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"Social Fabric" at Iniva (London EC2)

A woven history of the trade economy.

Occasionally, a fashion editor will propose an argument about the political significance of the garments that drape our earthly forms. While they'll rarely reference Karl Marx, a new east London exhibition manages to successfully explore colonial history, the economics of labour, and international trade - all in relation to textiles.

Social Fabric opens on 19 January at the Institute of International Visual Arts (Iniva), housed at Rivington Place. David Adjaye's award-winning building of linked matt-concrete blocks topped with rigid shark fins is tucked behind Shoreditch High Street. This important public arts centre promotes cultural diversity in a highly gentrified part of the East End where young, urban designers have largely replaced the immigrant workers who, from the 18th century, filled Tower Hamlets' garment factories and clothed the white citizens of the British empire.

For the exhibition, the German artist Alice Creischer has created an installation informed by her visits to India, "Apparatus for the Osmotic Compensation of the Pressure of Wealth during the Contemplation of Poverty". The hand-sewn work takes the social history of the Indian chintz trade as its subject; the devastation of the textile industry following the revolt in 1769 of Spitalfields weavers acting as an early example of the mechanisms of global capital.

Fabrics make up just some of the works on display. There are also 20th-century paintings from a Mumbai-based artist, Sudhir Patwardhan, depicting that city's industrial quarters. The viewer's eye is drawn to natural outlines: a slumped body, lingering shadows, a puff of greenery; the labourers appear insecure and defensive.

Archives complete the range of Social Fabric's materials and include photographs, articles and testimonials of mill workers. A welcoming text from Karl Marx's Capital charts 50 years of depression, prosperity, strikes and migration, starting in 1815. The juxtaposition of sources from the early 18th to late 20th centuries - and Hoxton's trendy residents outside - weaves a dark narrative about the trade economy that looms over the present as much as the past.

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Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Has the Arab Spring been hijacked?