Susan Stockwell: Revisiting the Colonial

Along with textiles, tea, coffee and rubber were traded extensively between the colonies (site of production) and Europe (site of consumption) during the colonial era. These products are now intimately connected to the legacy of colonial conquest and the cultural displacement widely recognized as a result of colonisation. Today, an uneven distribution of wealth and power across the globe has caused many historians and cultural critics to suggest that there is little about the world that has progressed towards the postcolonial. Instead, the old colonial powers of Britain and many of the Western European countries continue to wield global influence on both economic and cultural levels. British sculptor Susan Stockwell explores these themes, both in a historical and a contemporary context, in works fashioned out of the very materials of the colonial project: tea, coffee, rubber.

Colonial expansion was based on trade, both the purchase and sale of objects and the appropriation of land. Surveyors and cartographers, sent to record these new lands often distorted the extent of their spoils to conceal the enormity of their conquests and manipulate further land negotiations. In many instances, the arbitrary division of land between competing colonial powers caused irrevocable damage to existing cultures. Historians have noted that Africa’s troubles today are largely due to the random nature of the national borders drawn up by rival European powers during what is known as the colonial “scramble for Africa.” These new borders often divided cohesive groups while forcing the unification of factions with long histories of animosity and violence towards each other.

Stockwell’s use of the map evokes many of these themes. “Pattern of the World” depicts the familiar Mercator style map, but the background instructions for the dress pattern on which the map is drawn present another dialogue which can be read as a commentary on the intentional distortion of land during colonial conquest and rule. A prime example of this is the “shorten or lengthen here” instruction on the dress making pattern which in Stockwell’s map falls at the very tip of Africa. Despite these social themes, a strong element of humour is also evident in Stockwell’s work. Britain’s image as a country of tea drinkers is humorously constructed in “Tea Country”, a variation on the theme quilting, with recycled tea bags rather than cloth pieced together. Here the modest size of the British Isles is contrasted with the global power Britain in particular achieved through its extensive network of colonies.

Other works fashioned from coffee filters speak to contemporary fair trade projects as well as colonial wealth. The South American map of recycled coffee filters alludes to both historical and contemporary consumption but in both cases coffee filters and tea bags are relatively recent inventions, a clever anachronism when read within the colonial context. Interestingly, what Stockwell collects are the accessories to contemporary consumption which increase not only the quantities we consume but the amount of disposable refuse (filters, tea bags, discarded cups) we generate on a daily basis. Alongside a historical reading is a contemporary concern with the sheer quantity of disposable clutter we send out into the world’s rubbish each day. “Trayne” makes use of a similar stain of both coffee filters and portion cups to create an entire gown of recycled materials. It may be useful to question one’s contribution to such a sculpture. Do you dispose of a quarter of the garment’s flowing bustle in a week’s worth of coffee brewing, an eighth? The physical confrontation with the quantities we consume, and in this case the refuse we create, acts as a sage reminder of the broader ecological implications as well as cultural and economic impact caused by our patterns of daily consumption.

A more recent scrutiny of the British Isles constructed out of black and white faux fur similar to that from a Friesian cow is entitled “Mad Cow Country.” The work points up the devastating impact of mad cow disease, an epidemic which first surfaced in Britain in the late 1980’s and is largely acknowledged to be the result of unhealthy farming practices. Stockwell’s use of kitsch materials speak to the emptiness of simulacra and in many ways reflect a new colonial reality where farming conditions which foster rather than eradicate disease are not only a problem of outsourced industries but also appear right at home.

Some of the refuse we generate each day is not recycled at home, but is sold to developing nations where demand drives innovation and creates a culture of recycling and reuse which puts our own consumption to shame. Along with second hand clothing, discarded rubber tires are often shipped to developing nations where they are reused for other purposes. “Rhino” suggests this recycling, but also reminds us of the tragic losses many developing nations have experienced through the devastation of natural habitat. The long list of endangered species can in part be blamed by a drive to keep up with the West, as well as an earlier popularity for big game hunting. Such tragedies are often the result of our use of developing nations as a dumping ground for the excesses we generate. Alongside these social commentaries, these works warrant appreciation on other levels. Refreshingly, the historical and contemporary commentary that can be read regarding colonialism and now the importance of recycling is balanced with considerable humour. And while the materials are paramount to the commentaries she presents, many works also capture a beauty that transcends the mundane reality of their materials.

Surface Design Journal (spring 2005: 42-43)