The Golden Fibre, V&A Dundee, Scotland
June 2022-June 2023
The experiences of jute labourers in Dundee and Kolkata will be explored in a new commission at V&A Dundee opening today (Friday 24 June), developed in partnership with Dundee Heritage Trust and the University of Dundee. Artist, curator and writer Swapnaa Tamhane has been inspired by archives held at the University of Dundee and Verdant Works, which is run by Dundee Heritage Trust. Her research explores the colonial context of jute and the lives of workers in and around Kolkata in the early 19th and 20th Century. Jute was known as the ‘golden fibre’ because of the huge profits that were made from it, though those profits were rarely shared with workers in Dundee or in what was then British-ruled Bengal, now split between Bangladesh and India. In the 19th century workers in Bangladesh and India harvested raw jute to be shipped to Dundee for processing and manufacturing, and by the early 20th century they worked in mills in and around Kolkata that were mostly managed by Scots. That shift is seen as helping to accelerate the decline of the jute industry in Dundee, by moving manufacturing closer to the source.
Tamhane’s work is called The Golden Fibre and is now installed in V&A Dundee’s Scottish Design Galleries. It is a collage of archival photographs and drawings of female workers as well as microscopic images of jute paper that the artist makes by hand. This laborious process involves cutting up jute cloth, soaking it in the caustic chemical lye, then beating it in water for hours to create a pulp that is then shaped and dried into rough sheets of paper.
Part of the work is an installation called Tum Banglá mat bolo, ham kuchh nahín samajhtá hai (You don’t speak Bengali, I can’t understand anything). It features extracts from a Hindustani language exercise book used by Scottish supervisors to control workers in the Bengali mills. Colonial attitudes are revealed through translations of orders such as ‘Hurry up’, ‘Keep quiet’, ‘Do not waste oil’ and ‘Do not make any noise’.
The work explores how the colonial system connected workers across the continents, so hand tools used in the Dundee mills and factories, including a bale hook, hackle, porter gauge and pair of weaving scissors from Verdant Works, are also on display.
Many workers saw these tools as being like extra fingers on their hands. They were not provided by the employer but had to be purchased by the workers from local ironmongers and cobblers. Tamhane sees the potential of these objects for connecting us with the skilled people in Dundee and Calcutta upon whom this global industry depended.
Meredith More, Curator at V&A Dundee, said: “Since 2020 V&A Dundee has reframed displays and interpretation in the Scottish Design Galleries to acknowledge that much of Scotland’s design history is built upon the exploitation of enslaved and colonised people around the world. Tamhane’s new work starts a conversation and allows us to dig deeper into a local story with a huge transnational context. It opens up an important conversation about Dundee's relationship with colonialism and how people across continents have been impacted by it, in many different ways."
Swapnaa Tamhane said: “I think about the role of the hand and the handmade in relation to drawing or making paper from either cotton or jute. I am curious about how this may connect me to the hands of many others across continents who have harvested, processed and manufactured these materials over centuries. After the paper is pressed, I put handmade jute paper under a microscope and could see how the fibres bind together arbitrarily. To me, they become a metaphor for a protest against order and structure. In the commission for V&A Dundee, I wanted to focus in on the lives of women in the Bengali jute industry. Some of them were widows, some were fleeing their homes, some were supplementing the household incomes. Most of the women who worked in the fields to harvest raw jute were undocumented as part of the workforce. The archival images I came across are precious traces of their lives, about which we know very little.”
The display is available to see for free as part of V&A Dundee’s Scottish Design Galleries. It has been curated by V&A Dundee and Mother Tongue, a curatorial practice based in Glasgow, who are also developing a programme of complementary content and events.
As part of this, visitors can view the photographs and documents that have inspired Tamhane’s work, along with complementary articles, videos and links, here: https://www.vam.ac.uk/dundee/info/the-golden-fibre-online-resources
The work has been supported by V&A Dundee and the Ontario Arts Council.
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Mother Tongue is a research-led, independent curatorial practice working locally and internationally, formed in 2009 by Tiffany Boyle and Jessica Carden. They produce exhibitions, film programmes, discursive events, essays and publications that challenge the whiteness of Scottish art history narratives. They work with galleries, museums, archives, and festivals and have undertaken residencies in Scotland, Sweden, Finland and Barbados.
V&A Dundee is Scotland’s design museum. Designed by Kengo Kuma, the museum is at the centre of Dundee’s reimagined waterfront and is part of the V&A family of museums that celebrate creativity in all its forms from across centuries, for everyone. V&A Dundee features world-class exhibitions alongside the permanent Scottish Design Galleries, and a changing programme of commissions, events and activities. The new museum was created by Design Dundee Ltd with the support of its founding partners: the Victoria and Albert Museum, Dundee City Council, the University of Dundee, Abertay University and Scottish Enterprise.
Swapnaa Tamhane: Mobile Palace
Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto
March 12 to August 1, 2022
curated by Dr. Deepali Dewan
TORONTO, ON, February 8, 2022 - This spring, ROM (Royal Ontario Museum) invites visitors to experience a series of immersive textile installations created by contemporary artist Swapnaa Tamhane, on display from March 12 to August 1, 2022. Organized by ROM, "Swapnaa Tamhane: Mobile Palace" is the artist’s first solo museum exhibition and brings together layered fabric compositions that challenge traditional hierarchies between art and craft.
“ROM is committed to supporting artists who are shifting the global conversation on how art is made and expressed and to opening the door to new and diverse voices,” says Josh Basseches, ROM Director & CEO. “This exhibition of Swapnaa Tamhane’s large, immersive textile works of art offers audiences an opportunity to discover the transformative practices of this emerging artist."
At the heart of the exhibition are three cotton cloth installations composed of heavily patterned block-printed fabric. Tamhane aims to re-imagine notions of decoration and pattern in compositions that echo tent forms used in India. In this presentation, ROM invites visitors to move around, in, and through Tamhane’s sweeping canopies to explore ideas of gathering and experiences of spaces.
“These works need to be experienced in person as they create spaces that inspire and uplift on a felt level,” says Deepali Dewan, ROM’s Dan Mishra Curator of South Asian Art & Culture and the curator of Mobile Palace. "They are a part of Tamhane's larger practice of making a mark as an act of resistance. The impression of a woodblock onto a textile surface, the clinging of dye to mordant, thread piercing through fabric, line drawn on paper – all of these are marks that disrupt one sense of order and make a claim for a different one. In this way, pattern has never been simply about decoration. It is about how making a mark can shape new ways of seeing, thinking and being in the world."
Tamhane draws on India’s rich textile traditions, approaching these techniques through a contemporary lens. Inspired by Mughal and Ottoman tents used as mobile palaces, and with motifs that reference the modernist architecture of Le Corbusier’s Ahmedabad Textile Mill Owners' Association House (ATMA), the exhibition also features wooden printing blocks, works on handmade paper and a new film showcasing how the pieces were created. Tamhane worked in a collaborative creative process with artists based in Gujarat, India, including dyer and printer Salemamad Khatri, wood block carver Mukesh Prajapati, and the Qasab-Kutch Craftswomen embroidery collective. Tamhane designed motifs, appliqué and beading to create punctuated interruptions in the repetition of patterns, asking us to consider the spaces in-between.
“These artworks propose new modes of collaborating with artisans and explore the possibilities of ornamentation to tell a larger story,” says artist Swapnaa Tamhane. “My process and these works resist how hierarchies of art, craft, and design were determined by colonial ideas.”
The exhibition is generously supported by Lead Exhibition Patron Dan Mishra with additional support from the Canada Council for the Arts. The Dan Mishra South Asia Initiative, launched in 2017, established a newly endowed curatorial position and sustainable funding for exhibitions, public engagement, research, and learning activities that support and enhance the ROM’s commitment to South Asian art and culture.
Key works in the exhibition were created through the support of ROM’s IARTS Textiles of India grant, for which Tamhane was selected as the 2019-20 recipient. The grant was established in honour of the late Arti Chandaria to celebrate the splendour and influence of Indian textile arts. On display on ROM’s Level 3, Third Floor Centre Block, Swapnaa Tamhane: Mobile Palace is included with ROM general admission.
IARTS Textiles of India Grant recipient:
2019-2020 Swapnaa Tamhane
We are pleased to announce that the recipient of the IARTS Textiles of India Grant 2019-2020 is SWAPNAA TAMHANE. Her project, titled “Mobile Palace,” will create a large-scale structure (a shamiana or tent) that brings together influences from the Mughal and Ottoman period, Modernist architectural aesthetic and theory, the textile arts of Kutch, Gujarat (wood block carving, Ajrakh block-printing), hand-spun cotton (khadi), and the politics and history of migration. The outcome will be both an artwork and a public gathering space.