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March 5th, 2012

COTTON: GLOBAL THREADS – A Major New Exhibition in Manchester, UK – EVENT

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Written by: Jacqueline Shaw
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COTTON: GLOBAL THREADS is a new exhibition at the Whitworth Art Gallery which aims to give more of a social rather than an historical overview of the story of cotton and its industry within the global textile industry with a social context. It was curated by Jennifer Harris as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad’s Stories of the World programme and forms part of a three-year collaboration to help engage local students in the Lancashire region with textile projects.

With our Africa Fashion Guide African Cotton Campaign we felt that this event is one that is necessary to tell you about. Cotton is something that everyone wears, practically every day and it has a history over centuries. The journey of cotton within textiles moves around the continents and speaks a new story for each country you find it in. For some it truly is ‘white gold’ for some it is in abundance and is simply business, for others it is simply what we wear and unfortunately for many producers in developing countries it is a crop they are dependent on for survival. It pays to help them get their children in school and pays for food. Though they often don’t get the price for it that it is worth.

Anne Wilson, Local Industry Cloth, (detail), 2010. Collection of Knoxville Museum of Art.ANNE WILSON, LOCAL INDUSTRY CLOTH, (DETAIL) 2010. DONATED MILL FIBRE. KNOXVILLE MUSEUM OF ART

A new exhibition, COTTON: Global Threads is one that gives an account for cotton within the context of history in relation to its production, its consumption and its trade. Cotton: Global Threads looks at a variety of facets of cotton to provide us with an overly personal, as well as an economic view of this powerful world trade commodity.

The Whitworth is well known for its bold textile exhibitions. This lends it a global perspective and the show will herald a year of focus on art from West Africa, which will continue with We Face Forward, during the Olympics itself.

You will find in the exhibition ‘Cottonopolis’ city. Photographs of prints and landscapes from students trips lasered onto blocks and also a dressing room to try on the “upcycled” charity shop clothes created by the students. Students from these projects also won a grant to be sent to Ahmedabad, in India, to see cotton production first-hand.

We also must focus on artists such as Yinka Shonibare and Lubaina Himid, whose specially commissioned pieces are on display for the exhibition. The installations by other contemporary artists Liz RidealAnne WilsonAbdoulaye KonatéAboubakar Fofana and Grace Ndiritu who engage with these themes in different ways. These are shown alongside historic pieces from the late Middle Ages to the present day, and you will find an exploration of how the history of cotton touches on fashion, popular culture as well as economics, science and technology, through to of course, slavery.

West African cotton is used in a physical performance by the artist to camera as Ndiritu wraps, conceals and reveals her body as she aims to provoke a differing set of responses from the viewer.

Aboubakar Fofana, who in and passionate about maintaining Mali’s cultural heritage, looks in learning about ancient African weaving and dyeing techniques by Mali’s remaining textile masters and so produces a forest of cotton trees made from organic fibres coloured using the nearly-lost Malian tradition of natural indigo and vegetable dyeing. This installation piece named Les Arbres à Bleus reflects the importance of uniqueness of trees to his Bambara ethnicity and are considered a symbol of life.

Himid’s is from Zanzibar and for this exhibition presents pieces of printed cotton fabric which are recognised in East Africa to featuring images and slogans. She presents them with a photo collage she has made. She investigated these Khangas designs from her own research and also from by looking through Whitworth’s textile collection. She uses this to connect people looking at relationships with owned objects and her African heritage too.

Grace Ndiritu’s produced a Still Life film about textile, from travels through Mali and speaks about responsible tourism and how material was something that various tribe “live and breathe”. Within the film Ndiritu captures the perform using African cotton to wrap and conceals her body.

Cotton is the best- selling and most widely used fibre in the world. Its manufacture has exposed both the promise and the perils of global capitalism, and no other industry is so closely associated with the exploitation of human labour – from the slave plantations of the US and Marx and Engels’ ‘satanic mills’ of Lancashire to the garment factories of South China today. We want to use this exhibition to tell its important story, not only from an artistic perspective, but also economically and ethically.

COTTON: Global Threads overall aims to set the production and consumption of cotton in a global framework. The exhibition takes the visitor from Lancashire and South Asia, the Americas and Africa. So themes in the exhibition  examine India’s wide global trade networks particularly in the centuries before the centre of cotton production shifted to Western Europe through the title ‘Early Global Trade in Cotton’.  It is important to be now aware that China, the USA and India today, when it comes to cotton production are world leaders, and so with the next subject entitled ‘Moral Fibre’  you get an insider look at the behind the scenes side of cotton’s which makes an impact to man and the environmental impact. The last section looks at the impact of spinning and also at weaving technology on the development of the cotton industry specifically in Lancashire; this section is called ‘Revolutions in Technology’.

The Sultan Tipu's gloriously decorative tent, in the Clive Museum at Powis Castle, Powys, Wales. ©NTPL/Erik Pelham


COTTON: Global Threads is at Whitworth Art Gallery until from 11th February until 13 May 2012.

A rich programme of events, lectures, performances and film screenings will accompany the exhibition.

For more info please visit:



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