Online | Art & Collecting

Radical Acts

Leeds, UK

At the Harewood Biennial 2022, a country house with a controversial history provides fertile ground for craft makers to address today’s challenges

Radical Change at Harewood House

‘Radical’ is not a word typically associated with craft. Although British makers have a long history of engaging with contemporary issues, craft is often still treated as an ultimately frivolous pursuit. The Harewood Biennial, Radical Acts: Why Craft Matters, sets out to challenge that attitude, showcasing 18 objects and installations that, through the act of their making, advocate for systemic change on social, political and environmental issues.

The exhibition is presented in the rooms and grounds of Harewood House, a building that speaks of a very different point in time. This Georgian manor and its 100-acre estate – the work of architects John Carr and Robert Adam, and landscape architect Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown – were built in the 18th century by plantation owner and slave trader Edwin Lascelles. This problematic past was on the mind of Jane Marriott, director of the Harewood House Trust, when she initiated the biennial in 2019. “We knew we couldn’t do a biennial that was just about beautiful objects and the process of making,” she says.

Celia Pym, The Mending Library
Mac Collins, Open Code
Francisca Onumah, Murmur
Robin Wood, The Wood School

This second edition, which is taking place a year later than scheduled due to Covid, addresses this context in greater detail than its predecessor. In light of global events that have come to light since – a list that includes the pandemic, the climate crisis, Brexit and the Black Lives Matter Movement – returning curator Hugo Macdonald felt it was important to show how ‘radical acts’ of craft could change opinions and behaviours. “You might think that craft is detached from these events, but it is not,” he explains. “Craft impacts all of our lives in different ways. It is time-honoured knowledge and a force for positive impact.”

This narrative is most clearly felt in the Cinnamon Drawing Room, a space once used for after-dinner conversation and games. Here, designer Mac Collins has installed a Jamaican-inspired games table – complete with cast aluminium dominoes – directly beneath the portrait of Edwin Lascelles. As one of eight works commissioned by Harewood, it is a deliberate act against inequality, drawing parallels between Collins’ own half-Jamaican heritage and the Caribbean community that Lascelles exploited. “It’s not ridiculous to think that my own family and my direct lineage may have been linked to the family here,” states Collins. “Too often the Caribbean community is omitted from these kinds of spaces.”

Michael Marriott, Kioskö
Ilse Crawford x Nanimarquina, Wellness

A contribution from textile artist Celia Pym switches the focus to Harewood’s present and the broader topic of sustainability. Pym worked with Harewood staff to mend their damaged or worn-out garments, using intricate and often colourful stitching to create a celebration of renewal. Similar themes of repair and resourcefulness echo through the works of designer Michael Marriott, who has used found objects to transform a library into a joyfully ad-hoc beach bar, and Retrouvius duo Maria Speake and Adam Hills, who have used their salvage know-how to cleverly reimagine an antique dining table.

The various other pieces on show inside the house include works by designer Ilse Crawford, silversmith Francisca Onumah and ceramicist Bisila Noha, whose Unnamed Women of Clay brings a celebration of African women into the former bedroom of Princess Mary, herself a champion of women’s rights through her involvement with the Girl Guides.


Fernando Laposse, Totomoxtle

There are some missed opportunities; the innovative nature of Patrick Grant’s Community Clothing venture doesn’t easily translate to a trio of banners, while Fernando Laposse’s corn husk marquetry, Totomoxtle, would have been far more impactful on a larger scale, perhaps even as a flooring material. But they are easily forgotten when venturing out into the grounds, where a treehouse by Sebastian Cox conveys a surprising message about woodland management and Robin Wood is presenting a heart-warming collection of hand-carved wooden spoons. There are also more exhibits still to come; contributions from Smile Plastics and Margent Farm will be unveiled in the summer.

Macdonald says this exhibition is not a call to action, but rather a moment to reflect on how old knowledge can drive us in a new direction. “The word radical comes from the Latin ‘radix’, meaning ‘root’,” he says. ‘I think of it as looking into our roots to understand how we might address our future.” Craft might just be the vehicle to take us there.

The Harewood Biennial runs until 29 August.