In Conversation with Grant Watson

Natasha Ginwala: Let us begin by discussing your most recent exhibition: Social Fabric at Iniva, (London). How did this interest in textile history arise? Is it more than coincidence that the location of Iniva in East London was an epicenter of garment factories, textile markets and weavers’ riots in the 18th century? 

Grant Watson: The concern with textiles came from a number of things. At one point I studied textiles so this is an ongoing interest, but the first exhibition that I curated on textiles was called Textiles Art and the Social Fabric at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Antwerp (M HKA) in Flanders – a region with an enormously rich textile history. In this exhibition I wanted to explore how Left politics, has been addressed by artists and artisans, and for several reasons chose to do this through textiles as a point of departure. For example, I included in the exhibition designs by Constructivist artist Stepenova, Parangole capes by Helio Oiticica, protest banners by John Dugger (which were used in demonstrations against the Pinochet regime in Chile that took place in Trafalgar Square in 1974) as well as banners from Flemish trade unions. So rather than being medium specific, the exhibition was particularly concerned with how artists have used textiles in relation to social and political issues, both directly through banners but also through textile histories and the social meaning that cloth or clothing bring.

When I started working at Iniva I thought it would be interesting to continue this investigation (of art and textiles in relation to Left politics) but through a consideration of ‘internationalism’ – looking beyond Europe to the critical role that the textiles played in the relationship between Britain and India (as it was for example, recorded by Marx). There were also quite specific local connections, Spitalfields in East London (close to Iniva) has played host to successive waves of immigrants who settled in this area, starting with the Huguenots and followed by Jewish and then Bangladeshi communities, who have made a living through textiles in one way or another. For example, it was the silk weavers from Spitalfields who petitioned the British Government to ban the importation of Indian cloth.

NG: Two art works, Apparatus for the Osmotic Compensation of the pressure of wealth during the contemplation of poverty (2005-7), an installation by Alice Creischer and Sudhir Patwardhan’s painting, Lower Parel (2001) are your departure points and thereby also critical anchors within this exhibition. Why so?

GW: I used the two works you mention as a way to give the exhibition focus. Textiles is a broad subject, if you narrow it to India, or even to the relationship between Britain and India, it is still unwieldy. So my curatorial approach was to start with two works by artists, look at the particular set of interests that are developed in these works, then build on them in the form of an archive that sets out a broader field of information. Apparatus for the Osmotic Compensation of the pressure of wealth during the contemplation of poverty by Alice Creischer threatens to blow the subject wide open again, as it deals with a complex set of histories, tracking the development of early globalization and cross referencing this with more contemporary data, but in response to this work, I chose to focus on a history of production and trade in cotton, including in the archival display tree of life, 18th Chintz produced in India, books of textile samples collected by John Forbes Watson in India and used as source material for the production of cloth in the UK which was then exported to India, mill labels used to promote this cloth and so forth.

If Apparatus for the Osmotic Compensation of the pressure of wealth during the contemplation of poverty describesglobal trade and colonial exploitation on a world scale, Sudhir Patwardhan’s painting Lower Parel is a more concise work, dealing with the experience of a community living in a particular location – namely the struggle of the millworkers of Mumbai, with the painting giving a cross section of the key elements in this drama – the disused factory, the luxury apartments under construction, and the local community who once worked in the mills but who now mostly work in the informal sector.  The archive that accompanied this painting included photographs and press cuttings about the closure of the cotton mills in Lower Parel and the subsequent fight over the mill lands, as well as recordings that we made with actors of transcriptions taken from the book, One Hundred Years One Hundred Voices edited by Meena Menon and Neera Adarkar, that features interviews with the mill workers.

Continue Reading: TAKE on Art Magazine, Issue 08, Biennale (New Delhi)Image

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