When this ceramic bowl broke, instead of being discarded, it was beautifully repaired using an adhesive or lacquer infused with powdered gold. This repair technique is Japanese, and known as ‘kintsugi’. The break lines are highlighted rather than camouflaged, serving to demonstrate the bowl’s importance to its owner. The changed appearance becomes part of it’s history as a functional object. I didn’t learn of kintsugi until some years after I posted about a wonderful exhibition Mike and I saw in Paris in 2007, at the Musee du Quai Branly. Rewording a bit, I’m going to write about Objets Blesses: la reparacion en afrique again here – because it made a huge impact on me. Unforgettable.
The title of the exhibition translates literally as “injured objects” which of course they were: they were broken and then repaired. On show were artifacts collected in several African countries by French colonists, traders, missionaries and explorers. Made from many different materials – wood, iron, precious metals, ceramic, leather, stone – every object in the exhibition had been repaired. None of the objects blesses were repaired using the kintsugi approach of course, but the array of repair techniques was fascinating – apart from images of pieces in the exhibition here on this page I found a wonderful Pinterest board here that I’ve been following for a while.
An impressive array of techniques were used in these repairs, and despite the mending process changing each object’s appearance, these repairs had all restored usefulness of these valued household tools and vessels, weapons, and religious and ceremonial objects symbolising community offices and powers.
My grandparents survived the Great Depression, where millions of people lost everything suddenly or gradually, and had to mend, make do or go without. Our parents lived with severe shortages and rationing of everything during World War 2. Inevitably, we baby-boomers were ingrained with the values of mending and making do, wearing something out before throwing it out. Thrift was necessary and virtuous. Today, with over 7.5billion people needing, expecting or requiring stuff, all imposing huge stresses on the Earth’s resources, at last there are signs that many people are making real efforts to avoid unnecessary wastage of the planet’s resources by recycling, upcycling and repurposing, though there’s so much more to be done and practiced daily.
One sad reality in the western world is that so much stuff we use cannot just simply be repaired at home if it breaks, and often can’t be affordably fixed by a qualified repair person, either, making it often much cheaper to just buy a replacement for the broken thing. Lots of footwear comes into this category, though I nearly always buy leather, which does last and is nearly always repairable. Of course, worst of all are electrical appliances and digital things like phones and TVs which feature built-in obsolescence, and we suffer frequent model changes that ensure that parts quickly become unavailable. Because of my upbringing this sticks in my throat.
Until I saw this really impressive exhibition, I hadn’t given any real thought to the activity of repairing something. But seeing these objects’ repairs, and reading about them, impressed on me that we repair things that are important or useful to us. We value their usefulness as daily household or work related items; we value objects which symbolise culture, politics, history or religion; some things we value because we simply find them pleasing or beautiful in some way; and sometimes objects are valuable because our ancestors owned and used them.
Repairing produces scars or visible marks, but that’s a very different expected outcome from the process of restoration, in which repairs are done as skillfully as possible to create the impression the object has been returned to its original appearance and function. It hadn’t occurred to me these are not really interchangeable words!
I don’t recall exactly, but think photography might not have been allowed, which would have been one reason I bought the catalogue; but the other would have been “Why the heck not, anyway?” Having bought two additional large suitcases in Cairo to contain textiles we’d acquired in Egypt, including two large Tentmaker hangings , we already had twice as much luggage as we’d set out with just a few weeks before !!