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Cross-Cultural Dialogue Demonstrates Impact in Contemporary Ceramics

Fine art ceramicist Felicity Aylieff, who has taught on the Ceramics & Glass programme at the Royal College of Art since 2001, is among those artists whose work bridges cross-cultural divides and facilitates meaningful dialogue.

Cultural exchange is increasingly cited as an important component in building trust and discourse between countries across the globe, providing a foundation for the unprecedented levels of international cooperation that will be needed in years to come.

An artist of international standing, Aylieff is recognised for her research into large-scale ceramics, creating monumental pots, developing construction and glazing techniques that have provided a sharing of skills and ideas, helping develop collaborative relationships with factories in Jingdezhen in China, and at Royal Delft in the Netherlands.

In bridging the cultural traditions of European, Middle Eastern and Far Eastern ceramics through meaningful exchanges between artist–practitioner and manufacturer, as well as between countries with different traditions, Aylieff’s practice-based research has demonstrated itself as a highly valuable cultural tool.

In 2006, Aylieff became the first ceramicist to undertake a series of extended residencies at China’s Experimental Factory in Jingdezhen, a city historically significant for its porcelain development. Her early investigations into the properties of scale and surface, with highly skilled artisans recognised for making traditional monumental vessels for the Chinese market, led to site-specific work on a scale not normally associated with porcelain. This was a new direction for Aylieff, and a shift away from her earlier hands-on, unglazed work.

Out of China: Monumental Porcelain was significant for its cross-fertilisation between East and West traditions, techniques, processes and contemporary idioms. Working in a site-specific way facilitated wider international audiences beyond the traditional gallery, creating a sense of ‘place’ rather than space.

A second Jingdezhen residency exploring the traditional Chinese soft-colour technique of fencai – a low-fired, on-glaze enamel technique with strong visual and tactile qualities – led to the development of a European interpretation of this unique technique. The results of this research, a series of monumental fencai-decorated pieces, were later exhibited in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, in 2012.

The resulting exhibition, Porcelain City, featuring the work of Aylieff, Roger Law, Ah Jan and Takeshi Yasuda, was a rare insight into the rich language and history of Chinese porcelain, and present-day life in Jingdezhen through the work of contemporary ceramic making. It illustrated how different artists have used historic example as an interpretive tool and reassessed traditional techniques to make contemporary work.

Aylieff’s residency in Royal Delft, the only remaining traditional porcelain factory in the Netherlands, enabled her to combine collections research in museums and studio practice in a factory context, facilitating the development of new surface patterns, translating conventional blue and white imagery into contemporary plate designs. A solo exhibition at Galerie Terra Delft (2011) demonstrated how this work connected the histories, traditions and cultures of both Jingdezhen and Delft.

Aylieff’s collaboration with skilled ceramic workers at the Jingdezhen manufactory showed how ceramic artists can successfully produce works based on new aesthetic ideas. The factory provided technical expertise and support with production, and Aylieff provided contemporary thinking in surface design, identifying potential for areas of development to existing ranges.

Her artist residencies in both Jingdezhen and Royal Delft provided a model bridging the gap between studio ceramics and industry, and facilitating cross-cultural dialogue. Most notably, both factories in Jingdezhen and Royal Delft have continued residencies, with international artists – and each other.

Through disseminating her research and formulating educational programmes, for the general public through to specialists, from public presentations and demonstrations to lectures and symposia, Aylieff has influenced the field of ceramic education in approach, context, techniques and method. Her role managing the Discovery programme of Ceramic Art London since its inception in 2004, has helped position it as a leading international showcase for studio ceramics. Free talks, discussions, demonstrations and films have drawn up to 4,000 collectors and enthusiasts.

Most recently, Aylieff has extended her investigation into the blue-and-white aesthetic and questions of scale through a series of monumental porcelain sculptures commissioned for the Tornado Tower in Doha, Qatar.

Informed by the history of the trade of cobalt blue between the Middle East, China and Europe – which Aylieff researched using the collections of the Islamic Museum in Qatar and the British Museum – the project has involved extensive study into the decorative language of Islamic pattern. Aylieff tested exhaustively to create a contemporary equivalent to Islamic cobalt blue colouring, prototyping, firing and assembling the internal supporting structures for pieces up to 4.5 metres high.

A curator at the National Museum of Wales spoke of the impact of Aylieff’s work when the museum acquired Still Life with Three Chinese Vases II in 2013: ‘What’s so special about this piece is that there is clear dialogue with historical English, European and world porcelain. It bridges the contemporary and historical, and opens up the stories we can tell around these.’