Postcolonial Discourse in Garment Form

“Hybrid Sources: Depictions of Garments in Postcolonial Fibre Art”

Postcolonial theory and its attention to material culture, hybrid identities, and the ensuing Diaspora has influenced the work of contemporary fibre artists worldwide. In today's atmosphere of globalisation – through positive agents such as communication networks as well as negative ones such as the refugee crisis – the national and cultural identities projected by dress embrace increasingly complex influences. The garment, both as motif and sculptural form, is an area of growing involvement for contemporary artists working in fibre. Common to all the works discussed here is an attempt to negotiate conflicts between language, culture and history that the postcolonial world must now reconcile.

Several recurring techniques appear to emerge recent works that tackle postcolonial identity. The dressmaking pattern can act as a map of sorts which evokes the trade of objects that underpinned colonial conquest. In a similar vein mapping and renaming reference the divide and conquer mentality that made colonization so ruthlessly effective. Authenticity and a sense of the original or genuine are questioned in works based on repetition. Finally, the empty garment often represents loss of life and the violent histories many postcolonial nations must reconcile and the burden of conflict still very much alive today.

British artist Susan Stockwell grew up in Manchester, a city built on the thriving textile industry of the Industrial Revolution. Stockwell assembles the world map from segments of a dressmaking pattern and draws the world in tea stains. Maps were used, often dubiously, to chart colonial expansion and tea, along with textiles, were two of the commodities traded extensively during the colonial era. Threading guidelines suggest other symbols on maps – trade routes, shipping lanes, winds, currents as well as a fragmented version of the world that is in keeping with the colonial policy of divide and conquer. There is a note of irony in Stockwell’s placement of “shorten or lengthen here” written at the tip of Africa alludes to the manipulation of space that colonial mapping enjoyed. In a similar vein “Fiesta Gown” references the exploitative trade practices both of the past and present with its use of recycled coffee filters, both an anachronism and a reference to the impractical bustle dates the costume to the late 1800’s and represents an elite lifestyle of consumption rather than labour and production.

The American artist Elaine Reichek often draws on ethnographic photography and images that depict the “other” in a foreign and dehumanised way; treating people as objects and artefacts. (Postcolonial theory typically does not concern itself with North American history. I’ve have chosen to included these pieces because of the clear overlap of themes.) Rows of traditional dress that should evoke a sense of individuality are multiplied and repeated to represent the idea of lumping ethnicities together and a refusal to treat people as individuals. Again the dressmaking pattern appears but here the pattern comes from a mail-order business selling craft kits to make “authentic” Native American goods. Instructions for making remind us of a loss of skill and knowledge amongst the population represented ironically through a contemporary remedy that is accessible to everyone.

Reichek’s “Whitewash” plays on phrase “white-washed” or given a false story as well as the racial association with white skin. The skirt is knitted with the inverted image of the cottage, alluding to the common observations by colonial powers that the native populations were “backward.” “Red Dot Man”, a pastiche of photography and knitted costume, is based on photographs of the Indians of Tierra del Fuego. Ironically the island’s inhabitants died out with introduction of clothing by missionaries whose lessons in modesty actually caused disease. Apparently the clothing that was distributed contained germs that the population had no resistance to as well as the wet clothing inevitably causing respiratory diseases. The conflation of knitting with photography addresses the idea of translation and different forms of communication. Reichek has “translated” the ethnographer’s photograph and, in doing so, highlights the manipulations and assumptions made by the original photographer by exaggerating the tradition of photographing and recording the ethnic “other” without naming or attributing.

For Australian artist Sue Blanchfield the uneasy relationship between the diverse inhabitants of present day Australia has become the focus of a series of works. Working with rayon purchased in haberdashery store in a remote area in the Northern territories, Blanchfield reconstructs the generic shape of the dress. In one version, printed on white cloth, Blanchfield has printed the English names of region. On a “darker” cloth are printed the names of the same locations but in the native dialect of the Yolngu peoples of the region. Blanchfield notes the banality of the English names when compared to the names associated with the scared sites named by the indigenous peoples and sees this gap as emblematic of the miscommunication between the native people and the colonizing culture.

In Blanchfield’s “Dress Study #3” a colonial era painting that depicts a negotiation between the British and a leader of the Eora people is used to reference the relationship between European Australians and indigenous Australians. Set in repeat, Blanchfield evokes the numerous, overlapping, and partially concealed attempts at communication and negotiation that blight Australian history. Another Australian artist, Sharon Peoples, also looks to the country’s history with a series entitled “Magpie Suits” is inspired by an image of the prisoner’s uniforms worn by convicts upon arrival in Australia. Peoples’ embroiders beautiful and decorative pieces that reference these uniforms but the beauty of the textile belies horrific history as one can see the ball and chain embroidered along the bottom.

British born Nigerian Yinka Shonibare uses the complex history of wax resist cloth to question images of the Victorian ideal as well as the complex identities dress conveys to others. “Gay Victorians” presents the same bustle that Stockwell creates out of coffee filters here is made of the “African” cloth. The title alludes to both joy and homosexuality; commenting on the Victorian image that was not always quite as it seemed. The bustle is also a reference to the female African body that was mocked and ridiculed in the tragic story of the Hottentot Venus who was taken from South Africa, caged and put on display in France as an object rather than a person because of her pronounced buttocks. After her death she was dissected and used as a scientific specimen. Her remains were only recently returned to South Africa in April of 2002 for a respectful burial. “Mr. and Mrs. Andrews without Their Heads” restages the famous Gainsborough painting. Absent is the backdrop of affluent grounds and Mr. and Mrs. Andrew’s heads. Coined “postcolonial revenge” the work presents an image of landed gentry literally stripped of their land and consequently identity.

In this research the garment plays a non-functional role, but derives much of its symbolic weight from an understanding that dress and fashion clothe a vital site of negotiation between individual and national identity. In the postcolonial context, dress reveals that the intersection between nation and individual continues to search for a balance between the burden of the past and the demands of the hybrid present.

FiberArts magazine (March/April 2004: 39-42)

image: Elaine Reicheck Red Man. 1988. Knitted wool yarn and gelatin silver print.