In today’s post, Debra reflects on her visit to the Textile and Place conference in Manchester.
In April I attended a two day textile conference at Manchester School of Art called ‘Textile and Place.’ I have a background in textiles, so it was a perfect opportunity for me to engage with current academic research and contemporary textile practice. I was hoping it would open up new avenues of knowledge and understanding of a subject I am very familiar with. Textiles are a rich medium for discussion, enquiry and exploration because textiles and cloth are so closely linked with our daily lives. From birth to death, fabric follows us through life. Many fabrics are linked to a place of origin and identity, and textile related words and phrases have many meanings linguistically so can be used as a powerful metaphor.
I attended many talks at the conference, but the ones I focused on had a social and political theme. These talks struck a chord with me in light of recent and current exhibitions that have been at the Whitworth, and also ones up-coming. They took me on a journey across different parts of the world, and it was interesting to me how much could be linked together with a complexity like a woven cloth, but with common themes and legacies. When we talk about ‘place’ in relation to identity and also personal connections, it seems very pertinent and current now. Many of these issues are being explored differently by artists as well as curators, who are bringing these important issues to the public domain in ways which make us think and look at things in different contexts and with fresh perspectives.
Ghost and legacies of our Imperial past
In recent years textiles as a practice have also been gaining more attention as a discipline to explore Post-colonial studies, and this was a strong thread of enquiry which appeared in many of the talks. There are still the ghosts and legacies of our and other countries imperial past in the textiles of today and historically. Through looking at textile artefacts in archives, there is history, the social and political. Cloth as a material is permeable; it can be embedded with history, human stories, and memory. It can also be lace like; it can be navigated through, with its own in-between spaces/places, explored metaphorically, a presence, absence and loss, with its own borders and boundaries.
Migration and Movement/ Borders and Boundaries
It is said that the greatest number of people are now on the move across the globe, when compared to all of human history. People are travelling across continents and seas and many are risking their lives to do so. Due to migration, displacement and diaspora, places, people and cultures are in a process of change and hybridity. There are many reasons people are being forced to move, often due to war, conflict, climate change and socio-economic reasons. Modern day slavery, loss of land, changing of borders, cultural identity, trauma and loss through conflict and oppression are all important political and social issues that textiles as a discipline can explore.
…all forms of culture are continually in a process of hybridity (Bhaba, 2016)
The talks highlighted to me and made me think about the textiles we have in our museums and galleries and their stories. How they came to be and what they can tell us about history. But it is also important how we interpret and explore history, by looking at the negative impact of former politics on ordinary people.
One of things I have always loved about the Whitworth is its textile collection and exhibitions. The Whitworth has a very important textile collection of over 20,000 objects from all over the world. Many of these textile objects have links with Britain’s Imperial past. Manchester is a city that has a past that directly connects with Empire with its cotton industry. Wealthy industrialists collected textiles from around the world for inspiration and much of it ended up in museum and gallery collections like ours.
At the time of the conference there was the South Asian textiles exhibition, ‘Beyond Borders’, which was linked to the conference in the context of post-colonial cultural identity and textiles, and was linked to ‘ place’ via origin of production. It also looked at the legacy of Empire to the present day by way of textile artists who had connection to the Indian subcontinent. The textiles in the exhibition looked at the links between Britain and India during the industrial revolution, which reflected on Manchester’s former position as a global exporter and producer of textiles. But much of this history is problematic and now much of the textile industry is thriving in former parts of the Empire, where textiles can still be produced cheaply and mass produced often through exploitative practices and low wages, just as they were during our former industrial past. The mass consumption of textiles and apparel as an industry also brings us on to sustainability issues, and how the textile industry is one of the worst industries for pollution, and for having a damaging impact on the environment and on people.
Textiles bringing people together
In an ever increasing globalised world, where unfettered industrial capitalism and geopolitical decisions are having great negative impact on people and the environment, the conference showed that being mindful of local ecosystems (localism) which are more sustainable, and through community projects, and getting back to a more slow way and craft led processes can facilitate a positive action against these forces. Using different textile practices, whether that be using knitting, weave or stitch, can bring people together, through making together and sharing stories. The power of textiles as a sensory material, with its haptic qualities, can bring us back to being human. Textiles and cloth can connect us all in some way.
Related Whitworth exhibitions:
Alice Kettle: Thread Bearing Witness
Isaac Julian: Ten Thousand Waves
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