On the Decolonial practices in Textile Exhibitions

In January 2018, I visited with my mother the village of Ajarakhpur in Gujarat located some 200 km away from my birthplace in Ahmedabad in India to buy some clothes. The village had a couple of homes with their entrances converted in studios with various fabrics that were hand made and had special designs, that have come to be known in Europe as Les Indiennes or Chintz. The block printing workshop that I visited there had a pool of different fabrics ready, another outside drying after being passed from a color dye pool nearby. These clothes have their very many names based on the pattern, the tie, and dye but they all came to loose multiplicity and become homogene under one name(for the west that is). The network of these villages across India connected through family relations, internal migrations, shared songs, and mythologies, the famine and flood, displacement and re-arrangements – hundreds and hundreds of these villages across the subcontinent came under the single brushstroke of an ambitious and hardworking colonial officer (or their counterparts today in contemporary art) who wanted to cover a lot many countries of the empire and had no time for the nuisance of each small parts, had no time for fumbling over these strange to the tongue names and their micro-histories. Not having time has always been very profitable.  

In Geneva, Neuchatel, and other places in Switzerland as well as in Nantes, in Paris in France and in Britain, these textiles were used as a commodity of exchange in slave-trade. The white male from Europe arrived on the port of Benin, with a ship full of cotton fabric which was first spun in and weaved in handlooms and then block printed in villages like Ajrarakhpur in India, a market then was organized with slave dealers who would see the cloth to his liking and quantity of these clothes versus a number of slaves will then be negotiated. Then the slaves were sold to the slave owners in America where they worked on cotton farms. The cotton produced thus was filled in the ship and taken for spinning and weaving in India and they printed colorful patterns on it with hand-blocks. The fabric produced thus was filled in ships and the ship arrived at the port of Benin…..

We can see a self-sustaining loop here, a feedback system that is the basis of cybernetic thinking and computer programming. Nature of any loop or feedback system is such that it always produces a surplus, what in terms of George Batailles will be called ‘accursed share’. Batailles informs us the accursed share can not be used by the state in its economic systems and must be spent otherwise on luxury goods and affairs of such manner. 

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This same cybernetic feedback system can be said to define what is at the core of textile exhibitions in the contemporary art world of Europe today. More and more textile exhibitions pretend to come out of continued colonial amnesia. But, when you enter there is only graphesis and symbolic gestures. Nothing touches the skin of the structures where these exhibitions are being held and hence nothing that would generate graphesthesia. The age of visual hierarchies of perception is binding and determinant. Visual culture from specific art schools under the argument of synthesis of many instead specificities of particulars trumps every other culture, even the one of the remote villages from where these cultures emanate. Every now and then Dipesh Chakraborty haunts them in their dreams with ‘Provincializing Europe’ but it is not good enough to provoke any systemic change. Rather, these curators enjoy the haunting as people do when they enter a simulated haunted attraction in a fair. New epistemological hegemonies are established that are coded in language. Signs scream loudly and signified is nowhere.

Clara: I think it’s even more perverse than that. curators love that shit. it makes them feel like by including a paragraph from one of those text they have put together something really radical. it’s then that discourse that is completely recuperated, repackaged, made to express things that it doesn’t say, be taken out of context, or acts as a stamp of approval – you know, it’s “fair trade” coffee. A badge of honor. and loses all meaning. or it takes the place of an asterisk somewhere in a corner. (Sharpe and the asterisk)

In the Ship section of her 2016 In the wake, on Blackness and Being, Sharpe gifts us this reflection:

“The asterisk after a word functions as the wildcard and I am thinking the trans* in that way; as a means to mark the ways the slave and the Black occupy what Saidiya Hartman calls the “position of the unthought” (Hartman and Wilderson 2003). […] The asterisk speaks to a range of configurations of Black being that take the form of translation, transatlantic, transgression, transgender, transformation, transmogrification, transcontinental, transfixed, trans-Mediterranean, transubstantiation (by which process we might understand the making of bodies into flesh and then into fungible commodities while retaining the appearance of flesh and blood), transmigration, and more.”

 History of triangular trade is displayed in these exhibitions, discussed by curators, white audiences turn in their chairs a bit with a sense of discomfort and curators congratulate themselves. Then gates of barrage open and in comes a flood of white guilt in discussions. Largely, these exhibitions employ artists from homonymically privileged urban places like Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Johannesburg, London, Geneva and NewYork with private schooling in English medium or such colonial language, a shared class background either inherited or upgraded into and a Parcours of residencies funded by murky foundations. These artists then go to visit Ajrakhpur, they interview, make videos, find metaphors in art theory and create a discourse. Ajrakhpur remains in Ajrakhpur, occasionally selling clothes to boutiques and travelers. These textiles remain outside the accessibility and local economy of villages like Ajarakhpur, Bhujodi, Shapura, etc.

On one hand, the villagers can not afford the clothes anymore, on the other hand, the interviewee, the maker of these fabrics is normally not named in the exhibition only the artist from Mumbai is credited, if she is named than not paid as an artist, if paid as an artist then not invited to the exhibition opening, if invited to the exhibition opening then is not allowed to participate in public panels citing language problems, if participates in public panels then is given 5 minutes to speak while three other curators give long theoretical discourses for 55 minutes. Then this anonymous person goes back to Ajrakhpur. The next morning, she wakes up and goes back to work. She spreads the long clothes produced by months of work out on the earth to dry – as the sun rises up in the sky. This is also an exhibition but what cultural value does it produce? One measurement of that could be, the electricity in the village is cut for 6 hours every day due to short supply and the drinking water comes through tape once every 3 days for 2-3 morning hours that need to be stored for the rest of the days. The primary schools in the village are ‘occasionally’ frequented by teachers while children sit not on the benches but on tattered clothes on the floor. And what happens in Geneva, in London, in Berlin, in NewYork? And why? For what historical reason that continues in contemporaneity? With what logic it operates? And what does a contemporary textile exhibition do to this logic?

From village to art school to visual culture to exhibition to the village. This is another self-sustaining loop that intervenes into the first one. On the primary inspection, it might appear that the second loop is trying to highlight a cultural value deficit towards the need of a transhistorical justice. That it will bring back the value to the villages such as Ajrakhpur and villagers who are living there to be able to buy this cloth again. Not the occasional traveler or an international order but the house next door to the studio. However, everything happens in this loop but this. The structures and buildings in which these exhibitions are held in Europe remain as it is, their foundations remain unmoved. The cultural value is rather accumulated more which equates to being ‘civilized enough to be self-reflective and self-critical of one’s own wrongdoings of past’. 

Clara: as if the past was past, again Christina is guiding us here

“In the wake, the past that is not past reappears, always, to rupture the present. The Past or, more accurately, pastness is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past. (Trouillot 1997, 15)” (In the Wake, On Blackness and Being, Sharpe, 2016)

These fabrics from being luxury goods become a ‘good thing’ when attached to an ontologically flat critical discourse. The exhibition provides a representative and symbolic justice which does not have to make any structural demand. No slab of gold is ferried back from the port of Brighton in England to the Bay of Bengal. The exhibition is visited and applauded. The curators and artists move onto the next project and the exhibition thus becomes a cataloged possession in the hands of institutions to show to anyone who comes with an argument of what these institutions are made of. ‘Yes, we are aware of it. We even had an exhibition about it. See this publication.’ 

These are two circles which if they intersect with each other at 90 degrees they will make a sphere. A volumized space of possibilities.1This idea of creation of volumized space through the right-angled intersection of loops and circular processes was first brought to me by my friend Alexander Gence at CCC Ph.D. Forum at HEAD in Geneva, whose research and work I recommend you to engage with. But instead, they become concentric, one inside another they remain as trajectories of the electrons in the same atom. The atomic structure of hegemonies creates complex chemical realities through their transnational bonding across imperialism. Quantum mechanics is needed to make these concentric circles unstable and let electrons escape from the pull of the nucleus, the core whose name as Sylvia Wynter tells us is 1492 – the arrival of Columbus and the foundational exclusion from being human. 

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Next to my village where I grew up in Rajasthan in India, there are a lot of textile factories. Sangam India Limited, Melbroo textile mills, BSL Limited, Shivam Sulz, Mayur Fabrics, and many more.  Many of my fellow students are factory workers in these textile factories. Some of them have shut down due to Covid-19 and continued economic recession in India, some of them are still prospering. The toxic waste that poisoned land around these factories for a long post-independence period has now been refined as per claims of these factories. Look no further, Manchester is right here, we were told as toddlers.

Here are ruins of some of the older textile factories such as Mewar mill. They are considered haunted, not to be visited in the night except by some foolish children. We, of course, did visit them. Cob-webbed there is machinery that is corroded and have turned into junk. Fellows from my village return back to the village in the evening with an empty steel lunch box in hand from a factory whose chimneys are emitting good enough smoke to be considered alive. The steel lunch box is one you would have seen in Subodh Gupta’s art installations. Both, my school friends who are factory workers and Subodh Gupta are unaware of each other’s presence. There are small factories with 1000 spindles, then there are as big as ones with 6000 spindles. Spindles keep turning day and night on their axis. The hoot of the factory can be heard three times a day, for the morning shift of 7 AM, for the evening shift at 4 PM, for the night shift at 8 PM. Along with the smoke emitted, the siren hums through every wall, and in the hills of Aravali, sulfur dioxide and ammonia is how I remember the way to the city from my village. Sulfur dioxide emitted from the chimneys of these textile factories – is chemically denoted as SO2. We experimented and studied its molecular structure, bonds, and atomic mass in the chemistry lab during my studies as an electronics and communication engineer in a college located outside the city. I kept thinking of the structure it produces in-turn, replicates, the expansion of its bonds, on a bus ride from my home to the college, while I inhaled it and looked at all the textile factories lined up one after another on the way. 


(SO2 atomic structure)

SO2 is the liminality that takes you from the village to the city. It is the translational tunnel. Sulfur that is deep brown in test tubes. It is all sepia. Eternally passing into vintage. Turning into archives. Waiting for a researcher a.k.a. Godot to come from an international flight. 

(Image courtesy: India Today magazine)

The machines are bought in from Switzerland manufactured in companies such as Elena who made big progress in 3D printing of clothes due to its ‘centuries-old tradition of fine craft in watchmaking, printing and industrial design’. Many of these machinery companies came to textiles after the ban on supplying the fuse for artillery to the Nazis (11% of all the fuse that were supplied to the Nazi government was done by Elena alone, based in Geneva). Some of the textile factories using these machines are in the city next to my village. The denim and polyester of the city are world-famous we are told. Maybe you are wearing it when you are reading this. 

In the city, there is also a textile engineering college. There are textile design courses. Various patterns are generated through computer-aided design software. You pick a cursor and then you draw various lines and patterns – you think through a concept, through a metaphor. Sometimes they look as if they were made on a wooden block like those in Ajrakhpur. Not in the sweaty palms of a worker in Ajrakhpur but on a constantly crashing computer due to years old infrastructure for textile engineering students in public colleges. The already poor budget becomes poorer due to the educational cuts of the government. The food in the canteen covers all budget deficits, lentils become as rare as the blue moon in lentil soup. Technology advances and automation generates a surplus. This surplus is spent in Geneva in workshops to make people aware of decolonial practices. The contracts can be issued to only artists with Swiss or European passports. 

(Images from MLV Textile College Bhilwara, Rajasthan. Sourced from the Internet).

Yet, more and more textile designers and engineers are cultivated in these textile engineering colleges like cotton for the tele-consumption of the western world. Somewhere at the end of a long chain, as distant from the center as possible. Virtuality becomes more and more important. A mirror set is devised in every technology to see a reflection of a worker standing at the long distant end. A mirror in the mirror in the mirror in the mirror…ad Infinitum.  There is no notion of repair in the west, clothes that are torn slightly are thrown away and a new one is bought – it is cheaper than getting it repaired. The lines begin to appear automatically through an artificially intelligent process. Lines, curves, and circles. Then they cut through every space – my village, the city next door, through Ajrakhpur, through Geneva, London, New York. Everything is woven in that fabric. What they used to call coloniality, that fabric is everywhere. We all live in it. 

References   [ + ]

1. This idea of creation of volumized space through the right-angled intersection of loops and circular processes was first brought to me by my friend Alexander Gence at CCC Ph.D. Forum at HEAD in Geneva, whose research and work I recommend you to engage with.