Fabrics of Empire: Textile Art as a Counter-history of Colonialism

By Amrut Mishra

A chaise longue, wingback armchair, side chair, end table, and an expansive curtain—the stage is set for artist Renée Green’s 1992 installation Mise-en-Scène: Commemorative Toile. Stretched taught between the curvilinear wooden frames of furniture, bunched up by the drawstrings of drapes, pressed tight on the wall as wallpaper, the screen-printed sateen fabric of Mise-en-Scène demands attention. A sateen fabric weaved with cotton; the delicate threads of the weft cross the taught warp every fourth strand producing a near uniform surface. Smooth to the touch. And fragile. Against the offwhite sateen, crimson ink permeates the fine pores of the glossy fabric. This fabric, named toile indienne, has a sordid history connecting South Asian textile production,  eighteenth century bourgeois European tastes, and the finance of the trans-Atlantic slave trade; a history imbricated in the cast of characters printed on Green’s fabric: multiple pairs of lovers, donned in regalia, enjoying pastoral strolls; a white slave merchant licking an enslaved man at auction to determine health; a young African woman fleeing African slavers; a Black Venus surrounded by cherubs; and Jean-Jacque Dessaline hanging a French official amidst the Haitian revolution.[i]

Since first viewing Mise-en-Scène: Commemorative Toile, some two years ago, I have been enthralled by contemporary fabric artists who use the medium of textiles to stage counter-histories of colonialism and invite us to imagine, sense, and feel more equitable worlds. I invoke Green’s provocative work here because it speaks to my research as a doctoral student on the power of art to engage publics. Learning from Black feminist and decolonial artists, practitioners, and theorists, my research clarifies the processes by which individuals, communities, and nations take up fashion as medium of self-expression and identification. From the curated events of haute couture to the everyday costuming of Halloween, the incorporation of racist imagery into clothing and dress indicates how textiles—often taken for granted—locate intense sites of cultural contestation and negotiation. Looking to the artistic practices of Green, Glenn Ligon, Lorna Simpson, Raisa Kabir, James Luna and Yinka Shonibare showcases various challenges to Eurocentric modes of being, thinking, and sensing.

Naturally, I have been interested in pursuing a collaboration with the esteemed Fabric Workshop Museum in Philadelphia, which has exhibited many of these artists’ installations. However, the ongoing pandemic temporarily closing the museum during this summer encouraged me to explore other avenues of research. Drawing on wisdom of performance scholar Diana Taylor who argues that colonial knowledge practices prioritize the theoretical and textual over the performative and embodied, I have shifted my research approach to pursue my own textile art. Running, wrapping, and pulling the yarn through my fingers, feeling the imperfections of my chain, holding the tension between my hands as I slide the crochet hook. As I develop my skills with crochet hook, and eventually loom, I develop a different type of knowledge that guides my scholarly practice and situates me in a community of fabric and textile artists weaving a different social fabric.

Featured Image Caption: The author’s crochet hooks and yarn

[i] For a magisterial reading of the engravings screen-printed by Green see Huey Copeland, Bound to Appear: Art, Slavery, and the Site of Blackness in Multicultural America (University of Chicago Press, 2013).

6 responses to “Fabrics of Empire: Textile Art as a Counter-history of Colonialism”

  1. Keitlyn Alcantara says:

    I enjoy the way that you link this broader history of textiles to your day to day crochet hook – the ways that our daily actions can slowly chip away at dominant narratives…

  2. Julie Feng says:

    Amrut, this is absolutely fascinating! Textile art as intervention seems such a rich threading (pun intended) of anti-colonial and feminist practice. I can immediately feel the connections between textile and empire, but I am especially riveted by your focus on the counter-histories. And the fact that you’ve begun doing the embodied work of textile art of your own is so amazing. Studying textile art as counter-histories of colonialism, and practicing the art itself as a counter to colonial methods of academia. What a multi-layered praxis!

  3. David Chavannes says:

    Yessss to actually working with textiles yourself! This could be a transformative journey for you, so I’m excited that I can tag along for at least a portion of the ride, 🙂

  4. Amrut, I had to respond to your post :). I am also working with textiles in my research connected with reimagining Black American histories, countering grand narratives and finding ways of being more in touch (literally and emotionally) with people from our past and their experiences. So far, I’ve only experimented with hand-stitching and embroidery. It would be a dream to learn and work on a loom…to somehow literally weave together voices, stories, text, memories – creating a new fabric from old and especially un-challenged stories. I hope we can chat more! I’d love to hear about and see more of your work. All the best to you!

  5. Ionah Scully says:

    I love how you bring textile, weaving, crocheting into knowledge sharing and coming to know. As Indigenous people, out epistemological framework is that we come to know only through doing, a ceremony that bridges the relationship between ourselves and others (including other-than-humans). I also am so grateful for your work interrupting something taken for granted everyday; fashion and textile, to undergird the power struggles and dynamics that undergird it and opportunities for folks of color to re-imagine/embody it.

  6. Dominic Bednar says:

    Amrut, beautiful piece here!
    I️ love how your exploration of textiles quite literally interweaves various stories–looming together different ways of knowing. I️ appreciate how your work brings attention to clothing and dress as “intense sites of cultural contestation and negotiation”. As someone who deeply appreciates self-expression through style and my own dress, I am now curious about the stories that are embedded within and often untold in the fabrics that envelope my world.

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