Although just about everyone on the planet wears an article of cotton each day, the story of cotton is far from every day. It spans centuries and continents, was the catalyst for some of the most important moments in modern history and exposes a multitude of ethical sins.
A new exhibition, COTTON: Global Threads will tell this story, giving a global history of the production, consumption and trade in cotton. New commissions by contemporary artists including Yinka Shonibare and Lubaina Himid will be shown alongside historic pieces from the late Middle Ages to the present day, exploring how cotton’s history touches on economics, science and technology, slavery, fashion and popular culture.
The Whitworth is well known for its bold textile exhibitions. This lends it a global perspective and the show will herald a year of focus on art from West Africa, which will continue with We Face Forward, during the Olympics itself.
Through a dramatic redisplay of the Whitworth Art Gallery’s textile displays, COTTON: Global Threads aims to set the production and consumption of cotton in a global framework, taking in Lancashire and South Asia, the Americas and Africa. Although cotton gave Lancashire its hour on the stage of world history, today China, the USA and India are the world’s foremost producers of cotton textiles.
Themes tackled by the exhibition include ‘Early Global Trade in Cotton’, an examination of India’s extensive global trade networks in the centuries before the centre of cotton production shifted to Western Europe; ‘Revolutions in Technology’, which looks at the impact of spinning and weaving technology on the development of the cotton industry in Lancashire; and ‘Moral Fibre’, a provocative look at cotton’s dirty secrets and its human and environmental impact. The installations by contemporary artists Yinka Shonibare, Liz Rideal, Lubaina Himid, Anne Wilson, Abdoulaye Konaté, Aboubakar Fofana and Grace Ndiritu engage with these themes in different ways.
Cotton is the best- selling and most widely used fibre in the world. Its manufacture has exposed both the promise and the perils of global capitalism, and no other industry is so closely associated with the exploitation of human labour – from the slave plantations of the US and Marx and Engels’ ‘satanic mills’ of Lancashire to the garment factories of South China today. We want to use this exhibition to tell its important story, not only from an artistic perspective, but also economically and ethically.
COTTON: Global Threads is at Whitworth Art Gallery until 13 May 2012. A rich programme of events, lectures, performances and film screenings will accompany the exhibition.