Produced in 2008 by world-renowned Merseyside duo THE SINGH TWINS, The Making Of Liverpool is an animated film that blends the 800-year history of Liverpool with the city’s artistic legacy. On display for the first time since its launch during the European Capital of Culture celebrations 12 years ago, the film aims to embody the diversity of people and of the city’s creative output, as well as provide an insight into the Singh Twins’ artistic process.
Created in collaboration with local company Draw & Code, Bebington-based musician Steve Mason, and narrated by Liverpudlian actor Mark McGann, the film was made as an accompaniment to The Singh Twins’ painting Liverpool 800: The Changing Face Of Liverpool, which is on permanent display in St George’s Hall.
The film opens with an animated reference to the city’s maritime history, and over its 13-minute duration, narrates the transition from these early beginnings to a city that presents itself as a world-class hub of culture and heritage. The Singh Twins describe the film’s scope as “starting from ancient roots, through to the medieval periods, the granting of the charter in Liverpool, and right the way up to the present day”. They foreground the idea that the history of the city is “not something that’s static, it’s something that’s always changing”.
Despite the documentary format, the work is very painterly, and the influence of Indian miniature painting shines through. The piece suggests a compatibility between historical narrative and new media, as well as confirming that non-Western imagery has a place in our city. “We didn’t want it to be too digitised,” say the pairing, speaking to me over the phone. “We wanted the painting element of the style and the craft to still be in the animated piece itself.”
There is a natural synchronicity to how Amrit and Rabindra Kaur Singh speak and work; they communicate together, and their visuals are similarly layered with varying influences. It is clear from their words that this piece indicates a shift in the twins’ process, introducing them to the possibilities of working with digital and film media, as well as collaborating with people outside of themselves. “It was a real catalyst,” they respond, “working with other people and opening up our horizons in terms of the types of media we use… the animation opened our eyes to the way we could use those mediums to be creative.” While they’ve previously used computer software to build up compositions that would then be used to structure their paintings, lately they have been producing work that, while incorporating painted elements, exists only as a digital file.
Since their studies, the Singh Twins have been questioning Western history’s insular tendencies and inability to recognise the influence of non-Western imagery. “We had a point to prove from day one,” they say, referring to the art world’s rejection of decorative motifs as a frivolous or insignificant art form. “Our art represents all the taboos of contemporary Western art as perceived by the establishment today,” they begin. “It’s decorative, it’s figurative, it’s narrative, it’s small-scale, it’s coming from a non-European tradition. We couldn’t be more far removed from the art establishment and what they perceive contemporary art to be.”
Mostly influenced by pre-Victorian art, the Renaissance and Art Nouveau, and working with styles outside of the European canon, their work is richly symbolic. This is evident in The Making Of Liverpool, which demonstrates that the narratives that history and religion give us have a place within digital mediums and contemporary art spaces. The film is interspersed with photography and illustrations of the city’s most iconic buildings, enhanced by the intricacy of the decorative arts. Reinterpreting the symbolism of the Liverpudlian coat of arms as a jigsaw puzzle, the artists piece together highly embellished puzzle pieces to show the diversity and creative expression of the city, further demonstrating their unity.
“Our artworks are full of symbolism,” they say, “every detail tells a story in its own right.” Discussing their history through academia and comparative religion, they outline how “Research underpins everything we do. Inquiry into other cultures and histories has always been a part of who we are and fascinated us, and it has remained very much a part of our creative practice. We very much see ourselves as social and political commentators.” The academic tradition is vividly woven into their visuals, resulting in social commentary that does not shy away from vibrancy and ornamental forms. Politically, they intend to “give a balanced view,” adding, “Liverpool can’t escape history. It’s really important to acknowledge that, and the more people understand that side of our past, the better society will be in terms of dispelling the racial attitudes that are still lingering on from the colonial mindset of Western superiority.”
The work reflects the city as a place of pride for many, but is unafraid of confronting Liverpool’s slave trade legacy. There is a fundamental balance to their work, as bleak histories coexist with lively ones. However, there is a distinct and overriding optimism in the film and in their words, and a sense of pride that runs through the artistic process. The dual meaning of the painting’s title, The Changing Face Of Liverpool – reflecting the city’s exterior and physical changes, while also referring to the inhabitants and diversification of the city – suggests that their work is a portrait of the people as much as the city. “We were seeing it very much as a portrait; Liverpool personified through the people that live there. The portrait of Liverpool is a portrait of its people, because the people are the city.”