2 January 2020

Welcome to Gallery Bilk in Manuka, a family business showcasing world-class art jewellery

| Cass Proudfoot
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Mio Kuhnen, Johannes Kuhnen and Helen Aitken-Kuhnen

Mio Kuhnen, Johannes Kuhnen and Helen Aitken-Kuhnen at Gallery Bilk in Manuka. Photos: Supplied.

Running a business with family is not for the faint-hearted. Maintaining three professional careers in gold and silversmithing at the same time is quite an achievement. All this is happening at Gallery Bilk, tucked away in Palmerston Lane in Manuka.

Bilk is run by a family of local silversmiths: Johannes Kuhnen, Helen Aitken-Kuhnen and their daughter Mio Kuhnen. It has been a big year for the trio – actually, it’s been a big couple of decades!

The gallery and workshop first opened at Manuka in 1999. They have a full program of exhibitions, take commissions (including bespoke wedding rings and architectural scale art pieces) and also make their own art.

Johannes Kuhnen brooch

Johannes Kuhnen brooch (basalt and anodised aluminium).

“Both Helen and Johannes have the long-standing reputation of their artists practice, being internationally recognised and collected by major institutions in Australia and internationally,” says proud daughter Mio Kuhnen.

“But each person brings something to the table, and we all have our own jobs to do. We all have the same shared vision for the gallery which is what has made it so strong over the years with the strong representation of contemporary jewellery.”

Their next featured jeweller is Carlier Makigawa, one of Australia’s foremost contemporary metalsmiths, whose exhibition opens on 31 January.

Her rings, bangles and pins have a sculptural and architectural presence. Their forms are inspired by nature, seed pods and buds, symbols of life and energy. Her works are owned by collectors nationally and internationally.

“Carlier was one of the first artists to exhibit with us almost 20 years ago,” says Mio.

Carlier Makigawa brooch

Carlier Makigawa brooch (oxidised silver and vintage beads).

“We have had incredible collections and exhibitions by some of the most esteemed Australian jewellers, as well as supporting young and emerging artists and working with them to become highly collectable,” she says. Bilk Gallery has brought art jewellery to Canberra, and even further afield.

We worked with the NGV [National Gallery of Victoria] in having the first Australian contemporary jeweller, Sean O’Connell, in the NGV Design Triennale, actually the first jeweller to be in an International Design Triennale. This is a huge step for Australian contemporary jewellery and we hope more of this exposure and support for the contemporary craft will continue,” Mio says.

There are also group shows, where upcoming artists get a chance to show their work. December has traditionally seen a glitzy White Christmas exhibition at Bilk, but this year was different. Dramatic pieces for The Big Dry filled the gallery to mark the end of 2019.

This year Bilk asked their exhibiting artists to think of pressing issues affecting the wider community or Australia.

“It could be in response to things such as no water, dry wind, drought, aeolian sandstorms and a looming recession, or the end of the drought – rainfall,” Mio explains.


Vicki Mason, double sultry wattle brooch; Claire McArdle, Murray crayfish, 2019; Kath Inglis Algae pink, river necklace; Chris Bahng, Unexpected linkages; Wind, robot brooch, Thomas O’Hara, Necklace #2.

Each family member brings something different to the business.

Helen Aitken-Kuhnen has always made her own work alongside running the gallery, and many Canberrans own one of her enamelled bird or beach brooches.

“I guess it has been sort of easier because you are in the rhythm of making and selling almost 24 hours a day,” she comments.

Mio’s own contemporary practice has developed in recent years, partly in an effort to prove that she is more than just Helen and Johannes’ daughter. Her work includes the rivers and sediments she first examined in environmental studies at university.

“I am my own person with a contemporary practice with my own voice and technical design. I have been so grateful to the collectors of my pieces, it has been an immense journey for me to have the support in my ideas and the pieces I have created,” she says.

Mio Kuhnen and Helen Aitken-Kuhnen brooches

Mio Kuhnen: The Amazon River series. Brooch, champlevé enamel, 925 silver. Helen Aitken-Kuhnen: Flight. Brooch, champlevé enamel, cloisonné, 925 silver.

Both parents are award winners, with work in every major Australian gallery and many overseas, leaving Mio with big shoes (or jeweller’s gloves) to fill. Running Bilk, with a constant flow of world-class art jewellery through the gallery, provides ongoing inspiration.

Johannes Kuhnen was a leading figure in the Silversmithing workshop at the Art School for many years and has work in galleries from the Australian National Gallery to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Johannes Kuhnen

Johannes Kuhnen: Spectacles 2019 series 5.0, titanium, stainless steel, silicon pads.

His pioneering use of anodised aluminium colours inspired many others to explore the potential of art in bright aluminium. He continues to push his work in different directions. “I developed diversity in the work I designed and created beyond my initial focus of anodised aluminium.”

As well as unique rings, and work for exhibitions Johannes Kuhnen also designs and makes unique spectacle frames, sold at Eye Candy in Braddon. How lucky we are in Canberra to have world-class art, jewellery and even spectacles tucked away in the suburbs.

Eye candy on Lonsdale St opens 14 January 2020.

Gallery Bilk in Palmerston Lane, Manuka opens 31 January 2020.

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