Essay – an Introductory Tour of COTTON: Global Threads

Stencilled adire cotton, Nigeria, 1900-25

Stencilled adire cotton, Nigeria, 1900-25

COTTON: Global Threads

A headless mannequin of a boy dressed in a short suit of brightly printed fabric balances precariously on a spinning globe. The disparate elements of the sculpture are incongruous and provocative. Who is this anonymous youth? Why are his formal clothes made of what looks like ‘African’ cloth? Will he lose his balance if the globe stops spinning beneath his feet? In raising these (and other) questions, Yinka Shonibare’s Boy on Globe 4 provides the perfect visual metaphor for the exhibition, COTTON: Global Threads.

Boy on Globe 4 (detail)

Boy on Globe 4 (detail)

The boy’s identity is as ambiguous as the cloth on his back, which is known as ‘Dutch wax’ because it was first produced in the Netherlands, based on Indonesian batik designs, and subsequently exported to West Africa. The popularity of Dutch wax in countries such as Benin, Togo, Ivory Coast, Ghana and Nigeria means that it is generally perceived as a quintessentially ‘African’ fabric, even though its origins lie elsewhere. The cultural hybridity that runs through every thread of the cloth makes this fake ‘batik print’ a powerful visual signifier for Shonibare who, in turn, buys his supplies from Brixton market in South London.

The same interlocking strands of visual appropriation, economic trade and human migration that are so elegantly entangled in Shonibare’s work are unravelled and rewoven in the Whitworth Art Gallery’s exhibition devoted to the first manufactured global commodity: cotton.

Niké Okundaye-Davies, Adire quilt, 1987. Whitworth Art Gallery, The University of Manchester

Niké Okundaye-Davies, Adire quilt (detail), 1987

…stories – both personal and global – are woven into the precious costumes and textiles housed in gallery collections, as well as into the clothes that you and I are wearing right now.

Helen Rees Leahey

As we move through the ground floor of the gallery, histories of the production and consumption of cotton take us on a journey between India, Lancashire, Africa and America, and across four centuries of enterprise, ingenuity and exploitation. The exhibition shows how cotton’s versatility has enabled designers across the world to create new patterns and styles of clothing, including the ubiquitous t-shirt and jeans. We also learn about cotton’s ‘dirty secrets’ including the continuing use of child labour and the environmental impact of the use of pesticides in cotton production. COTTON: Global Threads moves beyond a curatorial analysis of the object which is primarily founded on its formal properties and aesthetic affinities, to an evaluation of its meaning within a nexus of economic, social and cultural relations.

Topics such as agriculture, technology and economics typically lie outside the concerns of the art gallery, and their inclusion here may be surprising and even unsettling for some visitors. But as the exhibition demonstrates, such stories – both personal and global – are woven into the precious costumes and textiles housed in gallery collections, as well as into the clothes that you and I are wearing right now.

In addition, the history of the Whitworth itself reminds us that the displayed object may be read in more ways than one: fabrics that were originally collected as exemplars for local textile manufacturers are now valued for their historical and cultural significance. Given the Whitworth’s foundation in the nineteenth-century city that was famous (and infamous) throughout the world as ‘Cottonopolis’, an exhibition about cotton must always be (to some extent) a reflection on institutional origins.

Cotton petticoat made in Gujarat, India, c. 1760. Whitworth Art Gallery, The University of Manchester.

Cotton petticoat made in Gujarat, India, c. 1760.

It is, however, too glib to suggest that COTTON: Global Threads closes a historical loop by examining the industry whose need for good design the Whitworth was first designed to serve. As a university art gallery, the Whitworth is committed both to interpreting and contributing to academic research. In this case, the exhibition draws on and offers a postcolonial perspective on cotton’s histories. In other words, it views the history of the cotton trade as an aspect of Empire and colonialism, and is equally concerned with contemporary economic and cultural legacies of imperialism. Re-telling its collections of historic and modern textiles from this position, the Whitworth has undertaken to reject the Eurocentric position of previous industrial and design histories, including the past rationale for acquiring much of its own collection.

In order to do this work, postcolonial curators need to clear a space within the museum for visitors to hear from alternative, marginalised and hitherto unheard voices.

This is not an easy task. By paying institutional lip service to the idea of multi-vocality, many well-meaning museums have fallen into the twin traps of either essentializing or appropriating the perspectives of those cultural ‘others’ whom they incorporate into their displays. As postcolonial commentators have argued, this kind of cultural comparison frequently reifies the distinctions that it analyzes: in practice, the narcissism of the museum is often untroubled by its comparative gaze.

Grace Ndiritu, 'Still Life White Textiles'

Grace Ndiritu, 'Still Life White Textiles'

In COTTON: Global Threads, the politics of representation are directly confronted by the video work of, who uses fabric as a medium for simultaneously wrapping and revealing her body. By allowing only parts of her body to be seen – for example, her hands running along her thighs as the rest of her body is hidden behind a curtain of West African cloth – Ndiritu explores the dynamics of agency and passivity in her own self-representation and explicitly implicates the viewer within her politics of visuality. Watching her perform, the viewer becomes uncomfortably conscious of the transition from spectator to voyeur.

The aim here is to create an open-ended conversation between the Whitworth, the visitor and seven artists, including Shonibare and Ndiritu, each of whom addresses the meanings of cloth and cotton from diverse perspectives and contexts. The idea is to create points of contact and exchange across cultures and histories. But in order to open up the space needed for this conversation to take place, the institution must give up something of itself: recognising this imperative, the Whitworth has abandoned its customary spatial and temporal logic in order to make way for the contingencies of this ambitious project.

Warrior’s tunic, Mali, (detail)1880-99

Warrior’s tunic, Mali, (detail)1880-99

The entire ground floor of the Whitworth is devoted to COTTON: Global Threads. First, the Textile Gallery, which leads off the entrance hall, has been re-scripted as part of the exhibition: in the process, the fixities of collection displays have given way to temporary juxtapositions and discursive themes. Beyond this, other parts of the collection (paintings, wallpapers, prints and drawings) have been entirely displaced and confined to the upstairs galleries. This willingness to blur institutional boundaries – between collections and loans, long and short durations – is characteristic of the experimental energy of the Whitworth today. It is risky to devote so much space to the contingencies of a temporary exhibition, but in this context, embracing uncertainty is a deliberate and thoughtful process.

The inclusion of contemporary artists is a crucial reminder that cotton’s histories are unfinished, and that the contemporary politics of cotton are complex and urgent.

Helen Rees Leahey

The inclusion of contemporary artists is a crucial reminder that cotton’s histories are unfinished, and that the contemporary politics of cotton are complex and urgent. Aboubakar Fofana belongs to the Soninké cultural group whose deep traditions and understanding of indigo and vegetable dyeing are continually explored, advocated and revitalized through his work.

Aboubakar Fofana, Les Arbres à Bleus

Aboubakar Fofana, Les Arbres à Bleus

His commitment to preserving and renewing the knowledge and expertise of past masters in the art of dyeing is also a practice of resistance to the processes and effects of mass production and globalization. The heterogeneity of contemporary art practice in Mali is underlined by the work of fellow countryman, Abdoulaye Konaté. Konaté’s large-scale pieces are textile-based, itself a reflection of the ubiquity of cloth, and are deeply invested in political activism. His work has interrogated the effects of AIDS, war and the encroachment of the Sahel on individuals within society. The practice of both Fofana and Konaté speaks to interwoven themes of human vulnerability, unpredictability and resilience, calling to mind the concept of ‘planeterity’ proposed by the theorist Gayatri Spivak. In place of a globe spinning beneath our hands (or feet) primarily for the purposes of financial gain, Spivak suggests that planetarity is a more sensitive and attuned way of understanding the materiality of the world and our collective place and responsibility as humans within it.

Dualities of absence and presence are found in the work of Anne Wilson and Lubaina Himid. Wilson’s practice responds to the migration of textile manufacturing and its associated skills from former industrial centres in the USA and Britain. Walking the Warp Manchesteris the latest in a series of performative pieces in which the warping process (setting up the first set of threads for weaving) is enacted through an accumulation of repetitive movements that becomes what she calls ‘a textile and a soft machine.’ Her inclusion of fragments of 1st millennium Egyptian cloth from the Whitworth’s collection additionally recalls an even longer historical flux of textile production.

Lubaina Himid, 'Unbelonging'

Lubaina Himid, 'Unbelonging'

Himid has also found a stimulus among the objects held in the gallery stores: for this exhibition, she has made new works on paper based on the patterns and motifs of a group of East African Kangas held by the Whitworth, as well as from her own collection. Accompanied by invented texts, the works are inserted into an imagined ‘sample book’ that stands as a metaphor for fragility and endurance.

Cultural hybridity is a strand that runs throughout COTTON: Global Threads.It is evident both as a theme of the exhibition and as a curatorial strategy of juxtaposition and exchange. Inserted among the contemporary artists’ works is a painted cotton panel from the state tent of the great eighteenth-century ruler of Mysore, Tipu Sultan. Originally part of the panoply of Tipu Sultan’s court, the tent was acquired by Lord Clive following the British victory at Seringapatam in 1799, and subsequently traveled across the world to Powis Castle in Wales, where for many years it was used as a marquee for garden parties and fetes.

Sultan Tipu's decorative tent, Clive Museum at Powis Castle, Powys, Wales

Sultan Tipu's decorative tent, Clive Museum at Powis Castle, Powys, Wales

Within the exhibition, the tent has become a metonym for the history of cotton itself: it is an object of great skill and beauty whose ownership and travels have mapped the story of imperialism. Close by, Shonibare’s Boy on Globe 4 picks up the thread.

Finally, for those walking past the Whitworth in the dark evenings of early spring, the gallery windows are illuminated by the artist Liz Rideal. Using LED light and projected film of tumbling sari material, Rideal’s work is both an enticement to enter the exhibition and a visual reverie on the qualities and the meaning of cotton itself. As she herself puts it: ‘cotton embalms, surrounds, muffles, covers, stretches and breathes with us – from the cradle to the grave.’

Helen Rees Leahy
Centre for Museology, The University of Manchester

To discover more about the themes in our exhibition, why not get involved with our events programme? We have an exciting range of talks, performances, drop in sessions, practical workshops and more to complement COTTON: Global Threads Head over to our events page for further infomation on what we have on offer. Also, sign up to receive updates on our blog and let us know your feedback via comments below or in the comments boxes on any of our pages, we’d love to hear from you!

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