The Singh twins work in the Indian miniaturist tradition and have received many accolades for their art.
Their latest exhibition Slaves of Fashion – on its way from Liverpool to Wolverhampton if you are in the vicinity – contains some of the most challenging, beautiful work I’ve seen in a long time.
The exhibition aims to ‘explore enslavement and consumerism in the 21st Century’ by posing the question: how ethical is the modern world? This was done in exquisite style through twenty new artworks. Eleven of which are digital fabric work displayed on light boxes accompanied by a further nine on paper that ‘explore the relationship between trade, conflict, and consumerism in an age of Empire and the modern day’. Alongside a selection of forty pieces from the Museum of Liverpool’s collection, which have been incorporated into the new works.
Our hosts for the weekend recommended we visit and I’m not ashamed to admit I made a return visit to absorb its implications fully. A further recommendation – inadvertently made – is the explicit announcement that ‘the artworks reflect the artists’ views, not those of the Walker Gallery or National Museums Liverpool.’
King Cotton on his Wal-Mart throne
The first piece to greet you as you enter makes clear why. The King is Dead: Long Live the King portrays Donald Trump as the new face of western capitalism. Cotton was a valuable commodity in the 19th century, still is today, and in this painting the Singhs eke out the human and environmental costs of using non-organic cotton chemicals and GM technology to produce higher yields. The work deliberately draws a parallel between the exploitations of Empire and its modern equivalent.
And here is King Cotton himself, sitting on his Wal-Mart branded throne, sporting a Gap top and CK jeans. In the background, two workers are in a field, one picks cotton patented by Monsanto, while the other, noticeably without protection, applies chemical spray. At the King’s feet, a set of scales shows Profit on one scale outweighing Fair Trade/Better Cotton Initiative/Organic on the other.
Links are made between slavery in the 19th century and this century. Surrounding the whole are quotes from various news sources reinforcing the visual points made alongside commonly used aphorisms such as ‘We are what we wear’ or ‘We are what we eat’ while the King signs an executive order to push GMOs as part of his strategy to ‘Make America Great Again’.
Indigo: the colour of India
The central figure in the digital fabric artwork Indigo: The Colour of India is Mumtaz Mahal whose husband Shah Jahan had the Taj Mahal built as a mausoleum to her memory. She is wearing a pair of jeans, the artists making the point that this ubiquitous item of clothing in the West actually has origins going back to its real beginnings in 16th century India. At that time indigo was known as ‘blue gold’ and was traded for enslaved people as is shown on a set of scales, a key metaphor in their work.
The reliance on indigo and its annexing of otherwise productive land was a contributing fact in the Bengal famine of 1770 where millions died. All of this can be found in the minute detailing of the artwork, which conveys the beauty of the colour and its message. Not least of which is: repeating viewings reward the patient observer. This was my favourite piece and I was not alone: the postcard of the work was sold out in the museum gift shop.
Another motif used in the exhibition is the ‘Paisley Pattern’. The Singhs tell the story of how its origination in India led to workers being brought to Paisley to show Scottish workers how to replicate the design, which was then automated in the new factories. The machine-made product rapidly replaced the previously handmade one with predicable results, mass production making it cheaper and ubiquitous.
Free trade – or Eurocentric rough wooing
The cost for India was the demolition of the indigenous industry due to the design being named after the place of manufacture rather than that of origin. Mass production in Russia, Scotland and France soon decimated the local economy. This is brought home in the panel Kashmiri Shawls: From Punjab to Paisley, the ‘pashmina’ or ‘cashmere’ having originated in the Kashmir region of India.
The cartoonist Gillray is referenced in the print Fighting for India 2.0. Wherein Boris Johnson and Angela Merkel fight each other on top of a globe as both Britain and the EU try to win a free trade deal with India after Brexit. Quotes from both sides of this rough wooing surround the frame of the print. Yet more stimulating work – the Eurocentric gaze from another perspective.
Amrit and Rabindra Kaur Singh have produced in Slaves to Fashion a body of work that challenges the Western view of art both in form and content in a way that has brought the public flooding through the doors of the Walker Gallery to see gorgeous and, crucially, thought-provoking art. It would be a thing of wonder if we could get it to Edinburgh! [Sceptical Scot says: we second that]
Slaves of Fashion is showing in Wolverhampton Art Gallery from 21 July to 16 September. Playing the YouTube video at full volume is also highly recommended.
This article first appeared in The Leither magazine: issue 123
Featured image: Half Scot Donald Trump: image Ninian Reid CC By 2.0
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