Dutch Wax Fabric Arrives in Walthamstow
YINKA SHONIBARE MBE shows his new work The William Morris Family Album at the William Morris Gallery. Significant Seams interviewed the curator Carien Kremer at the exhibition.
- How did the collaboration between the museum and Yinka Shonibare come about?
- A collaboration with an artist begins with our exhibition planning programme when we book contemporary artists for the space. We always look for artists who will make interesting connections to the collection. These can be very direct like, for example, with Jeremy Deller’s English Magic and the huge William Morris (We Sit Starving Amidst Our Gold 2013) or Grayson Perry’s The Walthamstow Tapestry (2009) which gave us interesting ways of looking at the making of tapestries: machine-made versus the hand-made, but also the way logos rule our lives today; all this made a literal connection with our collection.
The primary reason for going to Yinka Shonibare was because in his work we could see a link. He so often shows an interest in the Victorian age and gets people to think about very well known aspects of history by placing them in a new light. There’s the textile trade and the politics that go with that, then there’s the idea that Morris operated in a global world, and although he didn’t have a connection with African textiles, he was inspired by Indian designs so there’s another global pattern.
- But Morris was advocating a local vernacular tradition as well, wasn’t he?
- There are so many different aspects to William Morris’ life. Yinka was interested in his politics, so his focus was on Morris’ belief in equality, and that’s what he’s interested in himself. He decided to look at the people who lived in this house, the family, and create a series of photographs involving local people because Walthamstow has changed so much since Morris’ time. Yinka chose a diptych format which makes it really obvious where the source of inspiration came from for the contemporary photograph. He wants us to compare then and now. He’s saying what does equality mean in Morris’ age? What did Morris have to say about it? What did equality mean in terms of work, wealth, race, gender, international trade? Inequality was a massive part of the Victorian age, how far have we come in addressing this? And that’s the key question behind the work.
- How did Yinka select the models for the photographs?
- Yinka wanted to reflect the diversity of the community of Waltham Forest, so the way we went about it was to organise an open day here at the William Morris Gallery and anyone who was interested in being part of this project could pop in and Yinka was here with his team. We had the young advisors of Waltham Forest upstairs taking people’s photographs and everyone’s contact details. It was a fantastic turnout: over 80 people came for a two-hour period. Yinka took all the photographs to his studio and made his selection and then I phoned people to say they had been short-listed. It was so sweet because everyone was genuinely excited. I mean, you don’t know do you, you ‘re asking a lot of people’s time, they had to go to several fittings because all the costumes were made specially for them, and I was always a bit worried someone wouldn’t make it to the end but everybody was really committed and took it in good spirits.
- What was involved in the photo shoots?
- It was a real process because to recreate the photographs there was a lot of research and making that had to go on. For example, the chair Isabella is sitting in was really difficult because it’s a Morris-made chair and I looked everywhere but couldn’t find that precise chair and the fabric is no longer made by Sanderson. We had to have the chair made for the photograph. Then there was the costume-making and the fittings too.
Two of the photographs were shot in Yinka’s studio in Hackney, but the shoot for the group photograph took place in Lloyd Park outside the gallery. It was a full-on day where everybody arrived at 9.30, had their hair and make-up done and helped on with their costumes. We were praying for it not to rain and it didn’t, but it was so cold! The people in the photographs deserve so much credit because they were frozen and in between shots we had to rush out with blankets to put over them – the kids were total superstars!
- Today there’s a demise of the group portrait in a way. We live in such an individualistic society where we’re taking selfies all the time, so it’s refreshing to see a posed group portrait such as the one in this exhibition.
- Yes, I was thrilled Yinka chose the group photograph. It’s such a famous picture showing the William Morris and Burne-Jones’ families and there is so much we can learn about the lives of these people by looking at the photograph. For instance, the way May and her sister are dressed shows this was an artistic family because they didn’t wear such restrictive Victorian clothing which meant they were able to climb trees and they wore big boots beneath their dresses.
The other interesting thing is that Burne-Jones’ father was quite a poor man, he was a picture framer, and he’s wearing his Sunday best but it’s quite old fashioned so obviously he hasn’t got much money and he’s hanging on to his clothes, he’s looking after them.
Although I know this photograph very well, it’s only when I saw them recreating it in Lloyd Park that I was moved and thought, ‘Oh these were real people,’ and suddenly this image became a human world, and the way they are posed, the Morris family are touching each other, they’ve got arms on each other’s shoulders; it became so much more personal for me.
- What happens to this exhibition, will it go on tour afterwards? And what happens to the objects and clothes?
- That’s what the participants wanted to know as well! It all belongs to Yinka, so that will go back to his studio and become part of his body of work. And yes, we very much hope that there will be other chances for the photographs to go on display somewhere but we don’t have any further plans at the moment.
- Can you tell me a little more about the fabrics?
- The Dutch wax fabric is a signature of Yinka’s work. He purposely buys the cloth in Britain because he likes that fakeness, he says there’s no point in sourcing so-called authentic fabrics because they’re not and that’s the point he’s making. Being Dutch, of course, I’m fascinated by the story that the Dutch went to Indonesia and took this idea of the fabric with them and then sold it back to West Africa. It’s become so popular that both the people who wear it and the rest of us who look at it say this is West African textiles even though it’s not, you can buy it today in Walthamstow Market.
I find the way Yinka works really interesting. I asked him, ‘Why did you select a batik print costume for that woman and not that one?’ And he said it’s a purely aesthetic choice, what will look good in the photographs. It’s the same with the patterns. He chooses the patterns he really likes, that have a good colour combination and every outfit has three different Dutch wax fabrics combined. Now here’s me reading into it, I don’t think it’s Yinka at all, but on Jane’s dress there are perfume bottles in the pattern and that’s such a feminine symbol, it says elegance and that is what Jane was also, that is how she is shot and portrayed, she was an artist’s model.
Yinka is saying that identity is a construction: the way you dress, the textiles you choose, but also in the context of this exhibition, fashion determines how you want the world to see you and how the world perceives you to be. Yinka is saying ‘Don’t make assumptions too quickly!’ I like that.
Yinke Shonibare MBE: The William Morris Family Album is at the William Morris Gallery from Saturday 7th February to Sunday 7th June 2015.