”, from the Latin radix, radic-, meaning “root”. “These exhibitors are looking back to move forward,” he says. “Radical is about systemic change based on understanding your roots.”

Modular seats

Modular seating from Swansea-based Smile Plastics and Paris studio ACAD

And craft seems like a smart vehicle for reflecting on those roots and proposing better futures.

“Because the craft is universal, due to its historical domesticity, and somehow warm and non-threatening, it’s perfect for conveying sweeping messages that audiences might more easily engage with,” says Noah.

Collins agrees: “I believe that behavior and opinion are influenced by material culture, and that objects and images are more powerful in communicating ideas than words alone.”

The Harewood Biennial, “Radical Acts: Why Craft Matters,” runs at Harewood House from March 26 to August 29; harewood.org

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