Cottoning on to the Cottonopolis

MCFly volunteer Roisin Weintraub visits the Whitworth Art Gallery.

As we were walking up to the gallery, Rueben (my 3 year old son) said “What’s that boy doing?”
I had no idea which boy we were talking about and replied “I don’t know, which boy?”
“He’s jumping off the planet because he’s lost his head.”
The sculpture “ Boy on globe 4” by Yinka Shonibare MBE was commissioned for the exhibition, part of a recent series of work about global warming. I had a look at a few of the series and all of the figures appear to be slipping, accidentally falling of a burnt and poisoned planet. I wonder if Rueben’s comment is in fact very in keeping with the work. In our rush to money have lost our heads as we are losing the planet.

The exhibition is about the cotton industry, cotton “the first global commodity.” A huge part of local history is wrapped up in this. At the height of the industrial revolution  there were 108 mills producing cotton in Manchester.  “This famous great factory town. Dark and smoky from the coal vapors, it resembles a huge forge or workshop. Work, profit and greed seem to be the only thoughts here. The clatter of the cotton mills and the looms can be heard everywhere …”
Johanna Schopenhauer , Sammtliche Schriften, Frankfurt, (1830)

In the search for this money all sorts of sins were committed internationally, slavery (someone had to grow all them plants, somewhere warm too) child labor (nice and small for crawling under the looms) and it is far from over; it’s just moved off our shores.

But I have a confession, I love fabric. I studied Art, but wish that I had studied fashion. I am especially into Dutch wax prints.

Something like this to the right, the fabric you see West African women draped in. But you see, it’s another global story. A Dutch company called Vlisco was trying to copy Indonesian handmade batik under cut them and sell them there ideas back. It didn’t work, the Indonesians weren’t that keen. However between 1831 and 1872 some 3,000 Africans were “recruited” into the Dutch colonial army and they saw the fabrics in Jakarta and fell in love, they couldn’t tell the difference between the original and the Dutch copies. Vlisco is still making the stuff after 166 years. It is this fabric features heavily in the exhibition in used by Yinka Shonibare MBE and the mildly disturbing video work of Grace Ndiritu.

I was also very taken with the Kangas (African headscarves) from the lost sample book of Lubaina Hamid. Paintings of again bright pictures and patterns but this time partnered with cautionary sounding messages taken from Swahili sayings like “Forgiveness a cousin to freedom” and “Allow your friends to meet you enemies”

Anne Wilson’s work Local Industry Cloth takes the form of a lengthy woven rug surrounded by video of its production in which the artist and 78 other experienced weavers worked. The work was originally created in the Knoxville Museum of Art in Tennessee. This, from the heart of industrial textile production in the U.S. Southeast, acknowledges the current crisis of production as local mills face closure. Relocated, it asks the question what happened to our own industries, where did Cottonopolis go?

About manchesterclimatemonthly

Was print format from 2012 to 13. Now web only. All things climate and resilience in (Greater) Manchester.
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