Slaves of Fashion: New Works by The Singh Twins has just opened at the Walker Art Gallery, and thanks to this unique collaboration between National Museums Liverpool and The Singh Twins, you can see some star objects that have never been on display before!
It is not new for artists to take inspiration from museum collections, but what is different is the extent of The Singh Twins' research. They have viewed hundreds of objects, which have contributed to many ideas for their artworks.
We began in 2014 when I planned a visit to our stores with the artists. The exhibition tells stories from the history of Indian textiles, so I was looking for items made in India or inspired by Indian design. I was thrilled to discover exquisite hand-embroidered pieces and stunning, woven shawls - I realised these had never before been seen by the public. The Singh Twins went on to work with colleagues in other departments too. The objects they discovered have informed some of the main themes for their artworks, and you can see many referenced within the actual artworks themselves! I was delighted to put some of these on display for the first time in Slaves of Fashion.
Made of hand-spun cotton and embroidered with silk thread, women in Punjabi villages made stunning phulkari shawls like this by hand for their dowry. The word 'phulkari' means ‘flower work’ and originally described the embroidery technique of the Punjab in northern India.
This was given to our collections in 1867 by goldsmith Joseph Mayer, whose shop was in Lord Street, Liverpool. Like The Singh Twins, Mayer may have been inspired in his own work by these brooches.
This British-made shawl is inspired by Indian ones. Shawls like this were popular in Britain in the 1830s and were given to brides as a wedding gift.
This is a rare book containing over 300 exquisite, water-colour paintings of flowers. Many have never been displayed, including the iris. The iris is the national flower of France, seen in The Singh Twins’ artwork Kashmiri Shawls.
This muslin stole with a ‘tree-of-life’ design is a fine example of Indian embroidery known as chikan work, probably made in Lucknow, northern India in about 1815. The stylised flowering tree is a common motif in Indian fabric design. It was made for export and worn by a series of British women until 1972, when it was given to the museum. The stole shows us just why delicate muslins like this were desired by fashionable women in this country. As it had been in storage for many years, we had to do a lot of work to make it ready for display. It actually had the peg marks on it where the last owner had hung it on the line!
The artworks in Slaves of Fashion: New Works by The Singh Twins tell of the beauty and renown of Indian fabrics. They also reveal a darker side to the trade in textiles with the west. This is a thought-provoking exhibition, which contrasts the beauty of our collections with the history of empire and the legacies of transatlantic slavery. It is not to be missed.