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  • Divya Sharma

Diaspora artists’ post colonial identity and their experiments with textiles

"I was thinking: Okay, so where do I stand? I live in England. I'm from Nigeria. Nigeria was colonised by the British. The Victorian era was the height of colonialism in Africa. How do I relate to the repressive Victorian regime? So Victorian for me actually means conquest and imperialism. And so, in a sense, it is actually my fear. So what I then decided to do was actually confront my fear and face my fear. And the way to confront my fear was to actually parody that fear. A lot of the work came out of my desire to face my fear and to turn it into parody. The irony of all of this is that -- since my work has actually been about what imperialism means and how that relates to my own identity -- it's quite ironic that I was then made a member of the Order of the British Empire”. (Yinke Shonibare 2013 p15)

In today’s truly transnational world, with travel, immigration and refugee migration exacerbated by pervasive communication technology and media, the idea of national identity and belongingness takes on a new meaning. An interesting consequence of British colonisation in the 18th and 19th century has been the presence of artists who have come into Britain from other parts of the world and former colonies, especially from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. In spite of career successes and integration into British society, many of these artists have chosen to be associated with the countries from which they came, rather than the country to which they migrated. The next generations of artists - the sons and daughters of these immigrant artists - like the pioneering generations before them have highlighted the idea of being different – and these differences could be centred upon race, colour, culture, identity and experience despite their obvious integration and straddling of two cultures. These artists are together known as the ‘Diaspora’ artists. Their art can also be part of ‘postcolonial thinking’, to acknowledge the fact that individual identities are now formed from multiple points of cultural reference. Homi K Bhabha, in his seminal book ‘The Location of Culture’ suggests ‘negotiating our way within ‘in-between’ spaces allows us to look again at the idea of nation and community’.(Hemmings 2015 p 24).

For the purposes of this article, I want to focus on three artists from this genre who use textile as their vehicle to express their ideas. One of the ways for the Diaspora artists to assert this ‘hybridisation’ of their identity has been to use textiles and fabric in a metaphorical way as part of a painting, installation or sculpture. The three artists, Yinke Shonibare, Lubaina Himid and Jasleen Kaur all have works that have a powerful resonance with post-colonial lives. They work with textiles using its shape, patterns and sculptural form rather than as a functional piece of clothing to express their ideas. Ideas that negotiate weave and reconcile conflicts between language, culture and history between the two identities. (Hemmings 2015 p18) According to Francoise Dupre, a London based French born artist ‘Textiles travel across the globe through time and space connecting people and places. It is the combination of textiles cultural specificity and transnationalism that have made it instrumental in my choice of this medium for art making and context.’ (Hemmings 2015 p169)

The British born Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare MBE is a great example of a Diaspora artist doing this kind of work. Shonibare has referred to his own identity in reference to his artistic output as that of a 'post - colonial hybrid.' (Hemmings, 2015 p34). He 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. The wax prints are indigenous to Indonesia and are colloquially called ‘Batik prints’. In the 19th century the Dutch tried to produce them at home and trade them back to the Indonesians (Indonesia was colonised by the Dutch East India Company for a long period of time). This project was largely unsuccessful due to the inferior quality of the cloth. (Hemmings 2015) They were poor pastiches of the original design but they were hugely successful in West Africa. Today ironically, the cloth has come to be seen as a symbol of African pride and unique identity. Also, Shonibare purchases much of the cloth from Brixton in south London and not in Africa, further complicating the story of origin and association. As Dr. Catherine Harper has recently noted, 'What is interesting about Shonibare’s choice of industrialized, fake ethnic, 'batik print' is how it shakes our casually confident understanding of an 'African' look. (Hemmings, 2015 p19)

Another artist I would like to refer to is the inimitable Lubaina Himid. Himid is British but is Tanzanian born and over the last thirty years her creative practice has addressed colonialism and the historical representations of the African diaspora. She works with a variety of mediums and some of her works ‘ Kanga from the lost sample book 2012, ‘Naming the money 2004’ and ‘cotton.com 2002’ are examples of her foray into textile research. Her work is clearly political and according to her in her interview with Sabine Broek ‘the textile work is more rooted in what its like to be an African woman in another place, a place that is our home today. The work is about simply trying to belong..or about trying to connect to a given locale or as a diasporic artist trying to be two people in two places at once.’ (Cultural Threads 2015 P 200) ‘I found that fabric pattern, or even motif and text and those conversations about how fabric speaks are some of the most successful things about the work.’ (Hemmings, 2015 p199). In ‘Kangas from the lost sample book’ Himid uses the history and imagery of indigenous textiles in themselves to tell a story and she uses paper that mimic textile rather than actual textile. The Kanga is a colourful garment similar worn by women and occasionally by men throughout Africa. It is a piece of printed cotton fabric, about 1.5 m by 1 m, often with a border along all four sides and a central part, which differs in design from the borders. ‘There are only two essentials that go into making a piece of woven cloth into a kanga: one is a bold central design, and the second is a solid border on which one of the thousands of Swahili proverbs is written.’ (The Independent, 2009) In this work she takes design samples for Kangas created for west and east African textiles that were literally thrown out in the hundreds when the Manchester studios were closed. She then prints these designs on paper to acknowledge the loss of precious effort and talent. The power of the design could be conveyed with much more conviction on paper than on actual cloth. She says ‘My work is all about multiple dimensions especially about hybrid cultural identities. I have been trying to represent one part of myself – the African part of myself – and have it speak to the English part of myself by using pattern and by using textiles. The very essence of it is to reconcile the different impacts from the two cultures.’

The third artist is British born Jasleen Kaur with origins in India. I wanted to quote her example to make the point that not all stories of cultural exchange of the colonial era are tales of erasure and loss. In Kaur’s own words ‘the main focus in my work is design as a cultural unifier.’ (Hemmings 2015 p18). For the project she first wrote to the current Lord Robert Napier. She explained how her work was evolving as means to comment on the way in which Indian immigrants who moved to Britain the fifties adapted to their new surroundings and how subsequent generations of British Asians retain their traditional roots whilst simultaneously experiencing a constant cultural evolution. She then asked the current Lord Napier (whose grandfather Sir Robert Napier opened the migratory relationship between India and Britain) if she could tie the revered turban of the Sikhs (a community in India whose men are expected to adhere to the religious custom of wearing a turban on their head for life) upon his head. This process was recorded and ‘The subsequent photograph was presented as a celebratory statement of dialogue between two communities of different cultures, religions and languages.’ (Hemmings 2015 p18)

The idea that national and cultural identity is an ever-changing phenomenon is something I can vouch for myself. I am a product of multiple influences and cultures. I was an anglicised Indian before I left India (due to the legacy of the British colonial rule and its deep imprint on south India) and now I am a ‘British Indian’ (learning to hold on to and love my Indian heritage I once took for granted) in the UK. The second point I wanted to make was the versatility of textiles in going a long way in carrying the burden of history that gives artists a lot of flexibility in expressing their ideas. The garment derives much of its gravitas from an understanding that dress and fashion form a vital link between the individual and their national identity. Yinka Shonibare’s self proclaimed position as a ‘postcolonial hybrid’ offers us a peg to hold on to in the postcolonial reality of today while Lubaina Himid works allow us a peek into the world of a black person/woman and Kaur’s work speaks of hope and integration and compromise. 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.


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