in Garment Form
The thriving field of postcolonial theory concerns
the relationship between the former European colonial powers
and their colonies. Several contemporary textile artists
use the garment to articulate aspects of this debate.
by Jessica Hemmings
Ed. — This essay was adapted from a presentation for
the Scottish Costume Society in October 2003. See the web-exclusive
photo gallery for additional images not included with
the published article.
Postcolonial theory and its attention to material culture,
hybrid identities, and the ensuing diaspora has influenced
the work of contemporary fiber artists worldwide. In today’s
atmosphere of globalization—through positive agents
such as communication networks as well as negative ones
such as the refugee crisis—the national and cultural
identities projected by dress embrace increasingly complex
influences. The garment, both as motif and sculptural form,
is an area of growing involvement for contemporary artists
working in fiber. Common to all the works discussed here
is an attempt to negotiate conflicts between language, culture,
and history that the postcolonial world must now reconcile.
Elaine Reichek, Red Dot Man, 1988; knitted
sculpture and photograph; 65 by 70 inches. Courtesy
of Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery, New York.
Trayne, 2000; coffee-stained coffee filters, coffee-stained
portion cups, cotton thread.
Several recurring motifs appear to emerge in recent works
that tackle postcolonial identity. The dressmaking pattern
can act as a map of sorts, which evokes the trade of objects
that underpinned colonial conquest. In a similar vein, mapping
and renaming reference the divide-and-conquer mentality
that made colonization so ruthlessly effective. Authenticity
and a sense of the original or genuine are questioned in
works based on repetition. Finally, the empty garment often
represents loss of life, the violent histories many postcolonial
nations must reconcile, and the burden of conflict still
very much alive today.
British artist Susan Stockwell grew up in Manchester, England,
a city built on the thriving textile industry of the Industrial
Revolution. In one piece, Stockwell assembles the world
map from segments of a dressmaking pattern and draws the
world in tea stains. Maps were used, often dubiously, to
chart colonial expansion, and tea and textiles were two
of the commodities traded extensively during the colonial
era. Stitching guidelines on the pattern suggest other symbols
on maps—trade routes, shipping lanes, winds, and currents,
as well as a fragmented version of the world that is in
keeping with the colonial policy of divide-and-conquer.
There is a note of irony in Stockwell’s placement
of the pattern text “shorten or lengthen here”
at the tip of Africa, alluding to the manipulation of space
that colonial mapping enjoyed. In a similar vein, Trayne
references the exploitative trade practices of both the
past and the present in its use of recycled coffee filters,
an anachronism with the impractical bustle, which dates
the costume to the late 1800s and represents an elite lifestyle
of consumption rather than labor and production.
Mr. and Mrs. Andrews without Their Heads, 1998; wax-print
cotton costumes on armatures, dog, mannequin, bench,
gun; 65 by 225 by 100 inches. Collection of the National
Gallery, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Courtesy of Stephen
Friedman Gallery, London.
The American artist Elaine Reichek often draws on ethnographic
photography and images that depict the “other”
in a foreign and dehumanized way, treating people as objects
and artifacts. (Postcolonial theory typically does not concern
itself with North American history, but I’ve chosen
to include these pieces because of the clear overlap of
themes.) In one series, rows of traditional dress that should
evoke a sense of individuality are multiplied and repeated
to represent the idea of lumping ethnicities together and
a refusal to treat people as individuals. Again the dressmaking
pattern appears, but in Reichek’s work the pattern
comes from a mail-order business selling craft kits to make
“authentic” Native American goods. By including
these instructions for making, Reichek remind us of a loss
of skill and knowledge amongst the population, represented
ironically through a contemporary remedy that is accessible
Reichek’s Whitewash, depicting a white cottage, plays
on the word “whitewash” (giving a glossed-over
story), as well as the racial association with white skin.
A skirt is knitted with the inverted image of the photographed
cottage, alluding to the common observations by colonial
powers that the native populations were “backward.”
Red Dot Man, another pastiche of photography and knitted
costume, is based on photographs of the Indians of Tierra
del Fuego. Ironically, the island’s inhabitants died
out with introduction of clothing by missionaries, whose
lessons in modesty actually caused disease; apparently,
the clothing that was distributed contained germs to which
the population had no resistance, and the wet clothing inevitably
caused respiratory diseases. In these works, the conflation
of knitting with photography addresses the idea of translation
and different forms of communication. Reichek has “translated”
the ethnographer’s photograph and, in doing so, highlights
the manipulations and assumptions made by the original photographer
by exaggerating the tradition of photographing and recording
the ethnic “other” without naming or attributing.
Yinka Shonibare, Gay Victorians, 1999; wax-printed cotton
textiles. Courtesy of Stephen Friedman Gallery, London.
Sharon Peoples, Museum Man IV, 2002; machine
embroidery, polyester/rayon on cotton, 10.25
For Australian artist Sue Blanchfield, the uneasy relationship
between the diverse inhabitants of present-day Australia
has become the focus of a series of works. Working with
rayon purchased in a haberdashery store in a remote area
in the Northern Territory, Blanchfield reconstructs the
generic shape of a dress. In one version, printed on white
cloth are the English names of a region. On a “darker”
cloth are printed the names of the same locations in the
native dialect of the Yolngu peoples of the region. Blanchfield
notes the banality of the English names when compared to
the names associated with the sacred sites named by the
indigenous peoples and sees this gap as emblematic of the
miscommunication between the native people and the colonizing
In another work by Blanchfield, a colonial-era painting
that depicts a negotiation between the British and a leader
of the Eora people is used to reference the relationship
between European Australians and indigenous Australians.
Set in repeat, Blanchfield evokes the numerous, overlapping,
and partially concealed attempts at communication and negotiation
that blight Australian history.
Another Australian artist, Sharon Peoples, also looks to
the country’s history with a series titled Magpie
Suits, inspired by an image of the prisoner’s uniforms
worn by convicts upon arrival in Australia. Peoples embroiders
beautiful and decorative pieces that reference these uniforms;
the beauty of the textile belies horrific history.
Sue Blanchfield, Dress II (Now—Made
in Australia) and Dress III, 2002; rayon, cotton,
zipper; printed. Photos: Michael Young.
British-born Nigerian Yinka Shonibare 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. Gay Victorians presents the same bustle that Stockwell
created out of coffee filters; here it is made out of “African”
cloth. The title alludes to both joy and homosexuality,
commenting on the Victorian image; all was not always quite
as it seemed. The bustle is also a reference to the female
African body that was mocked and ridiculed in the tragic
story of the Hottentot Venus, who was taken from South Africa
in the early 1800s, caged, and put on display in France
as an object rather than a person because of her pronounced
buttocks. After her death, she was dissected and used as
a scientific specimen. Her remains were only recently returned
to South Africa, in April 2002, for a respectful burial.
Shonibare’s Mr. and Mrs. Andrews without Their Heads
restages the famous Thomas Gainsborough painting. Absent
are the backdrop of affluent grounds and Mr. and Mrs. Andrews’
heads. Coined “postcolonial revenge,” the work
presents an image of landed gentry literally stripped of
their land and consequently identity.
In this research, the garment plays a nonfunctional role
but derives much of its symbolic weight from an understanding
that dress and fashion clothe a vital site of negotiation
between individual and national identity. In the postcolonial
context, dress reveals that 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.
Jessica Hemmings, a doctoral candidate at the University
of Edinburgh, holds a B.F.A. in textiles. She teaches in
the English department at the Rhode Island School of Design.
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