Books & Literature

Book Review: Vernacular Visions, by Noris Ioannou

ART: A folklife history of Australia: art, diversity, storytelling.

Extensively researched, highly readable with wonderful illustrations covering a vast range of folk art.

Noris Ioannou delivers a fascinating review of Australian folk art, ranging from ancient Indigenous rock art to modern painting and sculpture. Expertly researched, the book also includes notes, a bibliography, and an index. Drawing together the strands of cultural and art history, everyday working lives, stories of skills and practices migrants brought with them, and how these were adapted and changed through everyday life in their new home, Vernacular Visions plainly arose from very diverse roots. 

The Adelaide-based author introduces us to traditions the early German settlers in the Barossa Valley and the Adelaide Hills brought with them and continued to adhere to. As deeply religious Lutherans, they eschewed finery and what was considered excessive decoration as seen in the illustration of pottery made by ‘Tepper’ Hoffman. Ioannou reminds us that this work is no less worthy of attention just because it was in everyday use; rather, it can tell us far more about the maker’s traditions than might a single piece of ‘high’ art.  

And yet, over time, these migrants became increasingly exposed to Australian ways as transport, commerce and socialisation drew them into the broader society. These changes were reflected in changes to furniture, for example, as seen in the dresser on page 74. While the basic form is still Barossa-German, English influences are clear in the doors and handles. Combining several styles also relates to the folk tradition of ‘making do’ with whatever is at hand to make what is needed.

‘Making do’ could well be the overall theme when the author discusses textiles in folk art. Social reformers such as Elizabeth Fry, a Quaker, formed the British Society for Ladies to ameliorate the terrible conditions of transportation for female convicts. Sewing kits and scrap fabrics were provided to the women on the ship Rajah in 1841 and the quilt they made is now in the National Gallery of Australia. Once again, we see traditional forms, brought from their homeland by migrants, slowly adapting and reflecting new surroundings—even as these traditions were in decline overseas—to the point where Australian flora and fauna begin to appear in embroidery and quilts. 

In the final chapter, the author asks whether all the ‘Big Things’ around the country can be considered folk art. While agreeing these are generally built to attract tourists and serve to denote a site of importance, Ioannou also notes on page 254 that, perversely, the Big Thing in itself “becomes the subject of interest rather than the place to which it draws attention.” The icon itself can also function as a link between the country and the city and demonstrate local pride in the town, region, or whatever the thing represents, and in this way, a sense of place may well be intensified as it becomes “a vernacular visual sign–or folk art pointer,” (page 255).

Reviewed by Jan Kershaw

Distributed by: Wakefield Press
Released: February 2021
RRP: $79.95

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