Saturday 28 October 2023

British Textile Biennial - Lancashire 2023 - Part 1

Victoria Udondian - Ofong Ufok

Fast fashion is not a new concept to the Lancashire textile industry.  The Industrial Revolution provided the technology and momentum to utilise human and natural resources from across the globe in a ruthless cycle of labour, manufacture and trade.  The colonial links that facilitated that industry still persist in ways revealed by the British Textile Biennial exhibitions particularly those which focus on the effects of fast fashion and the mountains of fashion waste that is exported to the Global South. Many of the exhibitions are held in buildings that had a key role in the Lancashire textile industry.

Poem by Hollie McNish

Fashion Revolution is the world's largest fashion activism movement.  Made up of producers, retailers, designers, academics, business leaders, policy makers, writers and fashion lovers, it aims to investigate human and environmental issues and concerns that exist within the fashion industry. With an exhibition of posters at  Helmshore Mills Textile Museum I learnt that the Atacama Desert in Chile is one of the largest landfill sites for fashion waste in the world. This clothing arrives through the Pacific port of Iquique in northern Chile mostly from the USA, UK and Europe. This phenomenon is known as waste colonialism where wealthy nations export their waste and pollution to poorer nations who rarely have the capacity to deal with it adequately.  This has led Fashion Revolution Chile to campaign with the slogan #DondeTerminaMiRopa (Where Do My Clothes End Up?) to encourage consumers to pressure brands to be more responsible about their levels of production and to get policies to stop clothing waste from adversely impacting local communities.  

Poems were also displayed indicating attitudes to fashion for example the poem by Hollie McNish (see above) which encourages you to consider fashion workers' employment conditions and the industy's environmetal impact and how if these issues aren't dealt with as they should be then you can't consider your clothes to be beautiful whatever they look like.

Disposable by Wilson Oryema

The poem above by Wilson Oryema highlights the throwaway attitude to modern fashion and the fact it is so cheap there's no incentive to repair it and once discarded it is taken to the other side of the world hopefully to be forgotten about although Wilson also talks about it returning to smother him.

Statistics are quoted showing that the number of garments produced annually has more than doubled since 2000 with an estimated 92 million tonnes of textile waste discarded annually much of which ends up in Africa and South America damaging ecosystems and communities.

Boots from Soft Acid by Tenant of Culture (Hendrickje Schimmel)

Also at Helmshore Mills Textile Museum, in the Soft Acid exhibition, Tenant of Culture, aka Hendrickje Schimmel, was repurposing discarded fashion materials into new items and sculptures to highlight the waste and pollution at various stages of production, distribution and consumption in the fashion industry (see above and below)...

Denim Sculpture Highlighting the Use of Toxic Dyes - Tenant of Culture

At the Exchange in Blackburn, Nest Collective were showing a film - Return to Sender - within a structure made of textile waste.  In it they discussed how the textile waste from the Global North was still following past colonial connections from Europe to Africa destroying any indigenous textile industry and creating mountains of waste, creating a landfill problem.  A number of African countries had wanted to stop receiving this waste and to develop their own local textile industries but the USA threatened to rescind various favourable trade agreements if they did so meaning that, apart from Rwanda, the other African countries were unable to afford to do this because of the overall affect it would have on their economies. Nest Collective also discussed how the people in Africa buying this clothing did so because they couldn't afford anything else.  The type of clothing for sale could also be considered a form of colonial oppression as it is seen as "Dead White Men's Clothes".  This is what secondhand clothing from the Global North is referred to in Africa because why would they be getting rid of wearable clothes unless they were dead.

Nest Collective Film Studio

I choose to get a significant amount of my clothing from charity shops and online second hand clothing sites such as Vinted and Ebay but I don't have to do this and it made me consider how differently I might feel if this were a necessity rather than a choice.  There was much food for thought here.

Dead White Man - Jeremy Hutchison

The Nest Collective film linked nicely to the Dead White Man exhibition by Jeremy Hutchison at Tony's Ballroom, Blackburn.  Hutchison constructed a series of wearable sculptures from secondhand clothes and was filmed wearing them - performing the Dead White Man - in Senegal and London.  Hutchison had also worked with schools and community groups - largely young people - to create a horde of miniature zombies from secondhand clothes.  We are told that 75% of UK secondhand clothes donations are shipped to Africa and as 40% are worthless it creates a toxic landfill problem.  The Global North is using the Global South as a waste management solution that it is not equipped to deal with.

Dead White Man (Effigies) - Jeremy Hutchison & the Community

You can listen to the Cloth Cultures podcast where Sonny Dolat of the Nest Collective and Jeremy Hutchison talk to writer, broadcaster and fashion historian, Amber Butchart, about textile waste imperialism here.

Victoria Udondian - Ofong Ufok (detail)

Also on display at the Exchange was Victoria Udondian's Ofong Ufok (Cloth House) which is a monumental sculpture of secondhand clothing (see top image). It was made in conjunction with refugee and immigrant women who come together at Stitch Buffalo, a textile centre in New York, where these women can find economic empowerment through handicraft.  Making this piece allowed Victoria to bear witness to the women's stories and give them recognition.  One woman told Victoria "How can I be nobody and tell you my story." 

Ofong Ufok took about 3000 hours to complete over 5-6 months.  It also allowed Udondian to reflect on how most fast fashion is made in the Global South in repressive conditions and, when finished with, is exported back to the Global South, much of it ending up in landfill.  Udondian, who comes from Nigeria, has seen the environmental impact of this first hand.

You can listen to the Cloth Cultures podcast where Victoria Udondian talks to Amber Butchart about her work here.

Equilibrium Wind - Thierry Oussou

The Exchange in Blackburn was built in 1865 to sell raw cotton picked by enslaved Africans from plantations across the Atlantic, to Lancashire mill owners. Here on display is Thierry Oussou's Equilibrium Wind.  On the table in front of the flag, designed by Oussou in the red and green colours of the Benin flag, is raw cotton from Oussou's Benin plantation where he offers his workers better conditions than the bigger plantations in his country.  Benin is the biggest producer of cotton in Africa and most goes to Bangladesh for the fast fashion industry.  Oussou wants us to reflect on the complicated relationships that have existed and still exist in the textile industry and how that continues to affect both people and the environment. 

Sample of Penistone Cloth

In Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery was a small sample of Penistone cloth which is a coarse, cheap, woollen cloth dyed with indigo and woven in West Yorkshire.  It is believed to be the only surviving sample of British made slave cloth. This sample was found in Derbyshire hidden amongst letters and accounts and was only identified by its original 18th Century label. We are told this was supplied to a slave owner in England as a sample for 410 yards of material he purchased to clothe the community of enslaved African people held at Turner’s Hall, Saint Andrew Parish, Barbados.

It remains a link between the millions of enslaved people in colonial plantations who were clothed in such textiles and the handloom weavers who made their living producing it. 

The Biennial tells us that the Lancashire textile industry was "the manufacturing hub connecting the profits of the enslavers, colonisers, and industrialists with the experiences of local textile workers, African captives whose lives were exchanged for British-made goods, Indigenous Americans massacred and marched from their homes to make way for cotton plantations, and South Asian spinners and weavers forced into poverty by colonial laws".

You only have until 29 October to see these exhibitions.  Do go if you can and do consider what you can contribute to a Fashion Revolution - #lovedclotheslast (coined by Orsola de Castro - cofounder and creative director of Fashion Revolution). So go ahead - rewear and repair!

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