The adherence of the Singh Twins to the Indian miniature painting tradition has been a way of asserting their right to choose a visual language which is true to their own interests in art and the natural affiliation and pride they feel for their Asian heritage. That adherence has become, for them, a political statement and a means of “challenging the hypocrisy of an Establishment which advocated the western values of ‘self-expression’ and ‘individuality’ as the ‘be all and end all’ of Modern Art, yet denied the validity of anything which did not comply with the expectations dictated by its selective, Eurocentric perspective.” (Top Photo)
Their Past-Modern style “champions traditional and non-western aesthetics as valid forms of expression within contemporary art and acknowledges the connection that has always existed between past and present, east and west.” In addition to the Indian miniature tradition of painting, they also draw on the artistic language and conventions of other traditions, east and west, old and new – including ancient Greek and Roman, Persian and Medieval European manuscripts, European Renaissance art, 18th Century British Satirists, the Victorian illustrators, Pre-Raphaelites, Art Nouveau, and photography. Although widely known for their paintings, the Singh Twins are also illustrators, writers, filmmakers and designers.
Veronica Sekules has noted that while “they are proud and loyal advocates of their Indian-Sikh heritage … their Convent school education and degrees in comparative religion gave them a wide-ranging intellectual and cultural framework for their beliefs.” This multiplicity of perspectives has, she thinks, “empowered them to shift the ground for debate away from questions of cultural diversity and towards a greater concern with deeper issues of morality, over the rights of appropriation of images and the manipulation of signs of identity, which both include and transcend issues of nation and belief.”
Many of these facets of their work feature in the touring exhibition Slaves of Fashion: The Singh Twins which is currently at Firstsite in Colchester, Art Fund Museum of the Year 2021. At the heart of the exhibition are eleven digital fabric artworks displayed on lightboxes, with each one highlighting a different theme relating to India’s textile industry. Each work features life-size symbolic portraits of historical figures rendered in the Singh Twin’s eclectic, detailed, symbolic and narrative Past-Modern style with its bright colours and rich patterns. These are also meticulously researched images revealing, for example, the links between sugar and slavery which has resulted in our addition to the sweet stuff, tracing the roots of denim to a village in Mumbai where 16th-century Portuguese sailors first used the coarse material and popularised it, and also the role that textiles from India played in revolutionising European fashions in the eighteenth century. This is an exhibition on which they have been working since 2014 – including consultations with academics such as Kate Marsh, Professor of French Studies at the University of Liverpool – but to which they have recently added more exhibits, including new work made in lockdown as part of Channel 4’s Grayson’s Art Club.
Four additional lightbox artworks and a series of satirical paintings on paper focus on the British Empire’s relationship with India and the wider legacies of colonialism, as a well as present-day debates about identity, racism, globalisation, fair labour; the politics of trade and climate change that relate to Imperial racial attitudes and colonial commercial practices of the past. These works include instantly recognisable figures such as Donald Trump (Get Your Knee off Our Necks), Boris Johnson and Angela Merkel (Fighting for India 2.0), Theresa May (Colossus of Woes), Tony Blair and George W Bush (Partners in Crime: Deception and Lies). Set alongside is a wealth of supplementary material documenting the artists’ process from an archive of original historical objects and documents which inspired the work on display, to original drawings, time-lapse video of work in progress and three artist films.
The result is a fascinating, informative, thought-provoking and challenging exploration of narratives around Empire, enslavement, luxury consumerism, and the contemporary relevance of all these issues in our world today, through the colonial history of Indian textiles. The Singh Twins demonstrate not only the beauty, and craftsmanship of Indian fabrics as a highly desirable commodity in an age of expanding western exploitation colonialism but also invite us to consider the human and environmental cost of luxury goods. As they have said: “If you care about the environment and you care about human rights, then you should really care about what you put in your shopping basket too, and that’s partly what the message of Slaves of Fashion is about. But it’s equally about redressing neglected and hidden histories, showing how we are all connected through a shared colonial heritage and how our understanding of global narratives around Empire can help us to view ourselves and the world around us in a new light.”
Speaking to Niloo Sharifi about the launch of Slaves of Fashion at the Walker Art Gallery in 2018, they said: “There is no such thing as ‘Englishness’ or ‘Indianness’. There’s always been a crossover of ideas and culture, across the globe I think art plays a huge role, it’s always been a medium that is accessible. [It] can be entertaining, it can be subtle, it can be humorous, satirical, there are so many ways that artistic or creative expression can present different truths and realities and versions of history, and it’s multidimensional. It’s about expressing ideas and values and creating debate and dialogue, which hopefully people can take forward and make real changes. Art [gives people] the opportunity to see another side of the world, to encourage them to go out and find out more for themselves. I think people just need an incentive.” Sharifi then experienced that change-making impact in practice at the exhibition when she spoke to “two silvery-haired … white women” who said, “We didn’t get taught this in school” and it, “Makes you feel ashamed.”
The Singh Twins: Slaves of Fashion, Firstsite, Saturday 7 May – Sunday 11 September 2022
Chaiya Art Awards is the UK’s biggest art awards illuminating spirituality with a top prize of £10,000 and is back with a new theme for 2023 – Awe and Wonder.
The Chaiya Art Awards, with roots in Christianity but open to people of all faiths and none, is continuing an age-old conversation in a modern setting with contemporary eyes. It is asking big questions while looking for contemporary inspiration from the wealth of the UK’s creatives. Covid and the war in Ukraine has raised and continues to raise so many difficult questions. It breaks into our present and offers a horizon filled with pain and difficulty, but is not the whole picture. The judges will be looking for works that interpret the theme with originality, technical excellence, and emotional impact.
These awards invite submissions of painting, drawing, sculpture, ceramics, glass, textiles, mixed media, photography, video and installations, and are open to visual artists of all faiths, to those with none and everyone in between. The judging panel include: textile artist Kaffe Fassett; portraitist and President of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters Alastair Adams; International photographer Marcus Lyon; curator Dr Christo Kefalas; and multi-disciplinary artist and winner of Sky Arts ‘Landmark’ prize Favour Jonathan.
Submissions for the new theme close 31 August 2022 and artists can enter via the competition page at https://chaiyaartawards.co.uk/competition/. The Winners exhibition will take place at the OXO gallery and The Bargehouse gallery 7-16 April 2023. In 2018, following the inaugural Chaiya Art Awards, I interviewed Katrina Moss, the Awards’ founder, for Artlyst and in 2021 wrote about my experience as a judge.
As part of my own attempt to encourage and support artists in engaging with faith and spirituality, I am currently working on a series of posts – ‘Art and Faith: Decades of Engagement’ – for my blog ‘Between’ which aim to demonstrate the breadth of engagement there has been between the Arts and religion within the modern period and on into our contemporary experience. The idea is to provide a brief introduction to the artists and initiatives that were prominent in each decade to enable further research.
Wood engraver and relief printmaker, Peter S. Smith, is one such. Smith currently has a print called ‘Dalziel’s Apprentice’ in an interesting exhibition in the Print Room at the British Museum. This intriguing new display, The woodpecking factory: Victorian illustrations by the Brothers Dalziel, highlights over 50 works engraved on wood by the Brothers Dalziel firm, illustrating literary and commercial work published throughout the Victorian period.
Established in 1839, the Brothers Dalziel (one of whom was a sister – Margaret – a talented senior engraver) became the most successful wood-engraving company in Britain, employing dozens of engravers. The Brothers Dalziel had enormous cultural power in Victorian Britain, shaping the way people visualised art, goods and ideas. Mostly the engravers made images after designs by draughtspeople, including major artists such as Frederic Leighton and John Everett Millais, and it’s these artists who were widely credited and remembered. However, the process was collaborative and the skill of the craftspeople (affectionately known as ‘woodpeckers’) who engraved such illustrations was considerable. ‘Dalziel’s Apprentice’ is Smith’s homage to those Victorian trade engravers and their apprentices who had to cut away all that white in order to make their prints emulate black pen and ink drawings.
Smith has also written recently, for ‘The Big Picture’ magazine, about a key mentor, Hans Rookmaaker, and Rookmaaker’s use of the term ‘Modern Art’ in his book Modern Art and the Death of a Culture. In this article, Smith refers to Sixten Ringbom’s The Sounding Cosmos. A Study in the Spiritualism of Kandinsky and the Genesis of Abstract Painting, a work on the mystical and theosophical themes in modern art. He argues that spiritual elements in modern art have been hidden in plain sight “because many of the institutional guardians of Modernism chose to overlook it,” citing Waldemar Januszczak, who argued, in a 2021 article, “that the art historians and institutions of Modernism repeatedly ignored any idea that in Modernism there can be found religious or hermetic intentions” because of “a fear that it would sully the waters.”
I have spoken this month about two overlooked artists with religious intentions; Ervin Bossányi and André Girard.
Remembering Ervin Bossányi, Stained Glass Artist was an event at the Liszt Institute on 9 June dedicated to the Hungarian-born artist, best known for his stained-glass windows at Canterbury Cathedral. Bossányi was born in a small village in southern Hungary and educated in Budapest. He worked as a painter and sculptor mainly in northern Germany until his forced emigration in 1934. In due course, he established a new career as a notable stained glass artist in England. He created stained glass windows for Senate House Library, University of London, the Tate Gallery (‘The Angel Blesses the Women Washing the Clothes’), the Victoria and Albert Museum (‘Noli me tangere’), as well as for York Minster, the President Woodrow Wilson memorial chapel in Washington National Cathedral, Washington DC and Canterbury Cathedral, among others.
At this event, art historian Monica Bohm-Duchen, founding director of Insiders/Outsiders, led a panel discussion with family members, stained glass experts and others to explore the extraordinary life and unique cultural contribution of this still a too little-recognised artist. In my presentation, I briefly mapped out the context within which Bossányi’s work and vision can best be understood and appreciated, by showing the extent to which aspects of his approaches were shared with others in his day and time. This presentation built on themes I explored last year when I interviewed Bossányi’s granddaughter Ilona for Artlyst about her grandfather.
I spoke about André Girard in The Artist as Truth-Teller and The Legacy of French Artist Georges Rouault, a symposium in Paris on 17 June, sponsored by the Association of Scholars of Christianity in the History of Art, The Department of Art History and Institut supérieur de théologie des arts, Institut Catholique de Paris.
In my paper entitled ‘True humility is not mediocrity,’ I explored the influence of Rouault on the life and work of Girard. I discovered the work of Girard through Christianity in Art by Frank and Dorothy Getlein, a book which views Rouault as being ‘the twentieth-century artist above all others who fused into one monumental testament all the elements of the social revolution and the new Christianity’. Girard, as a student and friend of Rouault, was seen by the Getlein’s as developing “the first move of Christian art toward the universal audience of today.”
Although he enjoyed considerable recognition in his own day and time, the reputation of Girard has diminished with time, unlike that of Rouault. As a result, his work is ripe for rediscovery. In this paper, in addition to highlighting key strands of Rouault’s influence on Girard such as humility and risk-taking, I explored some of the reasons why Rouault’s work transcends his age, while that of Girard seems to remain within his. Additionally, I shared the contrasts in their work noted by their friend André Suares – penitence and affirmation.
The Visual Commentary on Scripture is a contemporary project bringing faith and art into dialogue. This freely accessible online publication provides theological commentary on the Bible in dialogue with works of art through virtual exhibitions. The curators of these exhibitions are asked to make art-historically-informed but theologically-based selections of images in order that the “’world(s)’ of experience and action that the Scriptures describe can speak meaningfully to the ‘world(s)’ that present-day interpreters of the Scriptures continue to inhabit; and that the ‘world(s)’ to which art has responded in every epoch can speak meaningfully to both.”
Jennifer Sliwka, Deputy Director of the Visual Commentary on Scripture, has recently curated the well-reviewed exhibition Reframed: The Woman in the Window at Dulwich Picture Gallery. This exhibition is the first to explore the enigmatic motif of the ‘woman in the window’ and features artworks from ancient civilisations to present day. The exhibition brings together over 50 works by artists including Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, David Hockney, Louise Bourgeois, Cindy Sherman, Wolfgang Tillmans and Rachel Whiteread to reveal how artists have long used the motif to elicit a particular kind of response ranging from empathy to voyeurism.
Through sculpture, painting, print, photography, film and installation art, the exhibition identifies the key geographic locations, cultures and time periods for which the ‘woman in the window’ had a particular meaning and what the motif reveals about issues of gender and visibility. Spirituality and the afterlife feature, as the exhibition explores the window motif in Mediaeval depictions of saints and the image of the Virgin Mary as a window to heaven. Laura Cummings writing in The Observer notes that the exhibition is “full of revelations” and begins her review with one such, a sculpture of St Avia by an anonymous French artist the empathy of which “almost beggars belief,” leading Cummings to write, “I have never seen anything like it.”
Sliwka is among the art historians and curators who are no longer overlooking the spiritual elements in art – modern or otherwise – and whose work and exhibitions are full of revelations as a result.
The Singh Twins: Slaves of Fashion, Firstsite, Saturday 7 May – Sunday 11 September 2022
Chaiya Art Awards – https://chaiyaartawards.co.uk/
‘Between’ – https://joninbetween.blogspot.com/
The Woodpecking factory: Victorian illustrations by the Brothers Dalziel, British Museum, 17 May 2022 – 4 Sep 2022
‘Modern Art in Modern Art and the Death of a Culture’ – https://kirbylaingcentre.co.uk/the-big-picture/online-magazine/issue-03/modern-art-in-modern-art-and-the-death-of-a-culture/
Remembering Ervin Bossányi, Stained Glass Artist – https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/remembering-ervin-bossanyi-stained-glass-artist-tickets-339927070017
The Artist as Truth-Teller and The Legacy of French Artist Georges Rouault – https://www.scholarschristianityhistoryart.org/upcoming
Visual Commentary on Scripture – https://thevcs.org/
Reframed: The Woman in the Window, Dulwich Picture Gallery, 4 May – 4 September 2022.