29 September – 29 October 2023
British Textile Biennial announces a programme that focuses on the issue of sustainability in textile production, asking whether it can ever be a regenerative enterprise, environmentally and socially.
Artists from Benin to Bangladesh present work that takes active steps to address the legacy of colonialism while others look back on its pre-industrial history.
The third edition of British Textile Biennial 2023 (BTB23) traces the routes of fibres and fabrics across continents and centuries to and from the north of England in a series of commissions and exhibitions throughout October in the spaces left behind by the Lancashire textile industry. From the so-called ‘slave cloth’, spun and woven by hand on the Pennine moors, to the bales of used fast fashion that make their way from British high streets to the markets and toxic mountains of waste in West Africa, BTB23 follows that journey.
Highlights of this year’s British Textile Biennial include a keynote by Gus Casely-Hayford, installations by Nest Collective, Victoria Udondian, Tenant of Culture, and Thierry Oussou, a new performance by Common Wealth Theatre, new commissions by Christine Borland, Rebecca Chesney, Nick Jordan and Jacob Cartwright, sculpture by Jeremy Hutchison and a major exhibition by South Asian artists from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Britain.
Built by its Non-Conformist rural parishioners in 1765, Goodshaw Chapel, on the windswept Pennine moors, was constructed in part from the proceeds of the trade of so-called ‘slave cloth’; the coarse, hard-wearing hand spun and woven woollen and flax cloths which found ever-expanding markets of the plantations in the burgeoning colonies in the 1700s. In a co-commission with English Heritage, artists Nick Jordan and Jacob Cartwright have worked with local artists and historians to create an installation in the charity’s building that tells its story through the centuries, accompanied by the legendary Larks of Dean.
Built at the same time as the chapel, Penistone Cloth Hall was where pieces of cloth hand spun and woven in Lancashire and Yorkshire were sold. A tiny fragment of such cloth, known as Penistone Cloth, has recently come to light, with an 18th century label describing it as “Penistone sent for Negro clothing in 1783, which for substance, strength and unchangeable colour is best adapted to that purpose”. This type of fabric was used to clothe millions of enslaved people in the Caribbean and America for two hundred years, in the artificial ‘production platforms’ of sugar and cotton that were the engines of colonialism and capitalism. This precious and hugely significant piece will be shown in Blackburn Museum, accompanied by a timeline charting the complex global history that it represents.
The exhibition in The Cotton Exchange Blackburn charts our ongoing problematic relationship with cotton in a space which itself is bound up in that story. Its opening in 1865 coincided with the Northern blockade of cotton from the plantations of the South in the American Civil War in a stand against the enslavement of people transported from Africa, which was supported by the local mill workers and, as a result, was never used for the purpose of cotton trading.
For the first time, raw cotton will be presented on the floor of the Exchange, this time coming from 3 hectares of land in Benin, farmed by artist Thierry Oussou with local workers and agriculture students. In this way, Oussou re-connects the dots of cotton manufacturing, pointing out the sequence of actions that we, as consumers, often forget about. The cotton stands as a bold challenge to ask if we can put the whole unrestrained capitalist project in reverse and whether textile production can ever be a globally regenerative enterprise. It seems unlikely, as Nairobi’s Nest Collective demonstrates in their haunting film running in a structure built from the second-hand garment bales destined for landfill in Ghana where, in a perverse trick of history, the discarded desires of the global north are dumped on communities in West Africa, stalling the local textile economy and contaminating the environment.
Nigerian artist Victoria Udondian’s monumental wall hanging presides over the space made with refugee and immigrant textile workers in New York from discarded clothing often made in their countries of origin. In its shadow, Common Wealth Theatre’s catwalk provides a platform for visitors to make their own fashion statements throughout the month until the final weekend of the Biennial when it becomes the stage for their interactive performance created with students in Burnley and market workers in Ghana that exposes our waste colonialism. Meanwhile, out in Blackburn town centre, Jeremy Hutchison’s monster sculptures stalk the streets created from the clothing bales destined for Africa as a haunting reminder of what he calls our ‘zombie imperialism’.
Down the road from Goodshaw Chapel at Helmshore Mill, the Tenant of Culture presents Soft Acid that deconstructs the process of modern fabric production. Throughout the 1700s, the government passed successive Acts of Parliament to regulate the cottage industry production in the north of England, to stem the production of cotton goods, muslin and calico, and their export from India and instead to transport raw cotton from the newly planted plantations of the American colonies to Liverpool and on to Lancashire. Meanwhile, inventive entrepreneurs such as Arkwright from Preston and John Kay from Warrington were hurriedly trying to mechanise production, to bring the spinners and weavers out of cottages and barns and on to machines. Higher Mill at Helmshore opened in 1789 and became expert in recycling cotton garments to re-spin the fibres.
The Whitaker Art Gallery in Rossendale was built in 1840 by George Hardman who owned the mill it still overlooks. Curator Uthra Rajgopal has brought work by contemporary South Asian artists from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and the USA – Madi Acharya-Baskerville, Robina Akhter Ullah, Bhasha Chakrabarti, Sayan Chanda, Ujjal Dey, Smriti Dixit, Melissa Joseph, Rehana Mangi, Dhara Mehrotra, Boshudhara Mukherjee, Yasmin Jahan Nupur, Kajal Nisha Patel, Liaqat Rasul, Gurjeet Singh, Sagarika Sundaram and Sibaprasad Karchaudhuri, Shrujan Living and Learning Design Centre – who explore our impact on the environment, our relationship to textiles and the fragments we leave behind.
In Christine Borland’s installation at Pendle Heritage Centre, four films are cast onto a Projection Cloth of fustian, a mix of linen warp and cotton weft, woven into the fabric of this medieval cruck barn. Developed through the artist’s intimate engagement with the growing, spinning and weaving of plant fibres, the films reflect on the lives of women in transition from hand working, through mechanisation and industrialisation into the digital age. The work touches on the enduring symbolism of the spinning wheel and distaff in the demonised image of women as witches, having particular resonance in Pendle where 10 women and one man, some of whom were handloom spinners, who were the last to be hanged in England for the offence in 1612.
BTB23: Christine Borland, Projection Cloth
Nothing holds memories better than fabric. Passed down through generations for celebration or passed on for safe care in dangerous times, it is mobile, mendable and holds memories within its threads. Material Memory is a display of textile items in the haunting space of Blackburn Cathedral’s crypt, loaned by members of the public, alongside the stories they tell. Made precious by the care taken to keep them safe, the value placed on them by those who have prolonged their life and the deep connections they have created, sometimes across centuries and continents. Challenging the throw away culture of our time, this exhibition demonstrates the deeply human desire to hold the simplest things dear.
Other exhibitions and installations include Rebecca Chesney – Conditions at Present presents a field of windsocks which serve as a barometer of the climate crisis of our own making. Common Threads, a conversation through shared embroidery skills, between women in Karachi and groups of women from the South Asian diaspora living in East Lancashire. Multidisciplinary artist and social practitioner Ibukun Baldwin working with clothing manufacturer and heritage brand Cookson & Clegg in a co-commission with National Festival of Making. Gaining Ground, from the British Council’s Crafting Futures programme with work by artisans and researchers from countries across the globe. Mila Burcikova – A Life in Clothes, Litmus – Environmental Legacies of Cotton, Artists A&B – The Surplus Badge, developed through workshops with East Lancashire Guides, Brownies and Rainbows, a participatory picnic event and resulting installation exhibited in Towneley Hall’s Family Dining Room, Eva Sajovic – #End_of_Empire and Indigenitude – curated by Vancci F.C. Wahn and featuring three textile artists and four documentary filmmakers from three different Indigenous nations in Taiwan, as well as a podcast series with fashion historian Amber Butchart and an expansive series of conversations throughout the month in collaboration with Creative Lancashire which looks at the complexity of this history and its enduring global impact, kicked off by a keynote by Gus Casely-Hayford.