Making Space:Sensing Place

In October 2009, along with artist Thurle Wright, I was awarded a Making Space:Sensing Place Fellowship; part of the HAT: Here and There International Exchange Programme, managed by A Fine Line:Cultural Practice. The Fellowship includes residencies with Britto Arts in Dhaka, Bangladesh, with Arts Reverie in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, with The V&A Museum of Childhood, Bethnal Green, London and with The Harley Gallery, Nottinghamshire. Working and collaborating with artists and craftspeople from the UK, Bangladesh and India, responding to the collections and spaces we encounter and sharing these experiences through a touring exhibition and educational workshops.

This blog, which is still developing and being added to, is a record of my experiences during the MS:SP Fellowship. Steven Follen.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Goldsmiths & Metalworkers

Pulak agreed to act as guide and translator for me today, we planned to revisit Old Dhaka and find the area where the goldsmiths and the jewellery workshops were. We had passed through the area before when we went to get the boat to visit Tapan's house. The shops were filled with interesting things; wire, flux, small clay crucibles, all manner of materials to support the nearby workshops.
First I wanted to follow a lead I had been given by Sukanta. I had asked him if he knew if people still made the woven metal baskets, the ones I had seen in the museum. He gave me some names and places to visit in Dhaka, I also wanted to try to get a copy of the book Shawon Akand had written on the metalwork in Dhamrai. Pulak and I set off in search of these, we had no success with the book at the bookshop but we did find this basket in a shop.
It was damaged on the handle and a bit bashed and dusty, but I thought it was beautiful. The brass strips had developed a deep patina and the detailing of the rim was the same as the bamboo basket from the festival fair. I made a price in my head of what I thought it was worth, the seller asked for less than I had anticipated, so I was happy, the seller was happy. Pulak thought I didn't haggle enough!

We headed onto Old Dhaka. Tucked away behind the shops, down alleyways so narrow that I had to turn sideways in in order to get my shoulders down was a three storey building filled with metal working workshops.
Each workshop (approximately 9ft x 12ft) opened out onto a shared balcony which looked out over an open rectangular courtyard.
The workshops tended to spill out along the balcony, craftsmen using the space for pickelling the metal or casting fresh ingots from the scrap or filings.
With the limited space available the workshops focussed on very specialised tasks. Each supplying each other: plating, finishing, soldering, setting, stamping parts or components for the production of wedding and costume jewellery. We spent the day meeting, watching and recording the way the metalsmiths worked and seeing what they made.
This workshop was making lots of small brass and gold spheres, one person hammered out the cast ingots which were then drawn down using rollers and draw plates.
This mans job was to repeatedly make small domes. Inside the tin can was a flame, the darkness made it easier to see the metal melt and form.
Any irregularities in the domes were sanded out using an abrasive block.

Other ways of making beads.
This worker used a jig to repeatedly cut thin wire with a pair of tin-snips to exactly the same length.
They were then carefully placed on a piece of ceramic blanket ( heat proof insulation used in kiln construction).
The wire lengths are heated until they melt, the surface tension of the material pulls the metal into a sphere when molten.
To heat the metal a gas torch is used along with a blowpipe to a direct and increase the heat of the flame.
See the different ways of making beads here: Old Dhaka Jewellers - Making beads.

In the same workshop another jeweller was grouping three of the beads together, he carefully set them into wax in the position he wanted. Plaster is then cast over the beads, which holds them in position whilst soldering.
Lots of the jewellers work with wire and bead components. Using the same wax process as above and the same techniques the village Jeweller used. To create their designs they place the components onto shaped wax supports.
Plaster is cast over the wax and metal. When ready the wax is removed leaving the metal embedded in the plaster ready to be soldered. After soldering the plaster is dissolved away from the beads/ wire.
Twisting wire.
Having drawn down the wire, they are twisted together using a simple hooked tool to roll between the palms.
This workshop supplied the rest of the jewellers with different shaped beads.
The boards displayed different shapes and designs, each with a number.
The number correlated with a stamping tool. This was placed in a fly-press, which then had wire passed through it, stamping out the details.
Another workshop focussed on making settings for stones.
This mans job was to solder 4 wires to the rings for settings.
again he used a gas torch with a heat proof pad and blowpipe. With exceptional skill and balance he soldered each wire separately.
Watch him solder here: Old Dhaka Jewellers - Soldering.
Not all used gas, this ring maker was soldering using a wax burner, a bit like a giant candle and a blowpipe.
Bangle makers
The bangles are made from brass or copper then gold plated. They are usually given as gifts or worn at weddings. The patterns are engraved into steel blocks or dies, each workshop has its own collection.
A strip of thin metal (shim) is laid over the block and hammered into the surface with a softer metal, possibly pewer, the design is embossed into the strip.
The geometry in the blocks needs to be very accurate so that the pattern can be repeated several times along the length of a strip of metal and still look like one continuous flowing design.
The textured strip is formed into a ring using shaped wooden blocks or a roller, when circlular the ends are soldered together.
Slowly the ring is closed in on itself, the jeweller uses a metal punch from a doming block to push the edges together, turning and flipping the bangle as he works.
A mandril (tapered steel cone) is used to keep the bangle round and true.
The bangles are hammered between two steel plates to keep them flat and true.
When the desired shape is achieved, the inside edges are soldered together and the piece is then plated. Watch bangle making here: Old Dhaka Jewellers: Making bangles.

Gold platers.
Again in a space around 9ft x 12ft, 6 people work with buckets of chemicals and electroplating equipment to clean, plate, polish and finish pieces of jewellery for the other workshops.
We were taken by one of the jewellers to see other workshops, in search of die makers and further bangle makers.En-route we passed two men outside a shop making hallmark stamps in steel. With basic tools - files and improvised engravers - they worked on a tiny scale making stamps.
We visited another Bangle maker, who showed us the whole process.The soft metal hammered into the back of the shim and the die was either pewter or leadA notch in the die helped to relocate the softer metal former.The round dies were made of a bronze material. The bronze block is heated and a steel tool (Punch) is punched into the hot metal to strike the die.
We visited the craftsmen who make the steel punches. Their workshop was two workshops away.....
.....under the stairs
The walls of this small space were filled with shelves of different punches. A punch cost approximately 500tk to make, depending upon the size and complexityWe left and made our way back, walking through busy Old Dhaka, now more aware of the workshops and some of the activities that went on behind the tightly fitting shops.Painted steps Kite shop
Shola Wedding Coronet Shop
We briefly visited Newmarket - a large market in the centre of Dhaka, which seems to sell almost everything ... In Dhaka there is a saying - "If you can't find it at Newmarket then you won't find it in Bangladesh" It certainly seemed the case, I had wandered around a small section one evening with Thurle and concious of not getting lost late at night we werent too adventurous in our exploration of the small passage ways which made up the labyrinth of stalls spread out over a large area the size of a football pitch and on multiple levels.
We brought some 'Gum-shawls', Bangladesh towels which have the most wonderful combinations of colours and patterns. Many of the rickshaw drivers wear them, they function as a towel, a sunhat, a sweat band for the head or the neck and as a sarong wrap. The colours and patterns were something I was beginning to see as typically Bangladesh.
We headed back to Owens. I emailed Shawon about his book and he very kindly arranged for a copy to be sent to me, I am very grateful.