Fashion Statement: Modern queens of the Indian miniature painting, The Singh Twins take a celebratory look at textile history and expose some dark untold stories.
The Twins dress identically, and as a "fashion" statement, in traditional Indian attire. Born in London, UK, the Twins are the children of Indian immigrants. Hearing stories of their family's history in a British colonized India, growing up outside of Liverpool, and experiencing their adolescent awakenings from a formative visit to India, the Twins' art packs a critical, cultural punch. When they talk about it, their sentences interweave: one starts, the other continues, then interjection--all in smooth symphonic form. The rich, rapid-fire commentary is as analytical as it is entertaining with surprising a-ha moments, and often deeply disturbing revelations of a past less-known. It's very much like looking at their paintings.
Brave, independent and sharp, the Twins in the mid-1980s revived the long-ignored art of miniature paintings. Their intricate masterpieces call out colonialism, consumerism and capitalism while imagining a better world.
The story of their latest exhibit begins with a piece of fabric they viewed in a French castle. It triggered a journey of discovery into the dark, complex history of the fashion industry across Europe, Africa, the Americas and Asia. "Slaves of Fashion" approaches the subject in two complimentary ways: a celebration of Indian textiles and how they were so desired the world-over, while also exposing the role of this trade in "being linked to something darker: conflict, empire, colonialism and slavery."
The journey began three years ago, when the Twins were invited on an exchange trip to Nantes, France. While on a tour of the slavery exhibit at Musee d'Histoire de Nantes (the Nantes History Museum) within Chateau des Dues de Bretagne, the Twins were shocked to find Indian-made textiles that were commissioned by France specifically to trade for slaves on the African market. They explained: "We hadn't realized the extent of India's involvement, knowingly or otherwise, because it's a very complicated story. But the point is that most people who think of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, think of it in the Western hemisphere the Americas, Europe and Africa. This really highlighted how it was a much more complex network of trade and how there were people far away in India who were unaware that they were supporting this awful establishment of trading people. It got us really interested in looking at that connection of India and slavery."
The next three years were consumed with research, writing and painting as the Twins explored the role that India played in the slave trade, unearthing all kinds of secrets in the history of the fashion industry and consumerism in general.
Alongside historical relevance, the Twins illustrate these themes in a modern context. That historical darkness exists in today's fashion industry. It's exacerbated by the secrecy and illusion of ethics in modern fashion.
But just as sustainability principles are being woven into, for example, food, education and energy, the articles that follow in this Lifestyle and Fashion section tell how ecological and social ethics are being woven into the local and global textile industry.
While each painting the Twins created for "Slaves of Fashion" highlights a particular place, kind of cloth or dye, the detail additionally illustrates how ideas were stolen, as well as issues of hidden identity and conflict.
"When we look back on the era of slave trade," say the Twins, "we look back in horror and say it's in the past. But it is happening now in the world.
We wonder how people will judge us in the coming years. Will they look back on us the same way that we look back, and see the labour exploitation? The terminology has changed, but we have modern slavery today. We have countries grabbing other country's land and exploiting their resources and people. So nothing has really changed. Until human nature changes, nothing will change."
The Singh Twins' colleague and friend, Professor Kate Marsh, a specialist in French colonial history from the University of Liverpool, has been involved with the exhibit from its inception. She accompanied the Twins to the museum in Nantes, and provided interpretation and insight for the paintings. Marsh hosted a oneday symposium in March, "Slaves of Fashion: Archives, Art and Ethics." The event welcomed anyone to come listen and discuss together the problems of modern slavery and colonialism, and how art can bring to light "the abuses of the past associated with the creation of trade and a luxury consumer lifestyle ... and how they are still present in the 21st century."
The story of "Chintz"
Queen Catherine of Braganza sits next to a table overflowing with treasures. She looks at you with a mixture of self-satisfaction and invitation, while her hand rests gently on the handle of an elegant silver coffee pot. The coffee pot is placed next to a dainty teacup and saucer, teapot, chocolate, sugar and a tabletop chest among other items. The Twins chose each of these objects intentionally for "Chintz: The Price of Luxury." The painting features actual objects found in the National Museums Liverpool, and they each represent a piece of history about the lifestyle of luxury. Say the Twins, "These aren't just items from the past, but they carry a baggage and they have a story and history that is just as relevant today as it was then."
The yellow teapot covered in an over-the-top, floral chintz pattern is an example. While most would associate this with English design, chintz actually originated in Indian patterned textiles and signifies the complicated and dark history between England and India. Catherine of Braganza is credited with introducing tea to the English court, though the tea itself came from India. Married to the King Charles II, Catherine's dowry included the port city of Bombay. King Charles promptly rented it to the East India Trading Company, and opened British access to trade and conquest.
Queen Elizabeth I, featured in the upper left-hand corner of the painting, permitted the British East India Company to trade in India. The Twins view her as the centre point from which flows the history of Britain's conquest of India and the global trade network that ensued. The unsustainable pattern of subjugation, exploitation and injustice continues in markets today.
The story of "Indigo"
Many people associate denim blue jeans with a Western lifestyle, or even the Levis brand. But the material actually originated in 16th century India, in a town called Dongri--hence "dungaree" jeans. "Indigo: The Colour of India" illustrates the history of jeans, and the exploitation found throughout the entire industry.
It began in British-controlled India, when peasants were forced to farm indigo crops rather than food. A combination of low crop prices, high taxes and crippling loans, kept farmers vulnerable and exploited. Crop failures meant widespread famine, and millions dead. Among the hardest hit was Bengal in Eastern India, an area highly dependent on indigo crops.
The Twins explain how the exploitation did not end there: "We're saying there is more of a connection than people realize and we bring that full circle to a contemporary context. The enslaved African woman (in the lower left) references how indigo progresses as time goes on. There was a point when European powers tried to side-step India and set up indigo manufacture in their Caribbean colonies and elsewhere, which used the labour of enslaved Africans."
They further elaborate, "This enabled the West to control the global market through cheaper production. Historically, the process of producing indigo dye also caused health problems for the labourers. The cycle of labour abuse follows into the present day. This is symbolized in our artwork through the image of a jeans factory worker from China whose lungs are depicted, swollen and stained blue (lower right)--representing the poor working conditions and serious health hazards associated with the process of sandblasting blue jeans."
Yesterday's lunch repeats itself
In their usual way of mixing history with the present to illustrate how the past is not actually in the past, the Twins powerfully comment on modern day colonialism in their piece, "Eating from the same plate." The painting is a nod to James Gillray's 1805 caricature of English statesman William Pitt and Napoleon Bonaparte carving and eating the world, "Plum Pudding in Danger."
The Twins tell how "Eating from the Same Plate" is inspired by newspaper headlines regarding land grabbing in Africa, referred to as the "new scramble for Africa."
It's a criticism of once-colonized countries who are now becoming colonizers, in this case, India.
"India is now going out and grabbing land from Africa, and also grabbing land from its own people who rely on it for their livelihood, in order to commodify it for high-rise apartments. The government is hand-in-hand with big corporations, when before it was Indian officials hand-in-hand with British rules. So it's looking at neocolonialism and how those practices are still happening in modern forms."
They chose to represent the Indian government with a tiger, a symbol of power, and corporations with an elephant, a symbol of wealth and prosperity.
Say the Twins, "the plate that they're eating from has the logos of the British and Dutch East India company on the design of the plate. It's the idea that India is taking over the practices of old colonizers and repeating the policies even to the extent that they're relying on the criminal acts that were used before and designed to supress the Indians and grab land. Now they're using those same acts to do the same thing to their own people."
The Twins see themselves inline with artists like Gillray who satirically critiqued the goings-on of his time.
"We think of ourselves as these kinds of critical commentators, so we wanted to align ourselves with people like that who have a political eye on society and who have that kind of humorous eye. In our work we put a lot of serious points across with humour and satire."
"Slaves of Fashion" shines a light on the past, critiques the present, and demands we work to move forward in a better way. The second half of this issue is dedicated to the many other areas of fashion where we can change things. There are many ways we can fix some of the problems in this world. We can reuse and then recycle textiles. We can explore our fibreshed. We can green up our dry cleaning. We can craft to our creative heart's content. And by all means, tell us your stories.
Leah Gerber is A\J's editor. Marcia Ruby is publisher emerita and creative director of A\J. Together in January they interviewed the Singh Twins over Skype, and were far richer for it.
Sign up to A\Js E-newsletter at ajmag.ca to ensure you don't miss new Singh Twin stories on A\J's online magazine. There will be more.
The Singh Twins have an augmented reality app. Download the Singh Twins--Art in Motion and hold your phone up to any print or on-screen copy of "Indigo: The Colour of India." The app then brings you more stories on the painting, plus audio commentary and video clips. A photo feature lets you decorate your own photos with Singh Twin motifs. Available on iOS and Android.
RELATED ARTICLE: The Twins Explain Trump in Their Art.
"THE KING IS DEAD: LONG LIVE THE KING" on page 72 explores current ethical trade and consumerism debates surrounding the cultivation and use of cotton as a commodity which remains as valuable today as it was in the mid-19th century. Back then, its political and economic importance in a global market reached such heights that it came to be known as "king cotton". In particular it focuses on the human and environmental cost of non-organic cotton cultivated through the use of controversial agrochemicals and GM technologies. Some observers have linked these technologies to global warming, water and soil erosion, pollution and all manner of illness and disease--and to suicide among farmers in India whose dependency on them, have locked them in a cycle of inescapable debt. A bottle of oil (made from cotton seed) and milk (produced by livestock reared on cotton fodder) represent how GM contaminants, herbicides and other toxic chemicals used in the cultivation of nonorganic cotton enter the food chain.
The artwork also comments on how the exploitation of human and natural resources for commercial gain in an age of Empire and colonialism, has parallels today within the textile and apparel industry. Donald Trump is depicted as the new face of Western imperialist capitalism. Enthroned on a golden chair and promoting garments and accessories, he is representing some of the many well-known, largely Western designer label and high street fashion retailers that have been criticised by ethical trade and consumer campaigners. To his left, a woman toils in a field in Uzbekistan (identified by the flag) where cotton, produced under a government policy of forced labour, serves the Western fashion world. To his right, a farmer in India (one of the world's largest exporters of cotton clothing and textiles) risks his health and life, spraying "killer" chemicals on his crops without any protection. Behind Trump on the catwalk, the pleading figure of an enslaved African is shown kneeling on top of cotton bales. Beneath the figure (taken from an image used to promote the abolition of the slave trade in the 18th century) hangs a message which reads, "the myth of abolition."
The meaning becomes clearer, as we trace his shackles to an Indian woman on the opposite side who kneels in similar posture on of a collapsed building. Between the bricks and twisted metal we see glimpses of the people buried beneath. A sewing machine and a name chiseled into a concrete block next to it, identify this as the Rana Plaza garment factory disaster of 2013, which killed over 1000 Bangladeshi workers. The names of other countries known to practice modern day forms of slavery providing sweat shop labour for the modern textile and fashion industry are written on the wall (top right).
Other parallels in today's fashion industry
* Government complicity in unethical trade practices/modern day slavery. For example, Donald Trump and his support of corporate monopolies, and George Washington using slaves to work in his plantations for over 50 years.
* Corporate monopolies that enable companies to control markets --as with Monsanto, which has a virtual monopoly on genetically modified cotton seeds (forcing farmers to buy their products).
Underlying reasons for unethical practices
* The changing seasons of the fashion world (aimed at creating new consumer markets by making consumers think that they have to keep up with the latest trends.
* Throw away consumerism attitude, i.e., consumer demand for ever cheaper goods (produced cheap enough to replace rather than fix). Lower cost production whilst maintaining high profits requires even cheaper labour--leading to exploitation of workers (low wages, poor health and safety, discouraging unions, etc.).
* Ethical, sustainable, organic cotton--does not provide high enough profit (see the scales and sand timer imagery on catwalk, page 72).
Text in the blue background and red borders expose
* Trump's immigration policies, as well as war and conflict supported by USA foreign policy, create situations of poverty and desperation that make people vulnerable to modern-day slavery. These policies also create opportunities for labour exploitation.
* Trump refused to sign the Bangladesh Accord, and pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement (each in favour of multinational corporate interests of companies like Monsanto). He sided with big corporate policy by putting commercial interests and gain/profits above climate and worker rights, creating a "partners in crime syndrome." Monsanto is known to have contributed to Trump's election campaign--so it appears to be have been pay back time.
* Trump is reported to have employed models illegally for his modelling agency, leaving them open to exploitation.
Whilst the spotlight is on Donald Trump, a list of names on the wall to his left reveal how he is one in a long succession of "rulers" who throughout the history of trade linked to the enslavement and commercial exploitation of people and Nations, have used their power and abused their position to serve their own economic interests.--The Singh Twins
Caption: The King is Dead: Long Live the King | [c]The Singh Twins | 2017
Caption: Indigo: The Colour of India [c]The Singh Twins | 2017
Caption: Chintz: The Price of luxury [c]The Singh Twins | 2017
Caption: Eating from the Same Plate [c]The Singh Twins 12017
Caption: The Plumb-pudding in Danger--or--State Epicures Taking un Petit Souper James Gillray | 1805
The Plumb-pudding in Danger is one of Gillray's most famous satires on the early 19th century Napoleonic wars. British Prime Minister William Pitt and Napoleon Bonaparte, dig into the pudding with glutonous competition for the greatest portion. The Singh Twins in Eating from the Same Plate (opposite) demonstrate that history has not changed and the once colonized India (the tiger) is now grabbing land from its own people and from Africa, this time, commodifying it hand in hand with big corporations (the elephant) for high-rise apartments.
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|Title Annotation:||Amrit and Rabindra Singh|
|Author:||Gerber, Leah; Ruby, Marcia|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2018|
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