An image of a derelict, formerly grandiose space with a red car covered in a giant doily in the foreground, a photographic portrait of a man in a gask mask in the middle ground, and a tapestry of football fans chanting in the background.

British Textile Biennial 2021

Installation view of The British Invasion. Image courtesy British Textile Biennial, photography by Lydia McCaig.

Pennine Lancashire is well renowned for its textile industry and still carries remnants of its once booming industrial past in its landscape; from the production sites of the cotton mills to the Leeds and Liverpool canal that was integral to the global exchange of goods. It is a fitting location to host the British Textile Biennial – a dynamic festival that exhibits a diverse range of artists across multiple sites. This year British Textile Biennial 2021 (BTB21) turns its attention to the international nature of textiles, looking at the threads that connect us to a global community, and the relationship textiles have created throughout history to the present day. 

This link between the past and the present, both in the UK and internationally, is encompassed in Brigid McLeer’s piece ‘Collateral’ (2021) at Queen Street Mill. Her lace panel commemorates those who have lost their lives in textile factories through industrial disasters. These are represented as 14 embroidered images of factories from the UK, India and Thailand and are sewn with the factory name, date, location, and number of dead. Dispersed between the embroidered factories are the words remember sewn in red thread. This thread then continues out from the piece, latching onto the looms of the mill where the work is housed. This not only connects the artwork to the space but emphasises the artist’s context, with the striking blood red threads trailing from the pure white panel and wound around the machinery. The end of the panel features an excerpt from Winston Churchill’s famous 1940 speech commemorating fallen soldiers in the Second World War. However here the embroidered words ‘’never was so much owed’ forces the viewer to reflect on not only the poor working conditions and tragedies that have occurred, and undoubtedly will continue to occur, in the name of fast fashion, but also the wider abject and often inhumane treatment of peoples from South Asia resulting from the textile industry, which Churchill was particularly synonymous with.

In the middle of a black background the frame of a film can be seen, showing a group of 4 men in the process of calico production.
Installation view of Reetu Sattar ‘Shabnam’ (2021). Image courtesy British Textile Biennial, photography by Richard Tymon.

Also at Queen Street Mill, Raisa Kabir and Reetu Sattar raise viewers’ attention to the migrant workers and cultures often not recognised for their involvement in textile production. Kabir’s work ‘Resistances’ (2021) sees the artist collaborate with John Spencer Textiles in Burnley to create new works inspired by the Indian textile samples found in ‘’The Textile Manufacturers of India’’ (1866) catalogues at Preston’s The Harris Museum, Art Gallery and Library Archives. The work seeks to create a woven archive of people at John Spencer Textiles, reclaiming the identities and culture of the people who were rarely credited in the original archive. Her work features a large tapestry piece that contains the names of the workers involved in textile production, highlighting to the viewer the amount of people involved and accrediting them for their work. Her jacquard woven samples meanwhile communicate the textile design language that originated in places such as Pakistan and India but through colonialism and use in British textile designs removed their cultural heritage. Her work made me more aware of the heritage found in familiar designs that feature so regularly in textiles we own. Meanwhile, Sattar in her film ‘Shabnam(2021), explores the relationship between East Lancashire and Bangladesh through the production of the cotton-based fabric calico, and this ever-evolving international history, often rooted in deep disparities and inequalities in its production. It is the inequalities and dangers in textile production that the artists featured here force the viewer to examine, along with their own complicity within cycles of textile production and exploitation.

Bharti Parmar also explores the relationships forged by the cotton industry, this time directly between India and Lancashire, in her exhibition Khadi at Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery. Khadi references the Indian cloth produced as a key part of Gandhi’s Swadeshi Movement that sought Indian independence from English rule by boycotting imported non-Indian goods in favour of collective Indian production; and also the paper made as a by-product of that textile production that was, and is, largely prized by Western artists. Central to the exhibition is the 1931 visit by Gandhi to Darwen to meet with local mill workers whose jobs (and the textile trade itself) were suffering due to the lack of exports to India. The visit inadvertently garnered support for Gandhi’s cause from many local workers after hearing the levels of poverty that English rule was creating throughout the country. Two large, illuminated cabinets within the space display various drawings and artefacts from the museum’s archives along with Gandhi ephemera relating to his visit. These are then framed by larger pieces made on khadi paper relating to cotton production in both countries; punched holes in the work reference the same jacquard loom cards that are also present in Kabir’s work. A film made in collaboration with filmmaker Sima Gonsai also features within the exhibition, charting the narrative and histories of the local textile industry and the unexpected support its workers gave to Gandhi’s movement. The exhibition not only explores the materiality of cotton and its historic production, but the stories of how labourers were brought together alongside the political tensions present.       

A screen in the middle of a room showing a three channel video can be seen, with the video showing parts of mechanical looms on either side of a figure pleading to the viewer.
Installation view of James Fox, ‘Rights’ (2021). Image courtesy British Textile Biennial, photography by Lee Smilie.

The subject of political tensions within the cotton industry is continued at Helmshore Mill in James Fox’s Rights, Riots and Routes; an exhibition split into three parts consisting of new works including vibrant embroidery pieces alongside a sombre film featuring Maxine Peake. The starting point of the work, ‘Rights’ (2021), follows the Lancashire ‘Loom Breakers’ riots at Middle Mill in Helmshore. The work references the riots that took place in 1826 in response to the introduction of mechanised power looms and the impact on livelihoods they had on the hand loom workers of the time, exploring the history of punishment and protest of workers through the narrative of mill worker Mary Hindle. Located in the dark basement of the mill, alongside the machinery that emphasises her bleak fate, the viewer flips between Peake as Hindle and clips of Helmshore Mill as her story is shared. The exhibition continues with ‘Routes’ (2021), which shifts the narrative to the development of the bicycle and freedom of movement it brought to everyday people. Focusing on cycling clubs, from their socialist and trade union origins to their significance in the struggle for climate change action, the exhibition explores the bicycle’s involvement in politics, communicated through Fox’s mixed media and embroidered textile pieces. References to the ‘Loom Breakers’ such as his decorative cycling outfit feature throughout ‘Routes’ and by likening this to the ‘Rights’ film provides cohesion of the different artworks within the exhibition, whilst the decorative mixed media bike badges depict some of the ways cycling has been involved in politics and workers’ rights (such as with the trade union badge). These perfectly convey Fox’s aim of this part of the exhibition, exploring cycling’s link to socialism and working-class history. 

The artists at Blackburn Cotton Exchange meanwhile look at the effect of colonialism through familial histories in The British Invasion. Featuring Jasleen Kaur, Masimba Hwati and Jamie Holman, the exhibition explores the artists’ inherited and lived experience of colonialism formed from the cotton industry and British Empire. Kaur’s sculpture ‘Sociomoblile’ (2021), a red Ford MK3 Escort draped in a crochet doily, creates the most impact within the cavernous space. Her work references the migrant skilled workers in British car and textile industries that came to Britain to work, and approaches the conflict of multi-identity she faced being brought up in a British-Sikh household. This is explicitly reinforced in both the choice of the car (the closest to her own father’s car at the time), and the doily (a display centrepiece in South-Asian migrant households).

Co-artist Hwati, in his black and white photographic portraits ‘Zitye: Second Hand Kings’ (2021), uses his father’s diaries as a member of both the Zimbabwean police and anti-government resistance as a starting point to consider his father’s and his own sense of self. He uses props, clothes, and sets drawn from colonial histories to reimagine his father in different guises to explore how clothing is often used to distinguish cultural and personal identity. This is exemplified in a series of three photographs with the artist wearing a ruff (formerly a Spanish colonial item of dress), holding a number of brass band instruments converted from African tribal objects and weaponry which demonstrate how clothing not only informs identity, but how preconceptions are also formed by others about the wearer, and how colonial history has played a part in these views.

Holman in his works ‘Samba’ and ‘who are ya?” (both 2021) interrogates how sport, culture, and entertainment hold not only the power of distraction but also co-exist alongside violence. The works both look at football terrace culture born from mill workers’ need for escapism and a way to socialise. Through a period of concentrated research Holman charts this journey as one which would see workers travel Europe (particularly Italy) to bring home high fashion items, which would see them worn to matches and eventually give birth to the ‘casuals’ culture synonymous with a violent period in football history created by fierce rivalry between local mill town clubs. They depict the football terraces at Blackburn Rovers and the sense of community and identity the club, and others like it, created, mediated through a migration of continental style. They have a nostalgic quality to them, showing a time when local football clubs where more rooted in the community, albeit with overt violent and toxically masculine tones brought about through a sense of shared frustration from a working class with little other outlets for creative, or social, expression.      

The image shows the portrait gallery at Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery, with classical paintings hung floor to ceiling in gilded frames against a red wall. Interspersed between the classical paintings are contemporary portraits of South Asian women.
Installation view of Unapologetic. Image courtesy British Textile Biennial, photography by Lee Smilie.

The exploration of multi-cultural identities within East Lancashire is further explored in Azraa Motala’s Unapologetic show at Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery. Through her paintings Motala seeks to unravel her culturally inherited expectations as a British Asian Muslim, exploring how women from this community have been, and are, represented in art and media through their clothing choices and how they present themselves. The exhibition also serves to provide a poignant and long overdue dose of institutional critique; addressing the widespread lack of representation for (particularly female) British Asian Muslims in public art collections. Her work depicts a series of 7 portraits of young Asian women from the North West she invited to be painted wearing clothes of their own choosing. This provided them with a chance to be presented how they wanted to be, and in doing so subverted both the representation of the exotic ‘other’ often used in historical paintings when depicting Asian women more generally, and the cultural pressure placed on them to adhere to specific expectations of how to dress. The curation of the paintings emphasise this point; they are surreptitiously hung between the historic paintings of the Portrait Gallery of the Museum and Art Gallery, using similar gilded frames to help them blend into the display.

Here the artist quite literally redresses the balance of display, providing examples for young Asian women to see that represent them in a public institution. This encourages the viewer to spend time finding the paintings within the rest of the display. The paintings communicate the hybridity of tradition and modernity that many young Asian women contend with, and is perfectly communicated in a portrait of the artist sat in traditional dress over her ‘trackies’ and trainers. It is the use of dress as an expression of identity rooted in colonial history that links Motala’s work to the artists in The British Invasion exhibition and carries on the conversation of how clothing communicates personal and cultural identity; questioning the prejudices this may carry.

The transatlantic nature of textiles is further explored in Lubaina Himid’s Lost Threads installation at Gawthorpe Hall. Situated in its historic Great Barn, the impressive 114m of Dutch wax fabric loops over the barn beams creating a cascading sea of fabric emulating the waves upon which it was transported. The piece mixes traditional African wax print designs with contemporary patterns of aeroplanes and rings, echoing the wider festival’s attempt to blend the traditional and contemporary, with reference to the global connections of the textile industry and the journey made by fabric across the centuries.

The 62 Group exhibition Connected cloth: Exploring the global nature of textiles at The Whitaker (Rossendale) also focuses on the global connection of textiles throughout history. They aim to communicate the global connection we have through cloth and to consider what role textiles have in our lives. The exhibition takes up two floors of the gallery, with the first room looking at our historical connection to cloth as seen in Maggie Henton’s ‘Bloodlines ghost of the empire’ (2021), which connects 18th century Lancashire and India through exploitation of the workers (a clearly established theme throughout this year’s biennial). Her dual sided piece featuring images of the Lancashire mill on one and a map of India on the other is connected via a red embroidered line, echoing McLeer’s work from Queen Street Mill. Meanwhile the second-floor work focuses more on the issues faced in textile production, such as in Daisy Collingridge’s ‘Jenny is not a puppet’(2021). Made from recycled denim, the work looks at how the process of making a new denim item is highly pollutant to the environment, which is exacerbated by fast fashion and the demand it creates. She emphasises the need to recycle and reuse as a way to combat the environmental issues denim is causing in its production.

It is the conversations BTB21 has sparked surrounding the textile industry of Lancashire that makes this iteration of the festival so interesting and engaging. The inclusion of such a strong emphasis on critically exploring the exploitative practices and resulting financial gain of Empire that still directly impacts contemporary society provides a historically rich backdrop to platform artists and share often unheard – or ignored – histories and experiences. Confronting the viewer with those stories provides deeper personal and historical connections to the work, allowing greater meaning and emotive connection to the pieces. By incorporating the global stories and those of the different communities of East Lancashire the festival recontextualises the often-insular conception of the cotton industry and both its positive and destructive properties which have usually only been strongly linked to Northern industrial towns. Weaving these connective threads through different narratives offers a more contemporary presentation of textiles within the East Lancashire area, and acts to bridge gaps between communities and shared histories.  

British Textile Biennial 2021 was on display at various venues in East Lancashire 1 – 31 October 2021. Unapologetic and Khadi continue at Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery until 18 December 2021, and Connected cloth at The Whitaker until 28 November 2021. Films, podcasts and streamed talks from this year’s festival can be found here.

Claire Walker is a writer based in Wigan.

This review is supported by the British Textile Biennial.

Published 05.11.2021 by James Schofield in Reviews

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