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March/April 2004

Postcolonial Discourse
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.

Susan Stockwell, 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.

Yinka Shonibare, 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 to everyone.

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
by 13 inches.

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 culture.

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.

This article first appeared in:

Mar/Apr 2004

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