To give you some background on the Singh Twins, they are two sisters internationally renowned for their artwork exploring political, social and cultural issues. Terming their work ‘Past-Modern’ by combining traditional Indian hand-painted miniature portraits with contemporary art, they look back to their Indian heritage for inspiration in the modern sense. Also as multi-disciplinary artists working in illustration, painting, film and writing they push beyond artistic boundaries to develop new work using digital technologies.
Incorporating this into their newest exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery ‘Slaves of Fashion’ gives us an insight into how fashion and industry between Britain and India since the colonial ages transpired into a rocky relationship of enslavement and luxury consumerism. Age old issues bring forth similarities in present-day trade, industry and globalisation – health and safety, climate change, equal pay, fair labour, pollution, corporate politics, business ethics, arms and ammunition strike high on the agenda.
Staring at the 11 huge digital light boxes as they blaze through the room with their exotic imagery and lavish colours, each one has a depth and meaning that cuts you to the bone with its intellectual capacity and historical richness.
Each image is presented in the form of an illuminated hanging textile, full of icons and symbols. ‘Threads of Change’ probes history – up until the 18th century India produced its own cotton and imported to Britain, but it all changed when India started importing British cotton which decimated its own textile industry. India was far-reaching, even renowned by the Egyptians for their fabrics and vibrant colours. In ‘Ancient Roots’ Egyptian Pharaoh Hapshetsut sent her ships as far and wide as she could to get her hands on this magical cotton.
However in ‘Indigo’, also known as blue gold, the British forced Indian farmers to grow the plant helping to contribute to the Bengal famine of 1770. Britain also traded it for enslaved people. Much similar to the Dutch which sent enslaved people to sugar plantations in South America. Both digital images incorporate fashion in their iconography from blue denim jeans on an Indian Queen to the intricate floral embroidery on a Dutch lady’s dress as the broken body of a tortured figure hangs limply in front of her. The Singh Twins accurately illustrate the lucrative trade being mis-appropriated from the Indian people.
Moving to the present day, the addition of several hand-drawn paper illustrations featuring Donald Trump, Teresa May, George Bush, Tony Blair, Boris Johnson and Angela Merkel show their comedic talent to draw upon aspects of politics that counters the politics of Britain/India generations ago. Once again drawing inspiration from the leading caricaturist of his time, James Gillray (1756-1815) (example above).
Teresa May is depicted as the Colossus of today bridging the divide between Europe and Britain, holding a Brexit Sale sign in her arms whilst showering duty free booze over international countries and holding a shopping basket full of imported foodstuffs. Quotes are dotted all around the central figure saying ‘Consumers could be exposed to US farming practices banned by the EU’ and ‘Brexit: 10 ways the EU protects British workers’ rights’ to name just a couple.
In ‘The King is Dead: Long Live the King’ (2017) Trump sits on his ceremonial throne surrounded by a plethora of brands whilst amongst a field of chemical crops, toxic pollution and cheap labour. Under the tagline ‘Make America Great Again’ it makes you feel sick to the stomach as they incapsulate our worst fears in a drawing.
Further into the exhibition there is a film about India and colonisation, and displays depicting the step-by-step process of making the digital light-box illustrations from hand drawings to the inspiration sought from robes, jewellery, old photographs and pottery.
Its a scary thought that we’re in this predicament now. Unfortunately money and wealth make the world go round but not in a positive way as greed and ego take over and extremes emerge. The Singh Twins show that despite hundreds of years going by, and you could say the beginning of globalisation, we still take from the poor, benefit and then dispose of it when we’ve had enough or used it all.
But we do need to make companies and politicians accountable for the decisions they’re making. The public needs to know. And we need to stand up for what we believe in. Perhaps not voting in the likes of corporate megalomaniac Donald Trump would be a start but this is done now and making ourselves heard above his ridiculous tweeting is what will keep us all sane. So thanks to the Singh Twins for their part in making them accountable and for allowing their art to speak the facts that are so easily brushed aside. Its obvious we need to learn from them and exhibitions like this will reach everyday people hopefully making us stop and think.
Slaves of Fashion
On until 20th May 2018
Walker Art Gallery
Liverpool, L3 8EL