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Fresh! AF: Celebrating 30 years

We're celebrating 30 years of Fresh! To mark this important milestone, we invited three former finalists to talk about their journey since being part of the career-launching exhibition. Artists Zaiba Khan, Jia Jia Chen and David Ray share some insights on their experience of being a finalist, and what they're noticing in the world of contemporary craft practice today. We also asked each artist to bring with them their exhibition work or a memento from the time!

Zaiba Khan, 2019 finalist

"Fresh! encourages us to keep moving, looking, evolving and engaging as a community. It’s always an exciting event that brings the community together to celebrate a new group of makers."

Which year did you participate in Fresh! and which graduate course?
I was part of Fresh! 2019, and graduated at the end of 2018 from the Advanced Diploma of Jewellery and Object Design course at Melbourne Polytechnic. I exhibited a body of sacred objects marking significant rituals and events in the Islamic calendar. The fast, the pilgrimage, the sacrifice. The materials I used had all been blessed and touched by the rituals they were representing. There were three main objects, a prayer bead made with the dates seeds collected at the breaking of the fast during Ramadan. A stone my grandmother carried with her during Hajj set in a ring of gold mustard seeds, which I now wear everyday. The horn of the bull sacrificed for Qurbani by my grandfather, carved and embellished with a fine silver lip. There was also a vessel I raised that held incense, and another vessel that held attar, oil perfume; both of these are used to cleanse space and body in preparation for spiritual practice. 

Cast your mind back to the opening night and what it felt like to be included in Fresh! Tell us about that moment.
I had the expected nervous excitement, and I always feel a bit vulnerable when my work is being exhibited. It’s very personal, and these stories and rituals don’t belong only to me, they belong to my family, my community; the Indo-Fijian community, the Islamic community, and all the intersections in between. It felt like it wasn’t my achievement alone. That final year of school was hard going at times, it required a lot of deep reflection for me, and hours spent working through ideas, testing techniques and building skills. I felt like by the end of the course my practice had a strong enough foundation for me to keep going, and being selected for Fresh! affirmed and encouraged this feeling.

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Zaiba Khan, 2019 finalist
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Zaiba with her work exhibited in Fresh! 2019

Jia Jia Chen, 2011 finalist

"Fresh! is a wonderful celebration of talent that facilitates new networks and creates of space of reflexive engagement and appreciation."

Which year did you participate in Fresh! and which graduate course?
I was in Fresh! 2011 as a graduate of the RMIT Bachelor of Fine Arts Ceramics. My exhibition work consisted of a series of extruded porcelain chains installed as a suspended wall piece.

Making chains stemmed from somewhat pragmatic roots. I’m interested in repetition, multiples and collections, and was constantly re-making the same objects as a process of learning and to play with installation. I was quickly amassing many small ceramic objects and was looking for a way to connect all the fragments. I’d seen incredibly fine porcelain versions in China and many different iterations from local and international artists and always admired its functional use in industry and ornamental in jewellery.

Thinking about the contemporary craft and design landscape, what's exciting in your field of ceramics at the moment? 
I’m enjoying the renewal in ceramics that has been going on for a while. Much of my initial practice was contained in a distanced bubble from material history, origins, and its implications. More and more I’m hearing about people digging their own clay or re-purposing earth from construction sites and/or not firing work. There is an increasing understanding of place, where material is derived from and the ongoing issues of sustainability in practice. This gives me immense hope for the future use of clay and ceramics in all industries. And it’s great to see more cross-industry collaborations, as boundaries in all things are slowly being dissolved.

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Jia Jia Chen, 2011 finalist
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Jia Jia with her exhibition work

David Ray, 1994 finalist

Which year did you participate in Fresh! and which graduate course?
I was a graduate of Honours at RMIT. The work selected was a Tureen 1993 for Fresh! in the summer of '94. I was researching 18th century factory ceramics and the industrial revolution and the porcelain trade. I was fascinated to learn how these factories created an idea of centralised production which led to the demise of the local studio potteries. I was interested at the time of juxtaposing the hand-made against mechanical production. This idea still resonates in my work today.

Take us back to the opening night and what it felt like to be included in Fresh!
It was actually a Saturday afternoon at Craft Victoria's then location on Gertrude Street, Fitzroy.

"I did not know I was in the show but received a phone call on the Saturday morning of the announcement. I had no idea so a couple of friends and I quickly jumped in the car and raced over to Gertrude Street. I was wearing board shorts and thongs (overdressed for the occasion)."

Seeing your work in the gallery with people looking and talking about it is still an out of body experience. When I’m making work it’s an intimate process. When its complete, sitting in the studio I still have this attachment to the work – when seeing my work out of my studio it takes on its own identity and is in charge of itself within its space.

So, seeing my work was like saying "hi" to an old friend standing there proudly getting all this attention. I was surprised when my name was read out. As a young maker, being acknowledged by your peers is a very powerful affirmation of what your're doing and resonates within the arts community, which inspired me to keep making and exhibiting.

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David Ray, 1994 finalist
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Images from Fresh! 1994
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David's exhibition work: 'Tureen' 1993, earthenware. platinum, decal, 40 x 38 x 18cm. Image courtesy the artist.

What role do you think an initiative like Fresh! plays in the craft and design community?

Fresh! has a huge role in supporting students stepping out into the wider craft, art and design community. I think Fresh! gives students a sense of confidence to get out there and create opportunities to further their practice. It's certainly something you put on your CV. Fresh! creates a lot of interest from artist, curators and designers within their industry to see what the next generation are doing.

Explore this year's Fresh! exhibition.

For more about the artists: Zaiba Khan, Jia Jia Chen and David Ray.

Photography: Brigitte Owers-Buccianti