For me, an exhibition in the midst of a historic museum like the William Morris Gallery is a dream come true because it actively encourages making connections between the past and the present, between the permanent collection and the new work. And this is what I always do in my mind anyway – making connections and comparisons between current and historic events, between events in different times, in different geographic or cultural contexts. I guess it is my attempt to make sense of the world and the human condition. I never lose hope that we might, possibly, sometimes, learn from mistakes of the past or draw inspiration from past successes. These thoughts inevitably make their way into my art practice.
A couple of years ago I had juxtaposed paintings of female garment workers in present-day South Asia and 1930s Hackney, using fabric with contemporary prints and vintage 30s designs as “canvas”.
This planted the seed for the Tangled Yarns exhibition, a much more ambitious project. Having said that, I hadn’t quite expected Tangled Yarns to cover stories spanning 300 years! The initial idea was to connect working conditions in the British Textile Industry during Morris’ lifetime with the conditions in the industry today, focusing on recent disasters in Bangladesh (the Rana Plaza factory collapse; factory fires such as the one at the Tazreen garment factory), and showing the contemporary relevance of Morris’ thoughts and ideals. But once I started reading up on the Lancashire cotton industry and the history of the cotton trade, I stumbled upon fascinating stories from other times which I just couldn’t let go. I suppose this happens when you keep your research quite open and just see where it takes you. You might look for A and you find B. Like when I had travelled to Bolton to look at records of a particular cotton mill, but my most exciting find at Bolton Museum & Archives were beautiful old “bolt labels” from Lancashire firms exporting cotton fabrics to India with images straight out of orientalist fantasies!
Or when I went to the Textile Society’s Antique Textiles Fair to look for Victorian shawls and came home with a very intriguing fragment of cotton patchwork.
So given the space and time constraints for this exhibition, I pretty soon had to make a decision whether to drop some of the stories that had captivated me in my initial research and just explore a limited few themes in depth, through a larger number of works. In the end I decided against this because it is precisely the fact the global cotton/textile trade has always been associated with so many socio-economic issues at various parts of its value chain that I find so fascinating, issues that keep cropping up in different parts of the globe at different times, linking people on different continents, where one person’s desire for fashionable clothes could mean another person’s economic lifeline, escape from poverty… or endless drudgery, exploitation, slavery or death. And more often than not, the individuals at the different stages of the value chain would be women.
There is also a very personal connection to textiles and making clothes. My mother used to make all her own clothes – and mine, until as a teenager my fashion choices became rather incompatible with hers, at which point I discovered how useful it was that she had taught me how to sew myself. My childhood memories include many exciting trips to fabric stores where fabric bolts where piled higher than me, looking at seemingly infinite numbers of beautiful patterns, feeling all these varieties of cloth; the rattling of my mum’s sewing machine on the dining table, and her patience and industry in turning out those perfectly fitting garments. Hence I am very familiar with the time and effort involved in making clothes – they don’t magically make themselves and fly onto the shop rails. So when mass market clothes got cheaper and cheaper (due to the outsourcing of manufacturing to ever poorer countries) I remember thinking : this is not possible – somewhere along the line, someone is getting a raw deal. As it turns out, they do.