The British colonial legacy is closely examined and dissected through art in Tate’s new exhibition Artist and Empire this Winter. Amongst the many artefacts and art works the contemporary artists the Singh Twins feature their piece ‘enTWINed’. Shrewd political commentators, the twins, who ask to be referred to as The Singh Twins rather than by their individual names, seek to redress the balance of colonial history. They wish to show that the reality of colonialism and its legacy is not simply black and white and nor does it exist as one undisputed narrative. Their art reminds us that while we in the West claim an awareness of the oppressions and horrors of colonialism, we continue to dominate all discourse surrounding it.
The Singh Twins show a remarkable even-handedness. Whilst they show the oppressive nature of colonial rule, they are keen to celebrate the mingling and assimilation of Indian and British culture. In a manner that is reminiscent of Grayson Perry’s own assimilation of personal and collective histories, the twins mix figures from their lives with historical figures. Their art, which largely depicts Indo-British scenes, is painted in the style of Indian Miniatures- a clever means of showing how indistinguishable the two cultures have become. As Indo-British artists from Liverpool themselves, their work is defiantly representative of both cultures: it is both authentically Liverpudlian in its football matches and scenes on the Mersey, whilst honouring its Indian roots in family scenes and tributes to historical Indian figures. With their paintings they ask: why should we have to choose one side?
This historical and political tension between cultures and the question of a dominant narrative is no less relevant in the art world. Faced with a British art scene that still looked on overly figurative art with a suspicious eye, the Singh Twins found themselves faced with the same prejudices that have existed in the West for centuries. Whilst many contemporary artists and art historians shook their heads in disgust at the crimes of colonisers and emphatically discussed the concept of post-colonialism, they were still uncomfortably unwilling to accept an art that was so defiantly figurative, so seemingly ‘decorative’ in its detail. For after all, the tradition that the Singh Twins meticulously mimic is like a foreign language compared to the received Western standard of contemporary art. Their work thereby exposes a prejudice that continues on into the post-colonial era: that Western art is the standard by which all others are judged.
I spoke to The Singh Twins about ‘EnTWINed’ and their artistic ambitions:
So you do this all by hand? How long does it take?
Yes it is all painted by hand, this took about six months as it involved a lot of research. We research it together and then work out a composition digitally and then one of us will make that into a drawing and we’ll both collectively paint the final work together.
Have you placed yourselves within ‘EnTWINed’?
Yes, we very often depict ourselves because first of all we feel that our role is as socio-political commentators and we want to reflect that. It’s about how we as so called ‘British Indian’ artists are making an impact on British art too, trying to champion the cause of art forms which are generally dismissed today.
It looks very like a Mughal miniature the way you are in profile holding a paintbrush.
Exactly, miniaturists of that era often painted themselves into the picture. And then in the background there is a mixture of cityscapes and landmarks from the South to the North of the UK representing places where Asian communities have settled: London, Bradford, Liverpool, Edinburgh and made a contribution to those communities.
Could you describe ‘enTWINed’?
The painting is reinterpreting an artwork by a Victorian artist called Henry Nelson O’Neil depicting the Indian Mutiny of 1857 and it reinterprets the painting replacing what for him are the heroes of the painting, the British soldiers disembarking from a ship having just come back from India, with figures that we consider to be the heroes from that event namely freedom fighters. These are not just fighters of that era, but Indians who came before that and after that in India’s long struggle to free itself from British rule. The painting also puts that struggle in context so it has little anecdotes within the painting about the oppression of British rule in India.
The painting is also about the legacy of empire, so it looks at issues of displacement and migration. Of course empire was built on conflict and conquest and as a result of that many people were displaced, particularly when they left India with the Partition in 1947, a lot of Indians came to live in Britain. Among them were our own Grandfather and Grandmother, so there is a personal element within the painting, which puts our own story within the wider Indo-British context.
Here is also Princess Sofia Duleep Singh who was the granddaughter of the ruler of Punjab, North India, who ended up being born in Britain as a result of kingdoms being annexed to the British Empire, and later became a very prominent figure in the Suffragette movement in Britain. Both she and the veteran soldier represent the ways in which history has been told very often from a Eurocentric perspective. This painting was all about not just the legacies of how these people ended up being in Britain or fighting for British causes, but addressing the documentation of history.
So the importance of realising that there are multiple narratives?
Exactly, it’s about getting a more even-handed view of who those heroes were. It’s also about continuation of certain aspects of Empire too, for instance the rhetoric of Empire which was used as a justification for expanding the Empire. So you have the two quotes at the top: one which dates to 1846 which was when the Kingdom of Punjab was annexed to the British Empire and there’s a quote from the Illustrated London News about it not being about increasing British territory, but about civilising and Christianising the area and therefore bringing peace. We have this juxtaposed with a modern quote saying something very similar for the justification for going into Iraq being about bringing democracy, civilising, and ridding it from tyrants, nothing about the commercial reasons: the oil and so on.
So in many ways it’s about Empire, both in a negative and positive way. It’s about how because of Empire the Asian community has an influence on British identity and culture: sports, fashion, commerce, even language, it’s about looking at shared heritage and identity as a result of Empire.
Around the border we have various words which are seen as typically English, but actually have their root in Indian languages: shampoo, pyjamas, even ‘Old Blighty’, which we think of as a very ‘stiff upper lip’ old English thing, but it’s actually a corruption of the word ‘vilayati’ meaning foreigner in India, and was how Indians used to refer to Britain. So it’s very interesting to see how this knowledge has been lost, but if you look deeply enough we all have this shared identity.
Because there’s a very colonial idea that still hangs around that the British left their impression in India and perhaps there was less of an impact the other way?
Yes, absolutely. It’s a two way street. Even before the British were in India, in the very early days of trade whether it be through the tea and the textiles, there has always been that crossover of cultures.
Stylistically, as well, for us as artists there is a personal, political statement to be made because the style of the work is rooted in an old Indian tradition of painting called Miniature painting and it reflects the struggle that we had as contemporary British artists trying to develop a style that was immediately dismissed as backward and outdated and having no place in contemporary art. This attitude represented for us a hangover from colonial superiority, the fact that art was defined and evaluated from a European point of view and almost ignored the fact that Western art would not have developed in the way that it had if it had not have been for people like Matisse and Gauguin borrowing from Africa, China and Tahiti. So it’s this idea of appropriating cultures, repackaging them and selling them as being an invention from the West. That’s also represented here by the figure of Madonna who is holding up her hand with henna, which of course we all know more popularly as body art and tattoo, but for the Indians it has a very deep cultural and spiritual significance. Now because of its repackaging as a commercial, western beauty product it has become entirely detached from its real origins.
EnTWINed is on display now at Tate Britain.