Slaves of Fashion: The New Works by The Singh Twins

Art in Liverpool, Walker art Gallery, Singh Twins, Blog, Blog review, art history, Art dectective podcast, fashion, slaves to fashion,Art in Liverpool, Walker art Gallery, Singh Twins, Blog, Blog review, art history, Art dectective podcast, fashion, slaves to fashion,

Indigo: The Colour of India and Coromandel: Sugar And Spice, Not So Nice
Images © The Singh Twins:

The first display you come to is before you go through the doors into the exhibition, a striking light box and matching woven tapestry showing a larger than life size Indian woman in blue jeans. Blue is the overwhelming colour of the image and as you move closer the details slide into focus- the M’n’Ms in her pocket, the chained and branded slave one foot rests on, the American turkeys and Venetian lions decorating the carpet. The longer you look the more details you notice. As an appetiser to tempt you through the doors into the full exhibition, it works.

When you step into the main gallery you meet a portrait of Donald Trump sat on a throne above a cotton field being sprayed with toxic pesticides that are leeching into a river with a carton of milk resting in it. Above the frame is a quote from Sarah Bingley a 19th century mill worker: “To my mind it is slavery… to be shut up in a close room for twelve hours a day in the most monotonous and tedious of employment.” So off the bat you know they’re not going to pull any punches in this exhibition. 

There are 11 light boxes with digital prints that are almost tapestries, they each feature a person- usually a woman- dressed in the height of fashion for her era and all around they explore the global events that dictated that fashion being the style. Anyone who didn’t get the memo from Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada that we are all Slaves to Fashion, or thinks that fashion is a petty form of female expression with no real consequence needs to walk around this room.

Dr Janina Ramirez interviewed the twins for the latest episode of The Art Detective podcast and so many of the topics they covered in conversation helped make sense of how this had come together. The Twins had wanted to be academics, and for them that is a part of the artistic process: they spent longer researching what to include and what to allude to than they did creating the final pieces. Two further rooms in the Walker explore the making of the main pieces, which was a touch I really appreciated in an exhibition that is as focused on creation and manufacture as this. I spent as long watching the 'making of' films and examining the jewellery and dresses that were used as inspiration as I did the prints themselves.

I’m Northern so I grew up being fed the horrors of working in a mill- Robert Peel and Robert Owen and the importance of the 1819 and 1833 Factory Acts are Important Historical Events that were hammered into me by successive school trips to Quarry Bank Mill and afternoons dissecting the meanings of James Gillray sketches. What comes across incredibly quickly is how much awareness the artists have of that as well, they were born in London but the family moved up to the Wirral when they were children and I feel like there's a good chance they went on similar outings.

They’ve created something in these works that is the essence of multi-cultural: inspired by the techniques of traditional Indian miniature style and with all the colours of Bollywood they drill down into the global history of European fashion. The motifs are layered with symbolism, Dr Ramirez compared the light boxes to stained glass windows and she is exactly right: they have not wasted an inch of space everything that is included is there for a powerful reason.

The inclusion of a British woman being beaten by a local weaver for wearing imported printed cotton shows that the downsides to a free market are nothing new. That story is complicated by the ideas, illustrated by quotes around the works from 19th century politicians, about how India produced much finer fabric than any British mill and that was a threat to the Lancashire cotton industry but if they could destroy the Indian manufacturing industry then force them to import British made cloth they have millions of potential new customers. It is an exhibition that included lots of big ideas in small ways that keep coming back to me.
The Singh Twins do not pull their punches: they have created works of art that are beautiful and haunting. The ecological and humanitarian consequences of previous generations are clear to see, but as they move into the modern day it is upsetting to see how little has changed. This is work that is informed and informative, politically charged and educational, and the curators have done an excellent job at letting it speak for itself but also provided the means to explore it further.

The exhibition is free to visit and on the Liverpool Walker Art Gallery until 20th May 2018, and will be shown in Wolverhampton later this year.

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