‘Otherworldly’: spiked clay sculpture by unknown Mexican ceramicist wins Loewe Foundation craft prize

<span>Stackable … Anza’s I Only Know What I Have Seen. </span><span>Photograph: Loewe</span>
Stackable … Anza’s I Only Know What I Have Seen. Photograph: Loewe

On Tuesday night in Paris, a front row of Pharrell Williams, designers Rick Owens and Michèle Lamy, and Delphine Arnault, chief executive of Christian Dior, gave a standing ovation to a slightly dazed-looking young Mexican, an unknown ceramicist called Andrés Anza.

The sight of some of the most influential names in fashion applauding a craftsperson was an apt finale to the award ceremony of this year’s Loewe Foundation craft prize.

This is the seventh year of the accolade, and appreciation of making and craft has changed significantly since Jonathan Anderson, creative director of the Spanish fashion house Loewe, instigated the prize in 2016.

Many fashion houses have celebrated artisans and their skill in recent years – at Williams’s cowboy-themed fashion show for Louis Vuitton in February, many of the hand-painted accessories were made with Native American artists, for example. More prestigious museums are also exhibiting craft.

Alongside the keen amateur makers taking workshops and night classes, even governments are taking an interest. Unesco created the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2003 and there’s been a sharp uptake in countries signing up to protect local customs, traditions and crafts. Even the UK finally signed up last month.

Speaking after the Loewe prize judging panel had completed what were apparently quite heated deliberations, Anderson said he’d also noticed the greater interest in craft. His own interest has been lifelong, sparked by visits to his grandfather who collected delftware.

“On a crass level, I’ve collected ceramics for a long time – Lucie Rie, Hans Coper – now at market it’s impossible to get a Rie; Coper – forget it. But when I go to institutions I can see Coper exhibited next to a Giacometti which never used to happen. I also think people have really started to appreciate what Picasso was doing with ceramics; he saw them as 3D paintings.”

Three craftspeople received special mention at the Loewe Foundation craft prize this year: jeweller Miki Asai from Japan; and US-based Heechan Kim who used traditional wood bending used in boat building to create a cloud-like sculpture the size of an armchair stitched together with copper wire. French artist Emmanuel Boos’s resplendent glazed porcelain and wood coffee table was also noted.

The work that took the big prize was Anza’s I Only Know What I Have Seen, a 5ft tall clay sculpture assembled from five pieces covered in hundreds of tiny spikes that slotted together like a puzzle.

The judging panel included ceramicist Magdalene Odundo, industrial designer Patricia Urquiola, and Deyan Sudjic, director emeritus of the Design Museum, London. In a statement, the judges said they’d chosen Anza because his work defied time and cultural context.

“Everyone was impressed by the complex stackable form,” said Anderson, “and the duplication of traditional mark making made it feel otherworldly.”

There were a few examples of playful combinations of traditional techniques with experimental materials or processes. Luis Santos Montes used methylcellulose to turn kraft paper into 3D geometric shapes. At the press preview he played with the work stretching it as if it were an accordion. Jeweller Eunmi Chun transformed dried cow intestine into bird feathers for a necklace.

Found materials were also popular. Dutch artist Saar Scheerlings used old foam mattresses and French linen to create a column sculpture using upholstery techniques. Two African artists – Ange Dakouo from Mali and Ozioma Onuzulike from Nigeria – exhibited wall hangings that celebrated their countries’ local traditions using found materials including shells, glass bottles and, in the case of Onuzulike, ash from his mother’s kitchen.

The 30 finalists – whose work is on display at the Palais de Tokyo gallery in Paris – were picked from more than 3,900 entrants and hail from 124 countries. This contrasts to the prize’s beginnings when Anderson said they had to approach and encourage people to apply.

“When I joined Loewe I wanted to make it a cultural brand. I think when I first said that, it was because I was trying to come up with a clever one-liner to impress Delphine Arnault. But it really has become the manifesto for everything. I do think this is more important than a fashion show.”