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Remembering Partition with New North South: Beyond Borders

The Whitworth’s new exhibition responds to the anniversary of partition by reclaiming the tradition of textiles


As we pass the 70th anniversary of partition — the 1947 division of British India to form India and Pakistan — the North of England is collaborating with South Asia to mark this act of independence. Manchester will be exploring South Asian culture through various exhibitions, films, performances, and immersive productions. This is being branded as the New North South.

As this programme is felt widely throughout Manchester in different forms and into the next three years, it will be come a feature of the upcoming weeks, in which each issue will be dedicated to a different aspect of the collaboration.

Partition saw the end of British colonial rule and ultimately displaced 10-12 million people across newly bound religious borders, igniting a refugee crisis and a bloody mass migration. The horrific realities of partition are often conveniently left out of UK curriculums when relaying the pride of British Empire. There comes a responsibility to commemorate such a significant piece of history. However, New North South deals with the issue of commemorating by not trying to assert a conclusive or whole historical narrative, instead allowing glimpses at the new narratives which interlink and overlap to produce the modern identity of the subcontinent.

The Whitworth’s collection Beyond Borders is one of the first exhibitions in the programme to open; bringing together four artists based in England, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh to respond to issues of post-colonial identity and belonging. Much of the work is rooted in textiles, referencing the older South Asian traditions, yet this is enlightened with instances of film, installation, and performance. Textiles had become central to trade and manufacture in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh and this rich history has been lost, adapted, and revived throughout the last 70 years.

This sentiment can be seen through Raisa Kabir who, based in England, seeks to reclaim traditional textile techniques, focusing on how process can be used to different effects. Her pieces are frayed and unpicked as she employs her own ‘un-weaving’ technique exploring how trauma interrupts tradition and history. In her piece ‘It must be nice to fall in love…’ (2017) she creates an emblem of pre-partition India, distorted by the weaving process as its pulled in separate directions.

Yet each artist responds differently. Yasmin Jahan Nupur, based in Bangladesh, creates large scale pieces and contemporary textiles. The Indian CONA Foundation instead seems to question the roles of the artist and the designer in the historical context. Risham Syed from Pakistan instead re-imagines what we value as an heirloom and questions traditional rituals, as his work blurs the distinction between artefact and art.

Held in the Whitworth’s main textile gallery, each of the artists’ work is debuted alongside pieces from the Whitworth’s textile collection, the responses co-curating their own show. The centrality of textiles to the exhibit seems important. By emphasising materiality it de-constructs the fragile pre- and post-partition structures into loosely bound fibres. However, it uproots the traditional connotations of textiles, as for these women it is no longer contained as a domestic chore, but instead has become a medium of expression – these pieces are far from the traditional comfort of a patch work quilt.

Beyond Borders is on at the Whitworth Art Gallery from Saturday 20th May till Sunday 3rd June 2018.