British artists Amrit and Rabindra Singh – collectively known as the Singh Twins – have been on the brink of great success for decades. Although they have exhibited at prestigious institutions, including the National Portrait Gallery and the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, near their hometown of Birkenhead, (identical, female) Geminis remain unfashionable outsiders in the art world. As the couple, who likes to be quoted in one voice, says about their work: “It is decorative, figurative, narrative, small in size and comes from a non-European perspective, and everything is completely taboo. ”
But maybe their time has come. The Twins ’interest in Indian miniature painting, spurred by an inspiring visit to their parents’ homeland in the early 1980s, no longer seems so strange when Mughal manuscripts are now selling for millions; and their penetrating view of colonial crimes corresponds to our current revisionist political mood. Slaves of fashion (on the Firstsite in the newly named city of Colchester until September 11) is an intricately elaborated but bold critique of British imperialism and international fashion culture.
The centerpiece is a dark gallery filled with 11 large, digitally created fabric portraits illuminated to resemble stained glass. (The twins were the only Sika children in their Catholic school.) Just like church paintings, these works are filled with symbolism that requires little elaboration. Fortunately, with the help of an electronic guide provided by the gallery and a guide with artists on YouTube (courtesy of the Sikh Channel), the work is underway.
Indigo: The color of India depicts the Mughal Empress Mumtaz Mahal, for whom the Taj Mahal was built in Agra, dressed in a Bollywood star, a crop top and blue jeans. Agra produced indigo – derived from Latin for “from India” – which was an extremely valuable commodity that the British and French fought for to paint their military uniforms. Also known as blue gold, indigo was used to pay for transported slaves to the U.S. transactions represented here by a set of scales, with a black slave in trouble on one side and a pile of blue ingots on the other. Like the color itself, this image is pleasing to the eye at first; but as you discover its layers, the sinister side of its beauty is revealed.
Similar stories are unfolding about chintz, calico, cashmere and paisley – a print that originates from Asia. The intertwining of the history of Gemini in these woven works is not – unlike some of the others shown, such as the demonic depiction of Donald Trump – polemical, as such. But it is an art with a purpose. In the words of the Gemini, they want to show that “history does not belong to one nation, one tribe.”
As much as it may be fun to decipher these colorful puzzles, it’s hard to feel them touch. For a real emotional hit, turn to their remarkably illuminated triptych (central panel shown here) about the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre, when Brigadier General Reginald Dyer ordered his Gurkha troops to open fire on thousands of peaceful Sikh protesters. independence. In the paper, men, women and children are dragged into a whirlpool-like well, while a boy in a knot cries over his mother, and a dead child is pulled out of its father’s breast by a bird of prey. Horror is no less painful because it is so stylized; instead, the technique adds clarity and compassion to what Churchill called a “monstrous event”.
I was curious to find out what the Essex locals had to say about the harsh portrayal of imperial crimes by the Twins. The group of Englishwomen I heard were amazed: “We never learned this in school.” The commentary book was more mixed: “Racist against whites,” wrote one disgruntled viewer. But another admitted it was “uncomfortably excellent” for them. I think the Twins would be content with that.