New Collecting Awards: Contemporary craft

  • By Mariam Rosser-Owen
  • Curator, V&A

Earlier this year Mariam Rosser-Owen won funding from the New Collecting Awards to develop a collection of contemporary craft from the Middle East for the V&A. Here, she writes about immersing herself in her research – from meeting makers to learning French.

My project is to research and collect contemporary craft from the Middle East, with a focus on North Africa, especially Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt. These are all countries with vibrant craft traditions that are strongly represented in the V&A’s historic collections. But despite having internationally important collections of Islamic ceramics and textiles (among other things!), we have very little dating from after 1900. The New Collecting Awards gives us an exciting opportunity to start filling that gap. It also allows me to expand my horizons as a curator, bringing my knowledge of historical materials and techniques up to date.

Since I don’t normally work on contemporary art, the last few months have been dedicated to educating myself about what contemporary craft actually is, and since this inevitably intersects with design, I have been learning about that too. I subscribed to Crafts magazine, for which one of my mentors, Tanya Harrod, writes a column; and in September/October I busied myself attending various crafts and design events, including Ceramic Art London, Ceramics in the City, the Goldsmiths Fair, and of course the London Design Festival. That and the 1:54 African Art Fair both had helpfully relevant sessions in their talks forums.

I was able to make a quick dash to Paris when I found out at the last minute about the biennial Révélations fair for ‘fine craft’, which featured a curated display of works from Tunisia (image 1, above). I also visited the British Ceramics Biennial in Stoke-on-Trent to find out more about the contemporary ceramics scene in the UK.

Most important are the people I have been meeting and talking to about their own collections, experiences and practice, or their suggestions for places I should go and people I should meet when I start visiting the region next year.

Professor Moira Vincentelli (image 2) of the University of Aberystwyth’s School of Art collects pottery, especially made by women, in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, and talked to me about the exhibition she curated in 2006, Sankofa: Ceramic Tales from Africa. (I am also grateful to Stephen Welsh of Manchester Museum for showing me the Sankofa pieces that remained in their collection after the show). I talked to Simon Fraser (image 3) of Central Saint Martins and the design consultancy ultra-indigo, who with his colleague Elizabeth Wright recently travelled to Safi in Morocco, to learn about the ceramics community there with a view to developing a project supported by the British Council. I showed the V&A’s collection of 19th-century burnished ceramics from Asyut in Upper Egypt to the potter Ashraf Hanna (image 4) who is originally from a neighbouring region, and it was exciting to see those objects through the eyes of a maker. And I met the Moroccan designer, Sara Ouhaddou (image 5), who works closely with craftsmen in her projects. During a visit to Paris last week, she showed me the pieces that had been shipped over for AKAA, a new fair for contemporary African art and design which was unfortunately postponed due to the recent terrorist attacks.

I am taking French classes at the Institut Français in order to communicate better with colleagues in North Africa; and I am looking forward to the new year when I will start to plan my on-the-ground research trips. It has been difficult to find time for focused reading over the last few months, though I have accumulated lots of material, so I am looking forward to more time for that too.

The New Collecting Awards enable promising curators to pursue new avenues of collecting, while building skills. Read about the other New Collecting Awards winners.

Venue details

V&A (Victoria and Albert Museum) Cromwell Road Greater London SW7 2RL 020 7942 2000

Entry details

50% off with National Art Pass

Daily, 10am 5.45pm (Fri until 10pm)

Tags: New Collecting AwardsSupporting museums