Travels in Textiles


Friday, 30 July 2010

Manchester's cultural and creative diversity

What I love about Manchester is its' rich diversity and mix of so many different cultures and people. In one city lies so many hidden stories and pathways to completely different worlds, though the people that live here.

I learnt from a lady who came along to my talk at Chorlton Arts Festival that there is a race relations centre within the University of Manchester. Its part of the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Education Trust that was set up in 2001. It was set up in reaction against racism and named in honour of Ahmed Iqbal Ullah who was murdered in 1986 in the playground of a Manchester high school.

The centre's aim is to create an anti racism culture within education by providing information on immigrant communities who have settled in Manchester. There are narratives of people, from Africa, the Caribbean and Asia who have told their story, and how they came to live in Manchester. There is also books on these cultures within different subjects such as education, health, art and more.

I found a book by an British Indian photographer Raghubir Singh who had displayed his photographs of Britain and then India side by side to show the stark contrast between the two cultures. It made me think what a culture shock it would be for anyone having been born and brought up in India to move to Britain permanently and vice versa, both being completely alien environments to the other. This must mean massive adjustments and a confused sense of one's identity.

I stumbled upon an exhibition catalogue of Contemporary Pakistani Print Makers as part of the Festival of Muslim cultures, something which particularly excited me as it the collaboration between British and South Asian artists and designers is something I'd love to help facilitate in within textiles. It was led by Sarah Hopkins who explained 'Working on the Festival of Muslim Cultures Print Project was an unforgettable experience. I am inspired by the fact that the arts can influence societal change, enabling people from diverse backgrounds to enter into the experiences of others, encouraging communities to embrace other cultures and heritages'.
Many of the artisans drew upon personal experiences or identity to inform their work. Samina Iqbal depicted her constant struggle to balance her art practice with her daily chores and routines, something I can relate to as I'm sure many can when one is one's own manager/employer, as well as working women and mothers. Samina had formed this struggle in a circle metaphor to symbolise the never ending tasks of the daily routine

I have also visited Shisha recently, an arts agency that works to promote South Asian arts and crafts. I had contacted Fareda Khan, the deputy director after having been recommended to by a few people. They facilitate residencies in the UK and internationally and commission art work and exhibitions to help artists develop their practice. Along with this they offer 'artists surgeries' to offer advice and help facilitate ideas for established and up and coming artists.

They also work with education establishments, galleries and curators to showcase the work of contemporary South Asian artists and craftspeople. The Asia Triennial, one of the projects they work on in Manchester will be happening in 2011. The 2008 triennial was very successful and included a diverse range of site specific installations, interactive projects and gallery exhibitions. I wrote about the project 'Between Kismet and Karma' in a previous blog posting, one of Shisha's recent exhibitions at Leeds art gallery.

There are a few things happening in the run up to the Asia Triennial. Currently at the Chinese Arts Centre, which I intend to visit, and there is an exhibition and workshops alongside with the women asian communities in Cheetham Hill.

I was grateful and delighted to receive really helpful and informative advice from Fareeda, who was interested in my research and my future hopes. This was especially nice to receive from someone whose work I strongly admire. We discussed future opportunities and she pointed me in some related directions and to people I should contact and meet with. We agreed to keep in touch, and I left feeling a new sense of encouragement and motivation.

I also went along to some of the Manchester Jazz festival performances, which included a huge range of styles and fusions of music from all over the world. I loved the Serge Tebu project because of the surprising mix of sounds, particularly in the two women's voices which resonated beautifully with the violin, flute (which I'm always drawn to, having previously played jazz flute), and the fundamental jazz instruments of bass, keys and drums.

Notes on Sindh's fascinating history and culture

It seems that often we only learn or know about another country by watching the news after a tragedy has struck it.

The flooding that is currently hitting Pakistan is an example of this amongst many other natural disasters, such as the Haiti earthquake earlier this year and the South Asian tsunami a few years earlier.

In 2001 a devastating earthquake hit India and parts of Pakistan, the epicentre being Kachcch which lies south of Sindh and across the border in India. Many people I have told about my visits to Kachchh only knew of the area because of this earthquake. Although, a terrible thing to happen, the livelihood of many artisans who were struggling before the earthquake now have thriving businesses. This was due to the heightened attention the area saw following the disaster. Along with the prime relief effort of food and new homes came government and NGO help to re-start businesses and enable artisans to re-build their lives through what they know and have skills in.

Being so close to Kachchh, Sindh has many cultural similarities, especially because many communities now living in Kachchh migrated here from Sindh, and many still have family there. This has happened for centuries up until partition after 1947 which saw large movements of people between the two provinces.

Sindh is home to the Indus valley civilisation site of Mohenjo daro ( I have just found out it means 'mound of the dead') Evidence was found at this site the practice of weaving, madder and indigo dyeing and patterning cloth as well as symbolic stone carving that were found to have originated around 2500 BC. Other major Indus sites are Harappa in Punjab and Dholavira in Kachchh.

I have been searching for the origins of some of the patterns that are used today in ajrakh printing. As it originated in Sindh, this means looking to within this province for the meanings and stories behind these, and why they are so symbolic of both a Sindhi and Kachchhi person's identity.

While viewing the Sindhi ajrakh cloths in the V&A, I came across a familiar pattern of interlinking circles, which bear striking resemblance to patterns found on Harappa civilisation pots dating to the 2500 BC :

This is an image of the old patterns found at Harappa taken from the book 'Threadlines Pakistan'

This is one of the Ajrak cloths from Sindh, Pakistan, not dated but probably mid 20th century.

In such a simple pattern, there can be seen so many further patterns and shapes - as well as the circles, a four petalled flower can be seen, diamonds, squares and triangles. It is mesmerizing to look at and the fact it continues endlessly is why it has endless connotations and symbols in many cultures and religions. It is considered by some to be a symbol of sacred geometry, said to contain ancient, religious value depicting the fundamental forms of space and time.

The patterns of Ajrakh are made up of symmetrically geometric forms typical of Islamic art. Ismail Mohammed says the patterns come from God, and it is said that the perfect symmetrical patterns reflect the perfection of God's creation.

The trefoil found on a stone king priest at Mohenjo daro can also be linked with patterns still used today. It is thought by some to have strong religious links to the trinity, the unity of powerful gods of the sun, water and earth.

The ajrakh artisans think their kakkar (cloud) pattern derived from this trefoil pattern

Having never visited Sindh, I have little knowledge on the province. I do hope to visit there and learn more about its fascinating history, and find out whether old traditions are still in practice, such as the use of these historic patterns in the printed and embroidered cloths. I do hope that, like Kachchh the crafts can continue and provide the world with a positive and hopeful view of the country and its people through beautiful products with important history and fascinating stories.

A wonderfully written book Empires of the Indus, by Alice Albinia, provides a compelling insight into the world of the Indus valley civilisation. While touring the length of the river, she speaks to communities now living along the river banks, as well as giving a historic narrative of who once lived in the same spots.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Glimpses of goings on in London

An old Ajrakh block-printed piece from Sind, Pakistan in the V&A collection

A fragment of medieval block-printed textile found at Fostat in the V&A collection

I went down to London last week where as well as finding some valuable research material in the British Library and the National Art Library and viewing the V&A's collection of block-printed fabrics of Gujarat and Rajasthan, I managed to catch a few exhibitions.

I was just in time to see the Quilts exhibition at the V&A although it probably wasn't the best time. It being the last week meant hoards of people were rushing to catch it before it ended. This included big quilting guilds and WI groups, tourists, families, school groups and all sorts. It meant we had to book a time to view it to reduce the amount going in at the same time. There obviously weren't limited places though, as by the time it came to my allotted time the gallery was heaving. I don't think I've ever seen so much people in one exhibition at once. It was nice to see so many people are interested, but I could hardly see each piece and it was a case of queueing up and waiting your turn to see each piece!

Not being a quilter myself, I don't think I have enough understanding to fully appreciate the skills that goes into the making of them. However I have always found them fascinating examples of an object that is both functional, aesthetic, stimulates memories of warmth, comfort and security and as works of art that hold a wealth of memories and history.

Quilting is finding a new lease of life through the new desire for hand-made that is increasing since the realisation in a decline in so many traditional crafts. The above quilt 'Punctuation' by Sara Impey was created while reflecting on letters she found written to her by a friend hinting at a past relationship. Like so many of the historical quilts, this one has also been made to document important events in the makers' lives and to be used as objects for remembrance and reflection.

I love this one by Pauline Burbridge 'Applecross quilt'. Rather than summon up memories and histories, this piece seems to convey the artists' love and passion for the countryside and rural landscapes. Quilting is a medium that allows the embroiderer to play with texture and stitch and in this piece these techniques have created effects of appealing landscape textures.

I also visited the 'Magnificent Maps' exhibition at the British Library. It shone a new light on the history and use of maps for me and I'm sure many others too. As well as having a purpose of finding where countries and places are situated, a demonstration of power and propaganda or an education tool, this exhibition shows they are often masterpieces of art.

A map in the residence of a powerful ruler could show off his wealth and the extent of countries and land he had power over. These often filled whole walls of a gallery in the palace of a ruler, serving as decoration alongside sculpture and and furniture.
Similarly a map in the house of a merchant could show the source of his wealth and demonstrated his pride through the representation of his homeland, town or country estate.

The high level of skill and artistic quality in the maps is amazing considering the limited technology available at the time they were produced.

It is interesting to compare the uses and meanings of these historical maps with the way maps are used today. Google's Street view tool is one example of new technology opening up a world of possibilities, for the use (or misuse) of maps.