The Mancunion

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Remembering Partition with New North South: South Asian Design

Manchester Art Gallery brings together regional traditions with contemporary design

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As part of our ten-week feature following the New North South programme, we look at Manchester Art Gallery’s exhibition South Asian Design.

Set in The Design Gallery — the top floor glass space immersed in a skyline of Victorian rooftops — the exhibition South Asian Design intends to elevate the significance of craft to new heights.

India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka are all famed for their embellished textiles, regional costume, intricate ornaments, and surface patterns. Yet these regional crafts and processes seem to sit restlessly between being at once merely a habitual ritual of everyday life and yet also informing and producing contemporary design.

The collection draws parallels between design and craft elements to articulate how the traditions have been exported into our modern day conscious. The finer details of the historic artefacts are interspersed with contemporary functional designs from the likes of Spandana Gopal, creative director of the design studio

The finer details of the historic artefacts are interspersed with contemporary functional designs from the likes of Spandana Gopal, creative director of the design studio Tiipoi. Yet she interprets the relation between craft and design as one which is constant yet underlying, she states: “Rather than say I am creating contemporary Indian design, which I may or may not be doing, I am going back and looking at where Indian design already exists in the everyday. To me, good design is invisible to the eye — it’s taken for granted because it’s so effective.”

This gets to the roots of the exhibition’s intention, as rather than being an exercise in comparing and contrasting the traditional with the contemporary, it hopes to depict South Asian design as a united front which is constantly evolving.

However, at moments it still asserts itself as rooted in context and history by distinguishing the process which has propelled the region’s traditions into the contemporary art and design we see in Western culture. It proposes how these artistic practices at once remind us of a rich heritage, and yet a resilience amidst British suppression in the colonial era.

We see this in the most familiar instances of South Asian design, even the most popular motif in Western culture — the Paisley pattern — is an emblem of British colonialism. The term ‘Paisley’ was coined due to the East India Company importing patterned shawls and fabrics to Paisley in West Scotland, in which the scale of production came to determine to Asian craft.

The exhibition seeks to continually redress how these traditional crafts and techniques from the subcontinent are often dismissed or seen as detached from contemporary Western design. Proving that tradition doesn’t have to resist the contemporary; not being a dialectical relation, but instead, one that is inherently interlinked.

South Asian Design is on at the Manchester Art Gallery from 19th of May 2017 – 10th of June 2018