Thursday, 18 October 2018

Slaves Of Fashion: The Singh Twins at Ethical Consumer Conference

Whatever our age, gender or personal style, the vast majority of our wardrobes will have something in common: cotton. Whether it’s a smart shirt, floaty sundress, comfortable basics like t-shirts and underwear, or that pair of jeans that you can wear anywhere, cotton is a versatile natural fibre, breathable and easy to wash and care for. Cotton feels like such a friendly fibre, but its history is far darker and more complicated than its uncontested presence in our lives would suggest.

Let me describe a scenario for you: A government redirects its country’s rivers to provide water for intensive cotton growing. This engineering project, ill-conceived and badly executed, diverts the rivers away from a fertile inland sea, turning it into a salty wasteland. An island in the centre of the lake, once used as a weapons testing facility, is now accessible by land. Meanwhile, every autumn the nation’s teenagers are taken from their homes and forced to work as unpaid cotton pickers. If they don’t meet their almost impossible quotas, they are fined or expelled from school. I haven’t described the plot of a dystopian novel, this is genuinely happening in Uzbekistan right now.

Cotton’s role in the destruction of the Aral Sea has been documented in Lucy Siegle’s book To Die For: Is Fast Fashion Wearing Out The World?” and Stacey Dooley’s recent BBC documentary Fashions Dirty Secrets. But the worldwide history of cotton, over hundreds of years, is similarly complex: part of the fabric of our lives, but also responsible for global conflict and human misery. So how to tell this story? There’s no denying we have lost touch with where our clothes come from, but overloading consumers with facts and figures could cause people to switch off rather than engage with the subject.

Liverpool-based artists The Singh Twins have chosen to tell the story of cotton, focussing on Britain and India, through a series of artworks and poetry. The Singh Twins spoke about their Slaves Of Fashion series at the Ethical Consumer Conference on 12th October, and also ran a workshop which centred around the poem and what lessons we could take from it. Sadly my photos, snapped on my phone during the talk, really don’t do justice to these intricate and detailed works of art.

The works which trace the history of the cotton trade between Britain and India are in the style of Indian miniature paintings; they show the lives of the rich but are full of details which relate to the misuse of the environment and the mistreatment of people. The details are extraordinary; for example, the painting titled "Chinz: The Price of Luxury" appears to show a woman in fine clothes and jewellery, but on closer inspection the diamond around her neck is dripping blood and in amongst the floral patterns on the skirts of her dress are curling chains, symbolising the slave trade.

The wealth of detail draws the eye and rewards a closer look: the symbols of imperialism and colonialism reveal how reliant the luxury lifestyle of the elite has been on the slave trade in centuries past, and the global legacy this has left. Some of the works reflect on current trade wars, modern slavery and the greed of global corporations that perpetuates this cycle.

The Singh Twins “Slaves Of Fashion” film, a recitation of their poem about the history of cotton accompanied by details from their paintings, was nothing short of mesmerising. The verses linked the cultural and historical significance of cotton, the Industrial Revolution, the trans-atlantic slave trade, the British invasion of India, Partition, fast fashion and the global economy with heart-felt emotion that would have been completely lacking from a timeline of dates and place names.

As we discussed our impressions of the film afterwards, the same subjects kept coming up. Having the history of cotton presented to us in this very lyrical, visual way, the patterns were easy to spot. The cycles of industrialisation and globalisation, the cycles of exploitation of people and the natural world. The same power and wealth imbalances have persisted across centuries in different incarnations.

But the poem and paintings also contained messages of hope. Ghandi’s use of traditional Indian weaving as a form of protest, and the solidarity shown by Lancashire mill-workers who stood with their fellow weavers in India rather than falling for propaganda that would have pitted them against one another.

Global trade weaves the threads of our lives together, and the “Slaves Of Fashion” series by the Singh Twins is full of messages showing that this is even more relevant now than it was in the past. We need stories that alert us to the dark sides of the things in our lives that we take for granted, but these stories need to spark a desire for change, rather than despair. Fashion is reliant on strong visuals for its initial impact, so it makes sense that powerful images can also reveal the things that need to change for fashion to truly be beautiful, and for us to be truly comfortable in our cotton clothes.

The Singh Twins exhibition Slaves Of Fashion will hopefully be showing in galleries around the UK in 2019, for updates and a closer look at the paintings head over to their website: