Slaves of Fashion: A review of diverse shades of life, in all its pain & glory

Slaves of Fashion: A review of diverse shades of life, in all its pain & glory

“An artist is not a special kind of person – every person is a special kind of artist,” ecologist Satish Kumar often says. Somehow, modernity has even turned education and wisdom into a factory, where imagination rarely scores high marks. Every person is dulled as an artist.

Meeting world-famous artists the Singh Twins, for whom Liverpool has been their home and studio all their life, imagination is a paintbrush, which they use to speak truth to power. In their latest exhibition at the award-wining Firstsite Art Gallery in Colchester (UK), part of the Tate Network, we see the diverse colours of life, in all its pain and glory.

Installation view, The Singh Twins ‘Slaves of Fashion’, Firstsite, 2022. Photograph by Anna Lukala.
Installation view, The Singh Twins ‘Slaves of Fashion’, Firstsite, 2022. Photograph by Anna Lukala.

Pain because textiles and slavery have often been connected, where workers are simply a cost of doing business, rather than the texture which gives business its reputation and meaning. The dignity of work has been lost. Sadly, fashion designed to give beauty to its wearer, often comes from ugliness. Glory because Indian art is full of colour and rich fabrics which created its world-famous textile industry and continues to be the envy of the world after hundreds of years.

The Singh Twins research about history is meticulous – they expose the links between sugar and slavery, and how sugar turned us into addicts, ruining our health and well-being in the process. Markets, consumers, profits and wealth are the primary keywords of modernity, and Rabindra and Amrit Kaur Singh have studied how they came to be normalized. Here they use Art to remind us about our history, and educate us about our potential to transform that past. Business profits from addiction and leaves devastation in its wake – just look at the recent Opioid crisis in North America, led by a billionaire family and a globally renown consulting firm. A consumer and market society becomes a materialistic society, where consumerism and selling become more important than spirit or beauty. History and tradition matter, both in dress and culture. India has bundles of it.

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Slaves of Fashion: A review of diverse shades of life, in all its pain & glory
Indian fabric through the prism of history with The Singh Twins

In Dharmic traditions, beauty comes from within, and the inner spirit is more important than the outer appearance. In their art, the Singh Twins draw from the inner beauty and spirit of the Sikh tradition and heritage, to express the breadth and depth of beauty in all its dimensions. Their art is neither east nor west, neither fusion nor mixed – it simply is an expression of their own plural life journey of growing up in two different cultures, but at the same time being open-minded to other ideas and traditions from all over the world. Its best not to try and classify it, but instead to enjoy and learn from watching and reflecting on it.

In their painting of Trump, who is exposed as a white supremacist, and a beast and vulture, they demonstrate raw power, ignorance and arrogance, and the way in which even today, black people are portrayed as inferior by the most powerful and supposedly progressive nation on earth. Is fashion today used to cover up history, memory and the pain and sweat that is often used in the making and trading of it? If so, we shoppers should be aware, and shop with care and conscience, and stop the world from making us into blind consumers. Less can be more when it comes to fashion. Our clothes need not be branded to make us look and feel good.

When I interview the Singh Twins, they are wearing the beautiful Punjabi shalwar-kameez, something which is both traditional and modern, and they look very comfortable and at ease in this. They no longer feel the need to ‘fit in’ with their dress, and instead want society to celebrate the richness that comes from diversity. We don’t need to conform to be accepted, but in our difference, we can offer something stimulating to one another, and help us grow and learn from each other. They remind me of my work and training on a ‘borderless mind’ which is so much needed in modernity.

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Slaves of Fashion: A review of diverse shades of life, in all its pain & glory
Indian child prodigy to bring his galaxy of colours to London

Our prejudices are often subconscious, and just being educated or a professional does not automatically make us open-minded. We have to work at it, and watching art or visiting such exhibitions, helps us to challenge our own thinking, and grow through pausing, observing and reflecting. Creativity fires our imagination, helping us find new ways to address old problems.

Patient capital is missing from modern business. Finance is making us into slaves of money, and fashion has become a commodity, used to make people feel insecure and drug them into buying. Art can help us discover patience, and the virtue that comes from a long-term approach to life and business. Yes, even fashion need not be fast or temporary – beauty ought to be eternal. Entrance to Firstsite is free all summer – art does not need to be bought or consumed to be enjoyed. Visiting this exhibition is a langar for the eye and spirit. Do come for the feast – and bloat with imagination.

Professor Atul K. Shah [@atulkshah] teaches and writes about Indian wisdom on business, culture and community at various UK universities and is a renowned international author, speaker and broadcaster.

*Info: This exhibition is live until September and can be viewed for free at Firstsite.uk

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