- Whitworth Art Gallery
Cotton. You’re probably wearing it now. You probably sleep on it every night. The sheer abundance of this material all around us means it usually remains ignored and under-appreciated. The cotton industry at one point had its largest export centres in places far and wide; India, and closer to home, Lancashire. The new exhibition at Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery is a celebration of all things cotton, including both traditional and contemporary uses, mixed media pieces and installations, but most of all a well deserved celebration of the stuff. Cotton: Global Threads is an exhibition designed to amalgamate the cultural diversities of these fine threads and fabrics in a showcase of international talent and multiplicity.
As the first manufactured commodity, we remain constantly indebted to cotton and those who produce it. It is not unreasonable to assume that many residents of Manchester, which was once part of Lancashire, are unaware of just how pinnacle the county was to the cotton trade, rubbing shoulders with not only India, but many parts of Africa and America. Cotton has, and still remains to have, connotations of economical and moral issues, as well as labour exploitations, and while this exhibition celebrates this underrated fibre, it also offers a cultural analysis and historical chronology of the more personal life of cotton.
Despite being dedicated to a specific material, this exhibition offers a wide variety of media, showcasing the fine threads in both a traditional and contemporary manner. The Whitworth tends to pride itself in its thematic approach to exhibitions, as its curators feel they have more freedom and can be more playful with the inclusion of pieces, usually specially selecting works from their permanent collection to coincide with temporary installations. It is in this way that this new exhibit tells not only a global story, but offers an account of texture, colour and mixed media. Liz Rideal’s piece, Ghost Sari (2001), is video footage projected onto gently floating drapes, and its translucency and fluidity make it hauntingly beautiful. Rideal has merged pre-recorded material with physical, moving fabric, creating a tactile piece which personifies the cloth, making it part of a global cultural language. Whether it is the clothes and textiles which can all be found on display in this diverse exhibition, or any of the other garments, carpets, wall hangings or pure works of art, what stands out is the symbolic and time consuming nature of the work. On show here are the very fibres of life, from places all over the globe.
Though it is well recorded that the labour force behind cotton’s production has often been exploited, this exhibition serves to mirror this with cotton’s own exploitation as a fabric, reminding visitors of the not only the laborious work which goes into producing it, but the incessant possibilities that this material has. The John Forbes Watson sample books on display as part of Cotton: Global Threads are volumes of textile swatches, and give a small but wonderful insight into the intricacy of cotton work, as well as all the potential for colour, texture and pattern. It is obvious that the most intricate and fine pieces of cotton fabrics on show for this exhibition, whether they are garments or a wall from Tipu Sultan’s travelling tent, are a sign of grandeur, luxury, and often majestic status. While some of the pieces in Cotton do have a regal background or connotation, many of them are more concerned with history and heritage. Liz Rideal’s work is certainly involved with the global heritage that is associated with cotton, and leaves both physical and mental impressions with her subtle cultural comments and folds of fabric. Aboubakar Fofana’s huge installation piece, Les Arbres à Bleu, which has transformed a whole room of the Whitworth into a beach, consists of numerous “trees,” made from cotton dyed with indigo. Additionally the scattered yarns of cotton in amongst these cotton totem poles are meant to signify fallen fruit. This whole scene is reminiscent of Fofana’s homeland of Mali, incorporating his heritage and cultural background, and there is certainly something visceral and beautiful about the processes he has used.
Cotton: Global Threads most certainly offers visitors an international flavour of all the backgrounds, uses, and connotations of Cotton, showcasing everything from 1400 year old Egyptian fabrics from the Whitworth’s permanent collection, to Anne Wilson‘s Wind Up: Walking the Warp, a film installation incorporating dance into a machine like performance of weaving a cotton warp. This multi-disciplinary exhibition is seeking to bring back the forgotten cotton industry which once thrived in and around Manchester, as well as celebrating the connection which these threads have brought between many cultures. This significantly important and widely used fibre can be seen on show here in all its glory as much more than a bed sheet, and certainly as a permanent “global tie.”