Posts tagged ‘Threads of Empire’

falling into place

I’ve always enjoyed autumn, a feeling of things being gathered in and then a time for deep mulling over and consideration going on deep within, while on the surface there are lots of new learning opportunities available. I used to really enjoy looking through the adult education classes and workshop lists, and seeing if anything appealed – mind candy 😉

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Anyway, so here I find myself, at the turning of the season, wondering how I can make some abundance… I have been reading more again, the Threads of Empire curator arranged some Amazon vouchers as a reward for us artists which was really kind, and set off a buying spree on my part!

I really recommend going to see 1745 – a short film:

When two young black slaves escape into the wilds of 18th century Scotland, they must use all of their courage and strength to survive, unite, and stay free.

1745 highlights a forgotten part of Scotland’s history: while Scotland was fighting for its national freedom in that fateful year, its economy was in large part founded on the booming colonial slave trade. While the majority of slavery happened elsewhere – off-stage, across the Atlantic – there were African slaves here, kept as trophies and pets in the houses of their rich merchant masters. “1745” was inspired by advertisements that writer, Morayo Akandé, discovered for runaway slaves, placed in Scottish newspapers of the time.

 

{see https://www.1745film.com/synopsis}

for me, this sparked an interest in Scotland’s uprising in favour of the last Stuart, and the slavery that was funding the Scottish economy at the time… people wanting religious freedom but not giving freedom to people stolen from their homelands. I grew up with a granny telling me never to bring the flowers known in England as Sweet Williams in the house – as a Mackenzie/ Robson/ Black they were considered bad luck and an insult, and known as Stinking Billies. They are named for William, the Butcher of Culloden who massacred thousands in his Scottish campaigns, including civilians, children and old folk. The 9 of Diamonds is also the Curse of Scotland – though there are many ‘explanations’, a common one is

Anyway, suffice it to say I really, really recommend seeing the film, it’s only a short, maybe 11 minutes, but they make them count. Just seeing the sisters running through the rain [ filming must have been horrible!] I realised with a jolt that I had never seen an eighteenth century tartan dress on a woman of colour. The textile/costume historian in me was fascinated…

And that sparked reading Philippa Gregory’s ‘A Respectable Trade’ where a white woman trains a small group of slaves, but [minimising the spoilers] feels so attached to one of them, that she is terribly reluctant to give him his freedom, because without that power over him, she will lose the connection that has made life worth living for her. An even better read was ‘Joseph Knight’ by James Robertson [https://www.theguardian.com/books/2003/jun/07/fiction.alismith]

which was so well written. It starts with a young lad being ordered to run away before the massacre at Glencoe by his father, who is later hung, drawn and quartered by the Hanoverian King for treason, watched by his younger brother. The difference between the brothers in how they treated the slaves on their plantation is apparently based on family history and records and means you start with sympathy but end with horrified confusion at how this plays out. A lot of trauma in there, and the way Joseph Knight is almost unknowable because he was snatched as a toddler and has very few memories of himself before slavery, and has been shaped by that into a mask protecting a core of iron is very convincing. I found the ending, where his family are accepted by the recently freed colliers of the West Coast of Scotland very moving.

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I found the new making ideas that arose from watching 1745 made me want to push on and finish the two pieces I have been working on. The freeform aqua and sand piece I am making as a companion piece to Organic Process is now being attached to a lampshade armature someone gave me and is looking very underwater/coral/barnacle crusted, so I am pleased. The Tangled Freedoms piece [from Threads of Empire] has returned and l have plans to extend it, with embroidery I have been making from lace, ribbon and fabrics, and a short quote on the decay of empires that Onni used in the exhibition. Poor Cherise will be back to pinning things on the floor again!

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Doing the research for Tangled Threads reminded me that although I finally understood the waves of the French Revolution by reading Marge Piercy’s ‘City of Darkness, City of Light’ I had never understood Napoleon’s coup d’etat and the disintegration of the revolution that followed. I still don’t understand all the implications by far, but reading ‘Desiree’ by AnneMarie Selinko made me understand a lot more. I find reading a novel helps me remember the sequences of events better. Both Marge Piercy and Annemarie Selinko create understandable versions of historical people, giving them intuited backstories that make sense, whereas some of the historical analysis I’ve seen of Claire Lacombe and Desidera, Queen of the Swedes has been insultingly disrespectful, assuming they are just ‘flighty’ women responding to whatever impulse of the moment occurs, grrr..

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So I think my new interest/pursuit for this autumn is to be catching up on history. My mobility and spoons are very limited at the moment, but the wonderful internet is there to explore – with a shovel of salt handy on some sites, of course! Being still, in my own place, but peeking through time and space to other lives… and being inspired to make of course, it all comes back out through my hands…

 

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Threads of Empire by curator Dr Onni Gust

excellent introduction to the exhibition, and how the available archive materials shaped the format, but how informed intersectionalist research shaped the critique:

http://www.historyworkshop.org.uk/threads-of-empire-rule-and-resistance-in-colonial-india/

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Threads of Empire

The opening event for Threads of Empire was well attended and full of friends – I didn’t get my crafting out once 😉 I had some lovely conversations and hopefully some networking will bring in more members for our textile/mixed media artist group.

Apologies for poor quality images, I want to go back and take better photos and even watch the video I’m in, but Nonie had to go to the vet and I’ve had extra appointments, so I am woefully behind… the event was quite crowded so I didn’t even get to see many of the historical exhibits, let alone get my camera out!

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Process art: creating a response piece

This post explains how I came to create my piece ‘Tangled Freedoms 3’ in response to the archive materials in the ‘Threads of Empire: rule and resistance in colonial India’ exhibition, opens April 12th 2017, Lakeside Arts Centre, University of Nottingham.

http://www.lakesidearts.org.uk/exhibitions/event/3467/threads-of-empire-rule-and-resistance-in-colonial-india-c1740-1840.html

Singing Bird Artist:

Immersing myself in a subject [topic/ material/ dream] and finding out what my hands want to make as a result is my normal process – Sea Change [see videos] started from a dream but involved a chase through Greek mythology and the role of coral in climate change research, while Organic Process started with 3 particular yarns and went some unexpected places [painting vintage buttons with nail varnish?!]

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As soon as Dr Onni Gust told me some details from the archive materials I was fascinated 🙂 [not sure if I’m allowed to quote – but believe me, as an intersectional feminist and anti-racist, the items chosen are very interesting, and as a textile and fibre artist interested in clothing and costume as signifiers… ooh! Come see it!]

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Onni recommended some background reading about the period, which was very useful, as though I know a certain amount of colonial history, I’ve always been a bit hazy on the details of the British East India Company. I wasn’t allowed to do History at high school as my godfather taught it and he thought I’d be cheeky [me?!] so I’ve been catching up ever since. I hadn’t realised how the first ‘traders’ were very likely to be merchants and middle class and self made business men, anxious to move up in society, but also staff landing their dream assignment, to be scholars, Islamophiles, loving the Iranian poets who shaped so much of Moghul cultural values, or fascinated by the beautiful sculptures and architecture of Hindu tradition. The more I read about those men’s adventures in crossing over into local culture, making political alignments but also romantic liasons and full marriages, bringing their wives and children into the British aristocracy…the more my impressions of that time had to be unpicked.

 

The French East India Company were rivals at every court for the favour of local Moghul or Hindu royalty, who were fantastically wealthy by European standards, a letter in the exhibition details the gifts a party of British visitors were given in 1742, hugely lavish, humbling the Company officials… The French were a new republic, offering a larger army of mercenaries to local sultans, and some of the trade wrangles were as much about Paris and London as the Indian courts…

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Fabrics were an important part of the East India Companies’ wishlists… the Kashmiri shawl was a status symbol among the upper middle class in Britain, and the shameful history of how the boteh was renamed paisley after the Scottish textile mill town whose fortune was made on cheaper copycats of Indian skill should be taught on every textile course…

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Muslim art is abstract – images of monkeys, dogs and humans are particularly offensive, something I bear in mind when making quilts for refugees and the geometric and arabesque flourishes of their textile designs far outshone the toiles de Jouy and chintz flowers, both in style but also vibrancy of colour and tone. Hindu dyeing and printing techniques were ahead of Europe at the time, though Britain was heading into the Industrial revolution of machination, measuring and metering, huge mills where children would lose fingers and hands in the threading machines for Jacquards and spinning Jennies.

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With all the textual research bubbling away in my brain, I explored which cloth and fibres felt like they fitted… It’s difficult to convey quite how my process is different to straightforward design, but there’s more generosity towards intuition… While mulling over the way my third of the triptych would possibly have to accomodate being above standing head height, I made my usual assemblage elements, machine cords. These take a few hours, depending how many I make, but are very useful for simmering ideas about colour, watching what happens, what works, what doesn’t, what suddenly gifts you a significant piece of the puzzle.

After noodling around for a while, I remembered some sari ribbons I had and started playing with them:

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Gradually it became clear to me what the feeling I was to convey in the piece is. We had discussed how the triptych would allow space for our individual reactions – while hopefully making a harmonious whole. We were each energised by different items from the archive, though equally full of anger and grief at the deaths and injustices of the times… it took some time to narrow down our concerns to generate a name for the triptych that would fit our separate responses, but finally Tangled Freedoms was the agreed title. Then everything opened up again as we discussed what techniques we were drawn to, what colour palettes spoke to us… I chose aqua blues and sand, from lemon through to topaz. Having spent a year making patchwork as part of pacing and managing anxiety, I decided to challenge myself and include it in my end piece, as a base layer, with fibre and thread layers above. These fibres are from the gauzey muslin I chose as my fabric to be dyed by P.Chezharb, and they’ve done a beautiful job, rippling tones within the core colours…

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What I feel most strongly after my research is how tangled everything is – there is straightforward exploitation of the resources of India and the common people, but as soon as you look at individuals, layers and twists  and turns emerge. Everything revolves around the court protocols; the concerns of the East India Companies; but then there are the harem women dressed with freedom, behind their mashrabeya screens, the European women free to travel with an escort, but in their personal prison of stays and corsets, neither free from the threat of violence and death if they strayed too far from what pleased the men they were possessions of; the servants of the Companies, caught up in massacres caused by rank stupidity and bigotry; the scholars wanting to explore their long cherished dreams instead supposed to defraud and unsettle their hosts; the hugely wealthy rulers being threatened by the decline of their autonomy and the de-stabilising efforts of European governments… who here is free? The Europeans died in their hundreds, many in the first year. No one can act without consequences, most are walking tightropes under pressure from government or ruler or husband…meanwhile the saddhus sit naked by the rivers, dazzled by the shining, rippling waves and own nothing and are owned by no one. The only people free to do as they please have no power. Tangled indeed…

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The feeling I most want my piece to convey is the dazzling betrayals, ever shifting meanings and deceits, that all that glittered was not gold, the death and the dirt below the gold. The role that water played, the huge lengths of time between query and response, at least a year, and that was if no ship foundered. Often an official would be answering someone who was now long buried, merchants would be fighting the French Company for the best deals, while they wondered if Britain had been invaded by Napoleon…

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Pauline Edwards has used text and images to recreate the fiery pyres of massacred Indian soldiers at Vellore, and Pol Chezharb has used a background of vivid primaries to invoke the life and death nature of these economic and political choices, but I still feel most struck by the air and water, open skies and miasmic marshes the British edged in from at Calcutta, the terrible sea journeys they risked to make money that could not save them if illness came… foolsgold for many, the founding of a colony that stole immeasurable wealth and unsettled world politics for at least 2 centuries, imagining it could be possible to do that without creating anger and a backlash that is still unrolling today… foolsgold…

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exciting news: Threads of Empire

The University of Nottingham Weston Gallery at Lakeside Arts Centre will be hosting an exhibition from April 12th called ‘Threads of Empire: rule and resistance in colonial India.’,

see http://www.lakesidearts.org.uk/exhibitions/event/3467/threads-of-empire-rule-and-resistance-in-colonial-india-c1740-1840.html

curated by Dr Onni Gust [who writes about gender and Empire and women travellers of the 17 and 1800s see footnote ^] with RA and Phd student, Ibtisam Ahmed, who writes interestingly about Utopia and Empire, including on gender [see+]. They have brought together some very interesting archive pieces, letters, lists, reports of revolt..all with a common link of clothing/ costume/ cultural markers that I find fascinating. When Onni suggested I put together a proposal for a response piece with fellow textile artists I was really excited and energised.  After some discussion with my friends Pauline Edwards and P. Chezharb, we decided to form an artist collective called Infinite Threads and submit our vision of a triptych responding individually and collectively to the archive materials. Yesterday we heard we had been accepted and won a small grant for materials and expenses and a stipend, totalling £1,500! Great news! To give you some context, my last joint exhibition cost £450 to install at a private gallery with NO support for materials… happy rollie* dance!!

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Now here’s the thing about being an artist with chronic illness – a turnaround of Feb 1st to April 12th is very daunting nowadays… because once I’d read the archive materials shared with us, I had a design float into my mind that would be a personal challenge. Nothing like keeping it interesting 😉 I’ve been working towards blending fabric collage into a form of painting for a while, and here is an opportunity to create a ‘jump’ piece where I do that 🙂 I started making machine cords and then patchwork for different layers in my piece a few weeks ago, and was so eager to start, holding back has been very hard…

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So I had a very strong commitment to making this piece for a few reasons – and I think you need that as an artist, because you certainly don’t do it for the money 😉 We had some group discussions about how we felt individually, what material was most interesting to us and any initial visions of how we’d work – there has to be a lot of flex at this point, as one of the things we three share as mixed media artists specialising in textiles [we all have City and Guilds textile works training as well as art skills/ training] is that touching the fabric changes so much. The feel of muslin changes when it is dyed, the fold, the fall, the heft… so much art now ignores how what we touch, what we feel, influences our making. Art is not just cerebral, it has heart and guts, juice, energy… brainwork is one part, but to a textile or mixed media artist, or sculptor and many painters, only one..

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I like working with colour blending, creating volume by tearing cloth, putting thread and fibre to work create new fabrics, working with shadows and silhouettes. I tend to stay abstract and trust my process, absorbing lots of visual and a fair bit of textual research so that when my hands start making, there is something my brain/psyche wishes to ‘download’ into the materials in hand. Intensive contact and co-operation between hand, brain and fabric creates interesting work, better than if I actively designed in a more cerebral way, imposing a concept on the materials, subjugating them.

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Pauline dreams her way in, working with text or an image that seizes her attention, allowing a lot of responses to arise and then working down into them as she applies dye or paint, tranfers chosen text, and finally storms the canvas with her machine loaded with threads galore… she once worked 18 hours straight round at my house when she was making a commissioned quilt to celebrate the 105+ minority communities of Nottingham… the piece stretched from my [empty!] fireplace to the back of the sofa, over 10′ square.

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P. Chezharb creates wonderful painterly surfaces using Procion dyes, and then adds mixed media to them. They are creating some of the fabrics we are using, and then their own part of the triptych will focus on their response to the letter describing a British woman’s visit to the local dignitary’s harem from 1742, and the struggle to end sati [suttee, the burning of widows on a husband’s funeral pyre] which still occasionally occurred even at the end of the 20th Century.

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I’m going to post more as our works emerge, and explain more of our backgrounds – between us, we have ancestors and recent relatives who were forced to move by slavery, pogrom, persecution by faith, the Highland Clearances, an Asian experience of leaving Tanzania for Britain, the Windrush migration from Jamaica… we are interested in where the intersections of freedom of choice and freedom within circumstance fall, what we can make as message, protest or affirmation for ourselves and our communities of choice and circumstance…when we can make beauty, and when ugly is part of a necessary truth.

*rollator, a seat on wheels I push to help to help me walk [33% less effort] and then sit on as frequently as necessary, which is pretty often.

^ Dr Onni Gust , current research : Home and Exile in the British Imperial Imagination focuses on ideas of “home” and “exile” in the published and unpublished writings of a network of European-imperial thinkers, looking at how their gendered performances of belonging reconfigured the meaning of nation and Europe.

https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/history/people/onni.gust

+’Clothing the Other: The Use of Fashion in Pursuit of a British Imperial Utopia’ by IbtisamAhmed

http://www.davidpublisher.com/index.php/Home/Article/index?id=28595.html

 

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