Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Art-iculate: Reconstruction, Cultural Heritage and the Making of Contemporary Fashion

Workshop group outside the Bangladesh National Museum
Last week I went to Bangladesh to conduct a two-day fashion journalism and blogging workshop to run in conjunction with the British Council’s ground-breaking exhibition Reconstruction: Cultural Heritage and the Making of Contemporary Fashion.
The British Council is the UK’s leading cultural relations organisation, with creative arts forming the focus of many of its global projects. Through collaborations between institutions and designers across multiple disciplines the British Council aim to explore the industries and skills in countries across the world looking in particular at people’s understanding of British culture through a strong educational program.
Working with over 100 countries the work the British Council do is crucial to open a dialogue and create a communication of ideas between the UK and the wider global community.
Sophia Kokosalaki
On the first day of the workshop I took the attendees on a field trip to the Bangladesh National Museum to view the display first-hand with an aim of critically analysing it the following morning by way of a group review.

Celebrating the work of seven of the UK’s most prolific London-based designers; Hussein Chalayan, Vivienne Westwood, Osman Yousefzada, Peter Jensen, Sophia Kokosalaki, Marios Schwab and Paul Smith, Reconstruction examines how they distil elements of their past to create clothes with a strong narrative. Drawing on personal circumstance and experiences such as religion, travel, cultural heritage and emotion, these seven designers express themselves without restraint, weaving a tapestry of their lives with fashion as their medium of choice.
Emdad Hoque
Also exhibited are three designers of Bangladeshi origin Emdad Hoque, Ruby Ghuznavi and Manjulika Chakma, who each contributed two garments to the showcase. All visually exciting for numerous reasons, the skills displayed were second to none, in some respects putting the globally acclaimed British designers to shame with their acute attention to detail and the evident time and labour put into each and every hand-stitch.
Ruby Ghuznavi
My favourite of the three is award-winning designer Manjulika Chakma who displays strong tribal references and techniques mixed with a modern twist throughout her designs inspired by the rural communities of Chakma, Khayang, Khumi, Lushai and Mong. Bursting with colour and texture Chakma specialises in weaving, vegetable dying and embroidery.
Manjulika Chakma
Juxtaposed with the display of Eastern and Western garments is a collection of traditional Bangladeshi textiles and cloths taken directly from the National Museum’s own collection. Discovering the rich history of craft and in particular exquisite fabric production in Bangladesh put me in great stead to analyse the contemporary Bangladeshi fashion designs, looking at how the use of fabric has evolved through centuries and generations, and how traditional weaving, embroidery and embellishment techniques continue to flourish. The fine silks dating back to 19th Century and the Jamdani were of great significance, epitomising the root of Bangladesh’s great weaving heritage.
 Archive Jamdani examples (above anbd below)
A renowned centre of textiles, the earliest evidence of fine transparent cotton cloth made in Bangladesh dates back to the 3rd Century BC, with cotton cloth appearing on stone sculptures from the 10-12th Centuries. No textile is better known that the Jamdani, renowned for its intricate patterns and as the most expensive fabric created on the Dhaka loom.
What intrigued me, perhaps most about the exhibition, was the response from the local community who by and large seemed to wholeheartedly appreciate the opportunity to see such fine craftsmanship in their home town. The workshop attendees explained to me that if it wasn’t for organisations such as the British Council they would have to travel to Europe to see such a showcase and would rarely have an opportunity to get so close to designers by industry heavyweights such as Vivienne Westwood and Osman.
Osman and Peter Jensen
From our workshop discussion with regard to what the attendees would change about the exhibition, everyone was unanimous that the Bangladeshi designers were not given enough of a spotlight. They recognised that it is indeed hard to find the right balance on a touring exhibition; however they would have liked to see the curation be a bit bolder, seeing seven Bangladeshi designers showcased to match the seven Brits represented, by way of displaying unity and equality, reinforcing to a wider audience that Bangladeshi and British fashion can and should be held in the same esteem.
Vivienne Westwood
Also a better cross section of designers would have better seized the opportunity to promote - to the UK and wider world - how varied Bangladeshi fashion is. Certainly, after seeing the diversity of fashion on the Apex Life is Beautiful catwalk that evening, on reflection the Bangladeshi designers selected for Reconstruction sadly are overshadowed by the demi-couture garments on display by the likes of Westwood and Chalayan.
 Marios Schwab
From a personal perspective I feel that any exhibition of this kind is a big step in the right direction and it was a delight to see the Bangladeshi designs in context with the heritage fabrics chosen for the exhibition. The only query I have is related to the balance of designers from opposing nations and the lack of menswear representation across the board.
Paul Smith
The first ever exhibition of its kind, Reconstruction has proved hugely successful and presents a unique opportunity for cultural exchange between Bangladesh and the UK, providing a foundation on which to build future exhibitions of this scale and larger, seeing designers and curators collaborate further to achieve the best representation of Bangladeshi fashion possible, unashamedly spotlighting and raising Bangladeshi designers to the lofty heights of the established and revered Western designers they are celebrated alongside.
Reconstruction opened in Kazakhstan in April 2011, and will have toured Russia, Uzbekistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India by the end of 2012. Catch Reconstruction: Cultural Heritage and the Making of Contemporary Fashion in Dhaka until 11 February.

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