Internationally renowned contemporary artists the Singh Twins have made a career of visually stunning art that uncovers the political complexities of identity, and the historical foundations of our modern experience. Niloo Sharifi catches up with them to get their perspective on the future (and past) of cultural identity.
I first encountered the elaborate world of the SINGH TWINS at their Slaves Of Fashion exhibition a year ago, at the Walker Art Gallery. At the entrance to the exhibition, a huge lightbox presents a piece titled Indigo: The Colour Of India. It shows a woman who the exhibition’s augmented reality app tells me is Queen Mumtaz, the 17th Century Empress consort of the Mughal Empire, otherwise known as Mumtaz Mahal, the muse of the Taj Mahal. Above the waist, she is wearing traditional Indian dress in blue. Below the waist, she wears blue denim jeans, with a bag of M&Ms in her pocket. Her impassive face is beautiful and oblivious, adorned in gold and finery – but look closely, and you’ll see symbols of imperialism encroaching upon this image of resplendent sovereignty from every corner.
The work tells the story of the colonial power dynamics that shaped the 16th Century Indian history of farming the rare and valuable indigo plant for blue dye; colonial subjects were forced to grow indigo at the expense of edible crops. Queen Mumtaz’s left foot rests delicately on the back of a naked, chained woman who is the only grey thing in this Technicolor dreamscape. In the distance, Portuguese ships sail towards the shore. Up above, a scale measures the value of a man’s life by counting out his weight in indigo dye. The present day intrudes on the picture in blue jeans, asking us to consider how our modern consumption of fast fashion might also rely on an imperialist power dynamic.
Inside the exhibition, Colossus Of Woes shows Theresa May, legs akimbo in her now darkly iconic ‘Tory Power Stance’, straddling India and the USA. In Partners In Crime: Deception And Lies, they remix a well-known 17th Century Mughal miniature to show George Bush and Tony Blair engaged in a bloody handshake, the blood pouring from between their fingers onto an exploding Earth. The world depicted by the Singhs is one where all of history is happening at once. Their art is beautiful, but it serves a purpose – layered with historical nuances and traditional symbolism, the pieces pull the viewer into the folds of forgotten stories. We learn something new about the world that made us.
Jallianwala: Repression and Retribution
“[The imperial past] is such a huge chunk of modern history, that’s shaped the modern world. Particularly multicultural Britain, looking at that and questioning it, and uncovering those hidden stories have always been central to the work that we do.” For the Singh Twins, history hums loudly beneath the surface of modern power dynamics: “It does affect how you perceive the world today, how you perceive and react to people around you. This whole Brexit scenario, for example, with certain lines of thinking – ‘it’s all about making Britain great’ – and the immigration question. But a lot of that fear or hesitation about having people who are perceived to be anything other than white-mainstream-British comes from a lack of understanding of one’s own history.”
Last month, the Singh Twins unveiled the middle panel of a new triptych they are working on, which commemorates 100 years since the Massacre of Amritsar. “Most people will know it from the Gandhi film in the 80s – there’s a scene where the English general marches into a park in the city of Amritsar in India and opens fire on a peaceful demonstration of civilians.” These atrocities are barely out of living memory, but our nation is afflicted by a certain amnesia when it comes to these things.
The piece, titled Jallianwala: Repression And Retribution shows civilians trapped and dying by the hand of the Empire’s soldiers. “Initially, it was totally suppressed by the British-Indian government at that time. The story was leaked, if you like, by an editor of The Bombay Chronicle who was appalled by what had happened, and he actually stuck his neck out on the line, because he went totally against the press ban of reporting on the event. He broke the news and, when that happened, there was a huge inquiry in parliament and the country, much alike Brexit, was totally divided down the centre.” When the truth is being stifled, telling it is a powerful act.
The government’s enduring lack of remorse is telling; “They say that it’s an atrocity, but they’ve never actually apologised or used the word ‘sorry’, which a lot of Indians, even today, are waiting for.” The rift of power can never be closed if nobody acknowledges its presence, and to admit fault is to relinquish power. The Singh Twins point out the hypocrisy: “Of course, Britain is ready to point the finger at other people who are committing human rights atrocities around the world today, but if we can’t recognise our own mistakes in history and apologise for them then how are we going to start pointing our fingers outwards to other countries?”
The Singh Twins work against a covert agenda of distraction which seeks to keep us uninformed and divided. “More important than apologising [is] to get this kind of information onto the school curriculum – whether it’s the Roman Empire or the Ottoman Empire or the British Empire, we need to move on from this idea of empires being somehow glorious entities, of benefit to those they rule over.” I recount my memories of history lessons at school, and the abridged version of colonialism we were hastily taught in a single, sanitised module. “Well, we didn’t even get slavery. When we were at school it was Romans, Saxons, Tudors, Stuarts and that’s it, basically.”
As I child, I lived in Iran for two years and went to school there. My schoolbooks told a version of history which glorified the Islamic Revolution, and minimised everything else. Western powers are quick to condemn corruption in the East in order to claim a monopoly on freedom. But our curriculums are engaged in their own projects to control the way children understand and relate to their own national identity.
“Well, history is written by the victors, it’s that old saying, isn’t it? People have to understand what this country was actually built on – financially, economically – the hard grafting of the colonial peoples. When you think about the NHS, it didn’t sort of pop out of nowhere, the reason that we have the NHS here is because of the wealth that was brought in through commerce of the Empire – and a lot of that was about the trading goods and the different colonial possessions of Great Britain at that time.”
Being ignorant of this history allows Britain to feel that it owes nothing to the world, and certainly nothing to immigrants. But, as the artists point out, the illusion of ‘immigrant’ versus ‘native’ breaks down instantly outside of a very narrow timescale. “Those people see immigrants as a negative thing, however if they go back far enough they’ll probably find that everybody is an immigrant in this island; if it wasn’t the Vikings or the French, or you know – it’s been invaded so many times. If you go back far enough, I’d say the majority of the people in this Island are immigrants – just as they are in the United States. Apart from the Native Americans, everybody in America is an immigrant.”
Moving into a future where an estimated one billion people will become environmental refugees, a compassionate knowledge of history becomes ever more critical. “You have to have some understanding as to why these people are being displaced and what we can do as a society – you know, if you don’t like the situation, then you have to look to the root of it. We’re all responsible as a society for them being displaced.” They point to the fact that climate change is caused by a global capitalist economy, which has historically exploited the resources of those countries most vulnerable to climate change.
This era of mass migration will show us the limits of our world’s resources, the limits we have always tried to ignore. We’ve seen the language of scarcity being weaponised to justify decisions that hurt the working class and immigrants over the last few years by the Conservative government, and this is a time of relative abundance. It’s genuinely terrifying to think how ugly, or bloody, things could get if there comes a time when there is actually not enough to go around. What happens when dehumanising the other becomes a way to keep water for ‘natives’ in a drought? When the rubber bullets are swapped for live rounds at the border, will we tell ourselves we’re defending humanity?
The Singh Twins work against the dangers of simplicity. “That question of identity – there is no such thing as ‘Englishness’ or ‘Indianness’, or whatever. The lines have always been blurred. I think that people who think that there’s somehow a ‘pure’ race out there somewhere, they’ve got it completely wrong. There’s always been a crossover of ideas and culture, across the globe.” Localism denies the existence of a global society, in which variety is natural and desirable. “We’re all individuals that make up communities and societies, and the globe. We’re all influenced by something, and we all impact on things and people around us. I don’t think anything exists in isolation. Multiplicity is the nature of creation, whether you look out of the window and see nature outside or you look at human beings. There is no uniformity, diversity is part of who we are as humans. That reflects through the way that we identify with our history, our culture, our heritage. There are connection points between what seems to be very different diverging paths, but there is always a connection there. [That’s] the way to move forward into the idea that we’re all one species – recognising and respecting the difference in people, rather than trying to make everybody the same.”
In what has been dubbed a post-truth era, where ‘fact’ is often artless fiction, the fictive, imaginative space of artistic expression may paradoxically be the only place where certain truths are told. “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,” the twins tell me. “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.”
And I saw with my own eyes the change-making impact of the Singh Twins’ art at their Slaves Of Fashionexhibition. As I sat alone, I heard two silvery-haired old white women next to me exclaiming, “We didn’t get taught this in school!” They told me that the exhibition totally transformed their view of Churchill, who is yearly glorified as a WWII leader with no mention of his role in the Bengal famine of 1943, which killed over three million people. His administration routinely denied food requests to the colony, and he was quoted as blaming the famine on ‘Indians breeding like rabbits’. “Makes you feel ashamed,” one of them told me.
But shame, the artists insist, is not the point. “It’s not about shaming people, or making this generation feel guilty for the deeds of the past. It’s just a case of raising awareness, and giving people the information to be able to move forward with that, in whichever direction that they feel is appropriate.” For the Singh Twins, critique is a form of optimism, because they know change is possible. A greater, more nuanced understanding of the past is an investment in a future where difference is beauty, and accountability is normal.
Jallianwala: Repression And Retribution is the latest addition to the Singh Twins’ Slaves Of Fashion series. It is now on display at Manchester Museum, until October 2019.