“ Do you think the blue jeans were invented by Levis Strauss? Think Again “ – reads the prompt when you use the interactive AR app accompanying the exhibit “Slaves of Fashion”. This latest solo by The Singh Twins in collaboration with National Museums Liverpool & the University of Liverpool is not only a lesson in the history and art of India, but is a shining example of storytelling, exhibition-design and the innovative use of technology to enhance visitor-experience in Museums.
A History of Indian Textiles, Slavery, Trade & its Legacies
The Singh Twins are known for their creative, hard-hitting political art and this exhibition is no different. A surprise encounter with the ‘Indienne’ textiles at a slavery Museum in Nantes (France) led the twins deeper into unearthing a story which was waiting to be told – the story of Indian textiles, the associated horror of transatlantic slave trade and its modern day legacies. 18th century merchants from the port of Nantes traded Indian-made textiles in exchange for African slaves. Deciding to explore this connection further back home in Liverpool, their work took inspiration from the objects across the venues that constitute National Museums Liverpool including The Walker Art Gallery, International Slavery Museum, Museum of Liverpool and World Museum. The exhibition also displays many of these objects alongside the artworks.
Slaves of Fashion: The Narrative
This exhibition celebrates India’s pioneering, diverse and global contribution to the manufacturing and trade of textiles over the centuries. It also explores interconnected histories around Empire and Colonialism, global conflict, conquest, slavery and luxury lifestyle, & present-day concerns about ethical trade in an increasingly consumerist world.
Each one of the 20 artworks on display tells a captivating story. Eleven of these feature symbolic portraits of historical figures (life-size) as digital fabric artworks on light-boxes to reveal the full intricacy of their design and the eclectic, detailed, symbolic and narrative style for which The Singh Twins are renowned. Every artwork is backed by layers of research, and is rich in content. While each one highlights a different theme relating to India’s textile industry, collectively they reveal not only the beauty, and craftsmanship of Indian fabrics but also the human cost of luxury goods.
A Mughal Queen in Jeans
An image of the Mughal Queen Mumtaz Mahal wearing jeans, in a detailed life-size portrait is titled ‘Indigo: The Colour of India’. It tells the story of Indigo, which was used in India as a fabric dye for thousands of years. Known as ‘blue gold’ (currency for buying slaves), it was highly valuable and prized for its rich, deep shade and colour-fast qualities. Today, one might associate denims with western fashion, but The SinghTwins challenge that notion, backing it with extensive research and tracing the roots of “Dungaree” (another term for Denims) to “Dongri” village in Mumbai where 16th century Portugese sailors had first used the coarse material as pants and popularised them.
Coromandel : Sugar & Spice, not so Nice!
The Dutch woman in this artwork wears a coat of floral fabric from Coromandel and stands in front of a spice tree – a symbol of the Dutch trade in spices such as nutmeg, pepper and cloves. The tree takes the form of the ‘Tree of Life’, a frequently occurring motif in Indian fabrics. Hanging from the tree is an image of a tortured figure, symbolising the Dutch use of the profits from their trade in Indian textiles to fund the use of enslaved people on their sugar plantations in South America.
Watch The Singh Twins talk about their favourite artwork, in this video by the National Museums, Liverpool
The second part of the exhibition moves fluidly into present-day debates about industry and globalisation, fair-labour & equal pay; pollution and climate change; corporate politics and business ethics driven by 9 artworks on paper that include illustrations of Trump, Angela Merkel, George Bush, Theresa May etc. An audio/visual presentation of a poem by The Singh Twins called King Cotton:An Artists’ Tale brings together the diverse narratives explored through these artworks.
Slaves of Fashion: Technology & the Visitor-Experience
To help visitors decode each detail in the lightbox-artworks, an animated AR App accompanies the exhibition. Even in India, we could access this app & could only imagine the heightened visitor-experience of viewing the layers within each story.
The Singh Twins admit:
… given the limitations that the gallery places on the amount of words that can be used in the interpretive text labels displayed on the walls next to each artwork, this app allows the visitor to explore many narratives layered within the artwork
Catch the app in action :
Visitors to this exhibition can also delve into the artistic processes through interactive screens playing time-lapse videos and understand the object-inspiration behind the artworks.
Giving visitors the opportunity to gain deeper insights into the themes, with visual examples, make this exhibition a truly meaningful experience.
For example, the painting “Calico Madam” is placed with adequate reference to the museum-object it derives inspiration from – a printed gown.
In addition, a touch screen featuring academic responses by Prof Kate Marsh (specialist in European colonial histories at the University of Liverpool) , reveals the fascinating hidden histories behind selected objects.
Re-interpreting Museum Collections through Slaves of Fashion
An exhibition such as ‘Slaves of Fashion’, lends itself to another purpose – that of reinterpreting the collections. As we celebrate “Hyperconnected Museums” and explore the changing relationship between the community and museums, this exhibition renders a stunning example to take cue from.
In working with National Museums Liverpool collections for the ‘Slaves of Fashion’ series ,The Singh Twins adeptly show how seemingly unrelated objects from different historical periods and cultures connect through the universal story of Indian textiles and remain relevant to diverse, modern audiences.
‘Slaves of Fashion’ is an intellectually stimulating and historically rich exhibition. It leaves the visitor “feeling” the power of art and one cannot help but introspect :
Are we any different when it comes to exploitation for the sake of luxury consumption?
Even in the 21st century, forms of slavery and exploitation exist. For instance, sandblasting jeans, to make them look worn without proper equipment & health and safety procedures, leads to lung diseases (symbolically represented in the artwork, and highlighted by the AR app). Quite a high price to pay for a pair of trousers, and yet we must have “more”.
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What we love about The Singh Twins is how they make this fine balance between history, art, technology and a pressing global issue look so effortless in its presentation.
If this exhibition inspired you, look out for a publication on the exhibition that is in the pipeline – it’s definitely going to be a treasure!!
‘Slaves of Fashion’ has been shortlisted for the Eastern Eye Arts Culture and Theatre Awards in the category of ‘Eastern Eye Award for Arts’. The winner is to be announced at a gala ceremony in London on 22nd June – join us in keeping fingers crossed and passing on the very best wishes to this inspiring pair!!