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).