Slaves of Fashion

The Legacies of Empire: Changing Public and Practitioners’ Understandings of Globalization, Culture and Identity - REF 2021 Case Study

Unethical labour practices have hit the headlines in recent years and the British public have been shocked to discover that they take place much closer to home than many of us thought and sometimes involve brands that are household names here in the UK. Professor Kate Marsh’s research has helped to raise awareness of this issue in a historical and international context, via an innovative collaboration with artists The Singh Twins since 2014, which has led to major artworks, exhibitions, and events reflecting on the legacies of imperialism and the slave trade.

Research Action

Professor Kate Marsh’s historical research into French metropolitan representations of colonialism and the relationships between competing European imperial powers in the eighteenth century has inspired new forms of artistic expression through the creation of works by the internationally renowned artists, The Singh Twins, who are distinguished for their art works that deal with socio-political issues surrounding heritage and identity. Kate’s book India in the French Imagination: Peripheral Voices, 1754-1815 (Pickering and Chatto, 2009), in which she innovatively stressed the links between the slave plantations of the Caribbean and trade with the East, has directly influenced the artists’ practice.

In 2014 The Twins were planning a series of artworks that would explore the story of Indian textiles and its relationship with transnational cultures, politics and economics, with a focus on the Indo-British relationship, and were interested in the wider connections between Indian and European trade outside the well-known story of the British Raj. Following a discussion of the key findings of Kate’s research — specifically, the neglected story of French control of the Deccan region of India in the early eighteenth century, and the role which trade with India played in financing the sugar plantations in Saint-Domingue — Kate and The Twins devised a project with the aim of exploring shared and neglected global histories and the legacies of imperialism and the slave trade.

Working in partnership

Kate’s research was key support to the successful completion of eleven new artworks with historical themes and the exhibition, Slaves of Fashion held at that Walker Art Gallery (National Museums Liverpool/NML) and Wolverhampton Art Gallery. This exhibition comprised the eleven new artworks, displays of NML museum objects, and a video installation in which Kate provided unprecedented insights about the ways in which the everyday historical objects reveal hidden histories of imperial conquest and exploitation.

Kate’s work with NML and Wolverhampton Art Gallery in the context of the exhibition also influenced curatorial understanding and practices. Her research and her collaboration with The Singh Twins and gallery professionals resulted in enhancements to the interpretation of the exhibition, and in turn, this contributed to the quality of the visitor experience.

Outputs and outcomes

Linking colonial trade and Atlantic slavery with current global practices, the Slaves of Fashion exhibition has improved public understanding of and community engagement with the legacy of imperialism in Britain, prompting self-reflection and the capacity for behavioural change, particularly in relation to consumer choices. Visitor feedback on the exhibition and accompanying workshop revealed that explicit parallels drawn between slavery and current global practices had encouraged people to reflect on historical and contemporary cross-cultural encounters, and also inspired changes to consumer habits.

The eleven artworks are currently part of The Twins’ private touring collection, and as of March 2020, the artists have received expressions of acquisition interest from Montreal Museum of Modern Art and DCMS (UK Government Art Collection) with regard to these pieces. In addition to this, the artists have created a series of ten large-scale tapestry interpretations of the original artworks that have already generated international interest; three of these tapestries have been sold and two of these are on display at the Phoenix Art Gallery, USA.




The Singh Twins

…without her, the project would not have explored the global connections that it does; Kate’s work inspired us.

The Singh Twin

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