Like most fair organisers, Isobel Dennis, the director of Collect, “had a bit of a squeaky moment before Christmas, when Omicron was doing its thing”.
But, things have looked up a lot since then and the 18th edition of the contemporary craft event will go ahead as planned, with 40 galleries (31 taking part in person), at London’s Somerset House this week from 25 to 27 February (previews 23-24 February).
The word craft does, for some, still conjure up the idea of crochet brooches and lumpen brown pots. That is a fusty image that Collect, which is run by the Crafts Council, has tried to dispel, though some still have an aversion to the word craft. Dennis tells a story about visiting the contemporary art fair Frieze London in October. “There was a gallery at Frieze that had two really interesting ceramic artists. The guy with the gallery said ‘they’re fantastic and we’ve sold out’. So I said, ‘do you represent any other contemporary craft artists?’. He almost recoiled and stuttered ‘I don’t represent contemporary craft’.” Dennis then told him what she did and “by the end of our conversation, he was saying ‘maybe I should represent more contemporary craft’.”
The Crafts Council estimates the UK market for craft grew from £883m in 2006 to over £3bn in 2019 and, Dennis says, “craft is thriving”. It has been helped by the current importance placed upon provenance, sustainability and the handmade, particularly among what Dennis refers to as “the young, well, the millennial-young, who are becoming affluent and starting to collect—they want to know things have not been made in a sweat shop”. These more affluent millennials “are really getting into collecting craft and they want to share it—that’s where Instagram is so brilliant, it’s a cultural network.” During the pandemic lockdowns, participation in craft also increased according to the Crafts Council.
Craft is also “a very accessible and diverse space”, Dennis says. “You don’t have to have a fine art degree or know your history of art to participate, and that goes for the makers themselves and for people coming to the fair.”
Collect has also made efforts to diversify its roster, both in terms of artists and the galleries that represent them. “Daniella [Wells, Collect’s galleries manager] and I are always out there seeing what’s new, and who is doing interesting things,” Dennis says. “Well before Black Lives Matter kicked off in 2020, we and the Crafts Council were doing a lot of internal training around diversity and inclusion. We’ve always been active in insuring our advisory panels have a diverse profile—we’re very conscious that we need to be bringing in new voices and the correct balance, whether that be gender, ethnicity or people from different backgrounds.”
Dennis adds: “Collect has always been representative of really diverse artists—for years, we have shown a lot of artists from South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand. There has been some African representation but I think we need more of that. What we’re really trying to do now is to make sure the gallerists themselves are more diverse, so we’re trying to include more Black-owned galleries, many of them based either in Africa or in America.”
Here, Wells talks through five artists to look out for.
Anthony Amoako Attah, Bullseye Projects
Anthony Amoako Attah is currently doing a PhD at the university of Sunderland having studied ceramics at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) in his native Ghana. Amoako Attah works predominantly in glass, incorporating traditional Ghanaian Kente designs and Adinkra symbols through the use of powders and enamels which give the glass pieces the appearance of vibrant fabrics. “We, the selection committee, were very excited by Anthony’s work, as we were trying to work out what it actually was made of!” Wells says. “He’s very interested in migration and cultural identity.” Amoako Attah is being shown by the US-based Bullseye Projects at Collect, and his works range in price from around £13,000 to £14,000. His work will also be shown at the fair by North Lands Creative, a glass art studio based in Scotland.
Jahday Ford, North Lands Creative
North Lands creative will also exhibit the work of Jahday Ford, a glass artist who relocated from Bermuda to Manchester in 2011. His work combines digital software with water-jet cutting and blown glass, and is currently included in the Jerwood Art Fund Makers Open, which is on a national UK tour this year and next. “Glass in general has grown hugely in popularity at the fair—even the more difficult, experimental pieces, not just vases to put on a shelf,” Wells says, adding that 2022 is the UN International Year Of Glass. “Jahday uses a lot of digital techniques to create his crafted works, so he uses 3D modelling software to create his designs then a CNC machine to create the moulds, then the piece will be blown in the mould to create the final piece. So it’s super contemporary and traditional at once.” Prices range from £3,000 to £4,000.
Bisila Noha, Thrown Gallery
“Bisila is a young artist in her 30s who is being shown by a new UK-based exhibitor, Thrown Gallery, which is bringing an entirely new selection of ceramics,” Wells says. “Ceramics, particularly East Asian ceramics, have always been at the core of the fair, from the very earliest days at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A). And it really does feel like an area in which we’re seeing an array of interesting new diverse voices commenting—Bisila is a brilliant example of that.” Her work is included in the current exhibition of Black female ceramicists, Body Vessel Clay, at Two Temple Place in London (until 24 April). “This piece is about her experience as a mixed heritage woman working in ceramics—she was raised in Spain, her dad is from Equatorial New Guinea, and she grew up with people asking her where she is ‘really from’. So her work concentrates a lot on identity and migration,” Wells says. Bisila Noha’s work with Thrown Gallery will range from £500 to £1,800 at Collect.
Lisa Pettibone, Collect Open
“Lisa is very interesting—she’s originally from California but then came over and studied at the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham [UK],” Dennis says. Pettibone is particularly interested in astronomy and physics, how "forces of the cosmos can be interpreted through her materials". The delicate hanging glass mobile that has been selected to be shown as part of Collect Open is titled Instrument of Thought and, Dennis says, has been designed to be hung in front of one of Somerset House's windows. It is priced at £12,000.
Christian Ovonlen, Intoart
“Intoart is a fantastic organisation based in Peckham and they specifically work with artists with learning disabilities,” Wells says. Christian Ovonlen, who joined the IntoArt studio in 2013, "definitely has not had the traditional training or ‘route’ into the art world,” Wells adds. Nevertheless, his work was selected for Studio Voltaire’s Open 2015 and for the Fashioning Space exhibition at the V&A in 2017. Ovonlen’s screenprinted silk drops are particularly inspired by Russian ballet set designs, and his work with Intoart at Collect will be priced between £1,950 and £4,500.