Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Cotton: Global Threads, Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester

Yinka Shonibare MBE_Boy on Globe 4_2011_pale blue_300dpiBY JESSICA HEMMINGS

COTTON: Global Threads
Whitworth Art Gallery

In her exhibition pamphlet text, Helen Rees Leahry, Director of the Centre for Museology at the University of Manchester, England reminds us that cotton was the “first manufactured global commodity” and that Manchester, where the exhibition was displayed, once went by the name “Cottonopolis”. The ubiquity that resulted from this glut of production means we often underestimate the complex history of this fiber.

COTTON: Global Threads at the Whitworth Art Gallery (February 11–May 13, 2012) attempted to correct this oversight and situate cotton in a global context, overturning what is described as the familiar contemporary perspective of “Anglo-American-South Asian” sweatshop production concerns. Exhibition curator, Jennifer Harris foregrounds the darker side of the material’s legacy when she observes that “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 [England], to the garment factories of South China today.”

The selection spanned textiles from the late Middle Ages to recent works by seven contemporary artists: Aboubakar Fofana, Abdoulaye Konaté, Grace Ndiritu, Liz Ridealand Anne Wilson, as well as new commissions by Yinka Shonibare MBE and Lubaina Himid. Few moments in the exhibition, however, connected or contextualised these extremes.

Overall, the global perspective posited by the exhibition theme and described in the accompanying wall panel texts was less apparent in the actual works on display. Historical examples drawn from the Whitworth’s collection cover a geographic range, but it is West African artists that dominate the contemporary work on display. Even here further information would have been helpful. For example, Lubaina Himid’s collages, “Kangas from the lost sample book (2011/12)” are responses to East African kangas – or proverb textiles held in the museum collection as well as the artist’s own private collection. It seemed a missed opportunity not to include the source material alongside Himid’s quirky collaged portraits.

In a nearby gallery American Anne Wilson’s performance pieces “Wind-Up Walking the Warp Chicago” (2008) and “Wind-Up: Walking the Warp Houston” (2010) played. A colorful length of striped cloth woven collaboratively by dozens of master weavers during Wilson’s “Local Industry” exhibit at the Knoxville Museum of Art in Tennessee is displayed in the same room as millennium Egyptian cloth fragments curated by the artist from the Whitworth collection. A keen eye is needed to make the visual connection.

The Whitworth’s galleries have long presented challenging exhibition spaces. Aboubakar Fofana’s sand landscape ‘forest’ of indigo dyed totem poles made for one of the more comfortable fits in the galleries low ceilings and dark environs. Similarly, Grace Ndiritu’s four simultaneous video screenings of the female body swathed in layers of cloth implicate the viewer as potential voyeur and thrive in their darkened setting.

Action Weaver Travis Meinolf’s workshop invited members of the public to create a group weaving. Similarly community focused, Anne Wilson’s new performance piece involved local textile and dance students who capture repetitive motions of weaving. Both events alluded to the contemporary absence of textile production in Manchester, Meinolf by bringing hand production to the gallery audience and Wilson by enacting the motions of production without any material trace.

One of the serious weaknesses of this exhibition was found in the student projects conducted under the umbrella of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad programme, Stories of the World (an initiative led by the Arts Council England in partnership with the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games). The quality of design work exhibited here did not warrant exhibition in a national gallery and a number of the interactive features designed to communicate the global perspective of cotton were not working on the day of my visit. Accessibility and education are commendable but this particular project felt naïve.

Overall, the emphasis on West African content made for fascinating viewing, but felt somewhat at odds with the global objectives set out in the title. The range was admirable, but as a whole this exhibition felt fragmented and may have been better served as several distinct initiatives.

Surface Design Journal (winter 2013: 58-59)