Disaster zone: a detail from the Singh Twins' central panel of Jallianwala, Retribution and Retribution.

The Singh Twins in fashion

Two artists take on the dual legacy of empire and haute couture
June 16, 2022

The British artists Amrit and Rabindra Singh—collectively known as the Singh Twins—have been on the edge of major success for decades. Though they have exhibited at prestige institutions, including the National Portrait Gallery and the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, near their home town of Birkenhead,  the (identical, female) Twins remain unfashionable outsiders in the art world. As the pair, who like to be quoted in one voice, say of their work: “It is decorative, it’s figurative, it’s narrative, it’s small scale, and it comes from a non-European perspective, all of which are totally taboo.”

But perhaps their time has come. The Twins’ interest in Indian miniature painting, sparked by an inspirational visit to their parents’ homeland in the early 1980s, no longer seems so odd when Mughal manuscripts now sell for millions; and their trenchant view of colonial crimes fits our current revisionist political mood. Slaves of Fashion (at Firstsite in the newly appointed city of Colchester until 11th September) is an intricately worked yet bold critique of British imperialism and international couture culture. 

The centrepiece is a dark gallery filled with 11 large-scale, digitally created fabric portraits lit to resemble stained-glass windows. (The Twins were the only Sikh children at their Catholic school.) Just like church imagery, these works are filled with symbolism that requires some working out. Luckily, with the help of an electronic guide provided by the gallery and a walkthrough with the artists on YouTube (courtesy of the Sikh Channel), the work unfolds.

Indigo: The Colour of India depicts the Mughal empress Mumtaz Mahal, for whom the Taj Mahal was built in Agra, redressed as a Bollywood star complete with crop top and blue jeans. Agra produced indigo—derived from the Latin for “from India”—which was an extremely valuable commodity fought over by the British and French to dye their army uniforms. Also known as blue gold, indigo was used to pay for transported slaves in the US—a transaction represented here by a set of scales, with a distressed black slave on one side and a stack of blue ingots on the other. Like the colour itself, this painting is initially pleasing to the eye; but as you uncover its layers, a sinister side to its beauty is exposed. 

Similar stories are unravelled about chintz, calico, cashmere and paisley—a print that originated in Asia. The Twins’ interweaving of histories in these fabric works is not—unlike some others on show, like a demonic portrayal of Donald Trump—polemical, as such. But it is art with a purpose. In the Twins’ words, they want to show that “history doesn’t belong to one people, one tribe.”

Fun as it can be deciphering these vivid puzzles, it’s hard to feel moved by them. For a real emotional sucker-punch turn to their extraordinary illuminated triptych (central panel shown here) about the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre, when brigadier general Reginald Dyer ordered his Gurkha troops to open fire on thousands of peaceful pro-independence Sikh protesters. In the work men, women and children are sucked into a vortex-like well, while a boy in a topknot weeps over his mother and a dead child is plucked from his father’s chest by a bird of prey. The horror is no less harrowing for being so stylised; instead the technique adds clarity and compassion to what Churchill called a “monstrous event.”

I was curious to know what the Essex locals made of the Twins’ stark presentation of imperial crimes. A group of Englishwomen I overheard were in awe: “We never learned this in school.” The comments book was more mixed: “Racist against white people,” wrote one dissatisfied viewer. But another admitted they found it “uncomfortably exquisite.” I think the Twins would settle for that.