Slaves of Fashion tells, through eleven digital fabric prints, the story of the centuries-long exploitation of India’s textile heritage by all comers for their own purposes. But it’s less a dry history lesson, than an exquisitely beautiful one; it would be a hard-hearted visitor who is not seduced by the exquisite colours and patterns, even though their work is more about tragic allegory than frivolous decoration.
As so often, the devil is in the detail. The Merseyside-raised Singh Twins are known for taking inspiration from Indian miniature, and behind the tall main figures are ornate depictions of the places and people without whom the grand narrative isn’t possible. Exploring the details could, deservedly should, keep you occupied for hours; titles, figures and colours have all been chosen as symbols of the colonial exploitation which led to India losing its autonomy to the demands of the East India Company. Over eleven pieces, the Twins have woven a global story of a trade which, over 2000 years, has had many consequences, from North American slavery and the Industrial Revolution to the plot of Jane Eyre.
Of course, it’s political – but it’s also true. Each picture includes details of artefacts from National Museums Liverpool’s collection, which visitors can discover for themselves over two rooms. Ranging from beautifully designed dresses to a horrifying depiction of brutality towards a slave, they are evidence of the cold facts that shape the Twins’ narrative. Each piece brings the viewer face-to-face with a history some politicians would rather they could brush under the carpet. The full story is told elsewhere in the exhibition through a twenty-minute video, which you anticipate will be a cruel story, but the poetic narrative is a good stylistic choice, keeping its audience willing to listen.
In case you miss the present-day resonances of this legacy, the accompanying paper works spell it out. More darkly satirical in tone, they put the spotlight on what havoc imperialist capitalism is wreaking right now, and the failure of politicans to care. Donald Trump is the first face you meet in the show – an undoubtedly deserved place for criticism – but Theresa May also comes under fire for putting profit before people. In these smaller works it’s easier to appreciate the finer nuances of the Twins’ craft, with borders as fascinating and powerful as the central figures.
In a way, this exhibition works like a fairy tale – when a lesson needs to be heard by an audience who might not want to listen, hook them in by wrapping it up in something beautiful. As you study, you appreciate not only the subtlety of the craft, but also the truth of the message. Given how busy the Walker Art Gallery was on the cold, rainy day of my visit, it’s an approach which works. Slaves of Fashion is a triumph of how to make boldly political art which doesn’t shout at its audience, but makes them want to discover the truth for themselves.
The Singh Twins: Slaves of Fashion, Walker Art Gallery until 20 May 2018.
Julia Johnson is a writer based in Liverpool, interested in how engagement with art can be opened up to the widest possible audiences.