‘Slaves of Fashion: New Works by The Singh Twins’ exhibition at The Walker Art Gallery
The aptly named exhibition, Slaves of Fashion: New Works by The Singh Twins, explores the history of Indian textiles against the backdrop of colonialism, slavery and luxury consumerism. A story of global connectivity, the exhibition portrays the cross-fertilisation of Indian and European cultures, which makes us question the very definition of culture, heritage and identity. Not only a visual sensation, each piece of art tells its own story, which helps to uncover hidden details of Europe’s colonial past and its legacies.
The Singh twins, born in London but raised locally in Birkenhead, are internationally acclaimed artists, often credited with reviving the Indian tradition of miniature painting within modern/ contemporary art. Despite their size, hand painted miniatures are captivating as they are characteristically vibrant in colour and intricate in detail.
The Slaves of Fashion exhibition includes eleven works, which started life as hand painted miniatures before being digitized, printed onto silk, and displayed in light boxes. This creates an almost stained glass window effect, which is truly stunning. The exhibition spans over three rooms. The first contains the artwork, while the second and third contain artefacts which inspired and have been encoded into the artwork. Many of the artefacts on display, including jewellery and historic costume, are part of the collections of National Museums Liverpool, which the Singh twins explored during the course of their research.
The exhibition also makes use of interactive features including a cinematic experience to enjoy, an augmented reality app to download, and a touch screen display to learn about the history behind the artwork from Professor Kate Marsh.
Professor of French at the University of Liverpool, Kate has been involved in a four-year long dialogue with The Singh Twins, advising them on the intricacies of colonialism which inform their artwork. As a French student at the University of Liverpool, I had the opportunity to tour the exhibition alongside Kate, and it is with pleasure that I include some of her expertise and insights below.
Amongst all of the wonderful pieces of art on display, perhaps the most thought provoking is the piece entitled Indiennes: The Extended Triangle. Indiennes are hand painted cotton fabrics made in India, for the French. In the 18th Century, French merchants traded these fabrics for enslaved Africans, who were transported to work on slave plantations in the Caribbean. In the background of the artwork is an image of Versailles, superimposed over India. This shows that the wealth and glory which we associate with Paris was actually the product of India. In fact, some street signed in India are still written in French. This shows the interconnectedness and the continuing legacy of European colonialism.
Another equally as intriguing piece is entitled Muslin: The Fabric of Revolt. Muslin is a very fine cotton fabric made in India. Muslin is almost transparent, and therefore Muslin dressed exhibited the female form. A far cry from whalebone corsets, Muslin dresses stirred up a scandal in the 18th and 19th centuries, as caricatured in the bottom left hand corner of the art work. However, it was simply impossible to manufacture a similarly delicate fabric in Europe. This was until the spinning mule, as symbolised at the top of the artwork, was invented in England. The British East India Company then enforced the importation of their machine made fabrics into India, completely destroying the Indian textile industry. In fact, British women were beaten for continuing to wear Indian Muslin.
Another equally as engaging piece is entitled Chintz: The Price of Luxury. In the artwork, we see Queen Catherine of Braganza wearing a dress made from Indian Chintz fabric. The floral patterns used had a lasting influence on British design up to the present day. She came to England from Portugal in 1662 to marry King Charles II, bringing as part of her dowry the city of Bombay. This gave Britain a foot in in this part of India. Another thing she brought with her, although viewed as quintessentially British, was tea drinking. Sugar, used to sweeten tea, began as a highly luxurious product. However, by the end of the 18th century it was a staple in Britain. The 1790’s saw the beginning of the abolitionist movement. Consumers staged a boycott of sugar in an attempt to end the slave trade, which was directly linked with sugar plantations. Although official abolition of the slave trade came in 1807, enslaved workers were still used in the Carribean until 1833.
Aside from those I have mentioned, other notable pieces are Indigo: The Colour of India which explains the origins of denim, and Cotton: Threads of Change which educates us that words such as pyjamas and dungarees are actually derived from India. These pieces highlight Indian influences on our culture which we never knew or expected.
I will leave you to discover the rest of the amazing exhibition on your own. Slaves of Fashion: New Works by The Singh Twins is currently running at the Walker Art Gallery, free of charge, until the 20th May 2018.
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