The Harewood Biennial showcases craft as a force for social change

Craft has a certain set of associations: traditional, time-consuming, unique, even pricey. But “radical” might not be one of them, even though craft has been harnessed as a tool throughout history to express dissent – from the embroidered cloths made by imprisoned suffragettes in 1912 to Faith Ringgold’s depictions of racism in her 1980s “story quilts”.

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

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

The projects on show 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 a troubling historic context to the event – a context that is directly tackled in one of the commissioned projects by furniture designer Mac Collins. Harewood, designed by architects John Carr and Robert Adam and set in 1,000 acres of grounds landscaped by Capability Brown, was built for Edwin Lascelles (1713-1795), who owned plantations in the Caribbean and accrued his wealth from the slave trade.

The estate still belongs to 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 accrued his wealth from slavery © Lee Beel Photography

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

Trust director Jane Marriott explains that the programming uses Harewood’s collections and other works to address societal issues – from the environment to wellbeing and diversity – as well as respond to the house’s past. As something already so present throughout the house, craft was chosen as a pertinent medium through which to address those issues in the biennial.

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

The theme of the show 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 Harewood’s origins – including clearer public messaging around the house’s genesis, and a push to diversify audiences and the board of trustees.

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

Through the work, Collins – who is also drawing on his own African-Caribbean heritage – makes space for, celebrates and gives prominence to the people whose ancestors were forced into slavery because of figures such as Edwin Lascelles.

'Kioskö' by Michael Marriott in the Spanish Library

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

“Harewood House was funded through the exploitation of communities whose descendants now live in this country as British citizens,” says Collins, who repeatedly visited the house and undertook extensive archival research for the project.

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

“Open Code” sits in visual, as well as symbolic, contrast with its surroundings. The black-stained oak table and stools have a minimalist appearance, “in conflict with the intricately carved, mahogany Chippendale furniture of the estate”, says Collins.

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

In the former dressing room of Princess Mary, the work of ceramicist and activist Bisila Noha also performs a gesture of decolonisation. Noha’s “Reunion IV: Burning Curiosity” (2022) is a two-legged anthropomorphic vessel made in terracotta clay – a contrast to Harewood’s collection of delicately painted 18th-century porcelain. The piece forms part of Noha’s ongoing project embracing the overlooked history of female potters.

“My project is about giving visibility to all the women from the global south, in particular African women potters, whose labor – whose art – has been belittled and ignored throughout history,” she says. “A history that has been ruled by western, patriarchal, colonial and postcolonial views.”

As well as tackling deep-rooted sociocultural issues, many works at the biennial aim to confront 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 reclaimed materials, while Michael Marriott’s kiosk installation is filled with objects made using found materials that had been discarded. Outside, modular seating by Swansea-based Smile Plastics and Parisian design studio ACAD is crafted 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 53mn metric tonnes of e-waste generated globally each year. The South Korea-based designer has crafted appliances in which elements are replaced with more sustainable materials.

At Harewood, she is exhibiting a hairdryer reconfigured with ceramic, rather than plastic, casing, and a vacuum cleaner made with a wicker basket base. These items are displayed against a large-scale photograph showing a landfill site filled with household appliances.

“Household electronics are around us all the time, like furniture and tableware,” says Ko, “yet we’re still not thinking about what products we are using, how they are made, or what material they are made with.”

Eunhye Ko's 'Crafting Industry' combines a wicker basket and vacuum cleaner rod and foot

Eunhye Ko’s ‘Crafting Industry’ explores environmental issues

Ko’s project questions what we consider and value as craft. Indeed, one aim of the Harewood Biennial, says Macdonald, is to “expand people’s perception” of craft.

“Craft is not just something nostalgic,” he says. “It’s something that impacts our lives in different ways and adds value.” One example of this is the work of Good Foundations International, which helps produce ceramic water filter vessels in countries without sustainable access to safe drinking water. The low-cost, colloidal silver-enhanced clay vessels – one of which is on show at Radical Acts – can decontaminate water, showing how craft can be used as a tool to support population health in practical and transformative ways.

Many more biennial projects, from designers including Ilse Crawford, Fernando Laposse and Celia Pym, weave their way throughout Harewood House and grounds. Although the works on display are indeed beautiful, this aesthetic consideration is not at the forefront; rather it is the narrative – the people, processes and intentions behind these objects – which dominates.

Here, craft moves from extractive and exploitative histories to championing an inclusive, resourceful and circular future. Tackling the past is framed as vital to achieving progress – something Macdonald stresses by highlighting 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 seating

Modular seating by Swansea-based Smile Plastics and Parisian studio ACAD

And craft seems to be a clever vehicle to reflect on such roots and propose better futures.

“Because crafts are universal, due to their historical domesticity, and are somehow warm and non-threatening, they are perfect for conveying radical messages with which the public might engage more easily,” says Noha.

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

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

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