After the opening of Tangled Yarns, a lot of my friends and artist colleagues were asking: Are you enjoying all this free time that you have now? Are you taking a holiday? – Well, not quite. November was packed with talks and workshops – the staff of William Morris Gallery are probably considering me part of the furniture by now!
First, there were the ethical fashion workshops for GCSE/BTEC/A-level students from various schools in Waltham Forest, which I ran jointly with fashion lecturer Fenella Magnus. The workshops included: discussing the global textile supply chain and how today’s ‘fast fashion” industry frequently leads to the exploitation of the workers who make our clothes; learning about William Morris’ artistic and political ideas and his campaign against exploitative labour conditions in the Victorian textile mills; a visit to the Tangled Yarns exhibition; and a practical session where each students was given a “damaged” T-shirt (e.g. ripped, burnt, stained, …) that they were to transform into a unique piece of fashion or art, working with the damage rather than hiding it. After the workshops all students had the opportunity to continue working on their T-shirts in school. An event is planned for early 2015 to showcase the best pieces from all workshops in the Gallery.
It was heartening to realise how aware many of the young people (mostly age 14 and 15) were of the problems associated with our fashion industry. Less well known were the details of what exactly happened when the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh collapsed, and why so many workers died an entirely avoidable death. According to my observing colleague, my account of the Rana Plaza disaster never failed to captivate, and it certainly felt a lot like telling a dark thriller about ‘extreme unfair fashion.’ Pointing out that many Bangladeshi garment workers are the same age as my young audience helped to make an event that happened half way round the globe even more relevant to them. One group had another special connection to the disaster: their entire school uniforms were made in Bangladesh.
Not surprising then that in the exhibition, the Rana Plaza pin pieces attracted a lot of attention.
What I also noticed was that seeing something that relates to them personally really helped students engage with the work: For example, many students of South Asian origin were drawn to “End of Empire” because they could immediately identify the Gandhi figure. “On the Move” was also a popular piece, maybe because students could identify with the young women on their scooters.
One of the students asked: “Do your paintings always have to be about something?” Now there’s a good question.
After all the listening, observing and talking, students were more than ready for the creative part of the workshop!
In the last workshop, there was definitely a skull theme going on, quite possibly influenced by “The Spectre”.
Another event we organised in the Gallery was the panel discussion “Is fashion still to die for?”. The discussion centred around what (if anything) has changed after the Rana Plaza disaster, and what the various stakeholders can do to improve working conditions of the people who make our clothes, and ensure they get paid a decent wage. Hearing Sam Maher from Labour behind the Label, just back from her latest visit to Bangladesh, was sobering. Yes, the conclusion of the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety has been a game-changer – but it only covers Bangladesh, it won’t cover all factories, financing factory improvements remains a problem, and it certainly won’t deliver a living wage for garment workers. Meanwhile, Western clothing brands haven’t even given half the money needed to compensate the victims of the Rana Plaza disaster. In the fast fashion industry it’s Business As Usual, meaning the systemic problems that are at the root of labour exploitation (ranging from corruption in Bangladesh to unreasonably short deadlines for suppliers and over-consumption on Western high streets) have not yet been addressed.
Regulation and worker organisation appear to be key to improving the garment workers’ lot. A look at the evolution of working conditions during the industrial revolution seems to confirm this: the key drivers for improvements for factory workers were not customer buying patterns or supply chain management- regulation and collective bargaining were much more important. We cannot buy our way out of the problem and, certainly from an environmental perspective, maybe we all need to buy less and value the clothes we wear more. Many participants felt is was important to overcome consumers’ disconnect from the ‘labour behind the label’.
As for those who want to do better now, Claire Lissaman, owner of small ethical fashion business Arthur & Henry and ethical fashion consultant, highlighted another important point: transparency. “Ethical” can mean all sorts of things to different people, hence producers – whether big high street brands or small entrepreneurs – need to define clearly what they mean by “ethical”, “fairtrade”, “sustainable” etc, and be absolutely clear about what their business does, and what it doesn’t do.
Another highlight of the month was the opening of “Torn Justice” in the William Morris Gallery’s Discovery Lounge. This exhibition features the artworks done by the young people who had visited my studio in August (see post of 14 August) and then spent a few super-intensive days making their own pieces examining the injustices of the global fashion industry. There is a strong focus in the works on the fact that in today’s “fast fashion” the hard work of the garment workers is not recognised – that they are just an army of faceless toilers who are taken for granted, and whose lives are dispensable. Some pieces emphasise the anonymity and soullessness in factory production while others aim to making the workers visible, highlight their individuality and give them back their dignity.
I was really pleased to be asked to open the exhibition as part of the launch event, which was organised by another group of young people (16-19 yrs): the participants of the Gallery’s first Young Curators Programme. Their first task had been to organise the “Torn Justice” exhibition, with everything that this entails: hanging and captioning the work, preparing an exhibition handout, organising the launch event and another Gallery event specially for 16-22 year olds later on, and ultimately taking the work down.
The launch was fabulous. The young curators had decided to give the whole evening a South Asian theme, complete with Indian fabrics, snacks, and a wonderful dance performance by Khyal Arts. I was so impressed (and laden with the beautiful flowers I got given) I forgot to take pictures! Naturally, one of the curators was tasked with photographing the event, so I’ll try and get some pics off her.