The pursuit of a handmade ancestral craft can be painstaking, which makes them that much more special. We talk to three local artists who are reinterpreting handmade ancestral crafts, each in their own unique way.
In this age of automation where virtually anything can be made by machines in factories, ancestral crafts are becoming increasingly rare; but there is a certain je ne sais quoi about things handmade with techniques that have been passed down for generations—is it the history, or is it the people? It’s hard to say, but one thing’s for sure: the sentimental value is irreplaceable and precious. From ceramics to block printing and bamboo weaving, here are the stories of three local artists reinterpreting handmade ancestral crafts in the modern world.
JULIE & JESSE
Julie Progin and Jesse McLin are an artist-designer duo creating distinctive ceramic pieces driven by “real-time archaeology”. “It all started [in 2012] when we found stacks and stacks of discarded production moulds behind an abandoned vase factory in Jingdezhen, China’s porcelain capital,” divulges Progin, “it was surreal, like an extremely beautiful chaos.” Feeling inspired, the duo collected some of the debris and started to make casts that revealed a poetic beauty in the physical deterioration of the moulds. The process birthed new shapes and forms of vases that eventually became a collection titled Fragment(s), which has been acquired by M+ Museum as exhibiting artworks.
“We like to capture, document, and present a moment in time and place,” Progin says. The duo’s projects have led them to explorations of traditional Chinese landscape paintings, also known as “Shan Shui”. For them, their art is a “constant source of stimulation” and a “growing library of material experiments [they’ve] made with porcelain over the years”.
“Without Leaving Your Room exists because of a manufacturing problem that we encountered while making vases with a particular glaze that melted irrevocably into a mess at peak temperature in the kiln.” Progin remembers, “We decided to turn the flaw into an attribute, transforming the glaze from surface to volume.” Not only did the duo play with temperature and chemistry, but they also orchestrated a situation of “fault” that takes on a whole new dimension, as the resulting pieces channel visuals reminiscent of Chinese landscape paintings.
Julie & Jesse’s creations are at odds with the concept of refining a particular technique as most craftsmen do. Instead of trying to control the craft of ceramics, the duo looks into and conceptualises the faults, which makes their ceramic art different from anything else out there.
Initially trained as an illustrator, Marion Decroocq is a French artist and printmaker who was taken with the ancestral craft of Indian block print after she stumbled upon Indian fabrics. “I was obsessed with all Indian flowery patterns and fabrics—from traditional quilts to clothes, I love the way they are slightly imperfect and therefore genuinely perfect. I wanted to understand more about the savoir-faire behind these fabrics, and I ended up discovering the ancestral Indian block printing techniques,” she says.
“I spent a lot of time on documentaries and testimonials, fascinated by the know-how of these people who have been carving floral patterns onto wood for hundreds of years,” Decroocq says. Shortly thereafter, she began learning wood engraving and developed her technique for Lino engraving—a printmaking technique using linoleum—as a new exploration of her creativity.
The colours and textures that result from the techniques were attractive to her that she decided to turn the hobby into a full-time passion a year ago. Mostly inspired by nature and its endless pattern possibilities, her creations focus on what mother nature offers through “the scope of Hong Kong urban jungle discoveries” as she illustrates, engraves, and handprints plants, mountains, and shapes that intrigue her, occasionally adding in elements of local culture.
But that’s not the only aspect of her craft that she pours her heart into—she also handpicks her materials mindfully, using solvent-free ink, acid-free textured paper, recycled paper, old books, and handmade frames for her work, which are each individually hand-signed and numbered, with a certificate of authenticity attached. “The craft is very special to me because [every creation is utterly] unique,” Decroocq expresses a heartfelt fondness for how each piece marks the moment it was made.
Derived from the meaning of “twice” in Chinese, Yiwooo’s name is inspired by the bamboo weaving making process in which bamboo strips are woven across at least two times for sturdiness. “I was looking for manufacturers for customised bamboo furniture a few years ago, when I realised how hard they are to come by in Hong Kong,” Angus Ting reminisces. After some attempts to make his own, he founded the brand in 2018 with a commitment to connecting bamboo crafts with modern city life through the means of handcraft bamboo products, workshops, spatial design, and installations.
One thing that the handmade craft of making items from bamboo has taught Ting, is to slow down and adjust his own pace of life. He reveals, “In the past, I valued fast productivity. Now, I have no choice but to take my time with what I make.” Compared to the fast-paced city lifestyle of Hong Kong, the art of bambooworking is slow yet rewarding. Ting admits that he lives a slower lifestyle now, with a lot less anxiety.
He continues, “Bamboo weaving is indeed a very controlled craft that requires much attention to detail as well as tireless repetition; you can’t forgo instructions, and precision is often crucial. However, to look at it another way, this [almost scientific sense of] logic is also an expression of human wisdom and culture.”
Everything in life has its own rhythm, and more often than not, it can be soothing to immerse yourself into the rhythm and let it lead you. “I like bamboo weaving because it calms me. In a sense, it even helps me find my balance,” Ting explains. His bamboo installations have been shown at Crafts on Peel and LANDMARK. He also makes a variety of bamboo food vessels, available on the Yiwooo online store.