curated by Tereza Kuldova
‘I want this funeral to be spectacular! Manish darling, you have to design some fabulous embroidered dresses for us and change the interior, we need controlled opulence, luxury and modesty in one, lots of white! It is all about business, you know that darling!’
Anjali’s uncle was still fighting against cancer in the hospital, while she already began planning his spectacular funeral together with one of India’s leading fashion designers. Wealthy businessmen, politicians and celebrities were invited a day before her uncle’s death. The carefully designed funeral ‘festivities’ spanning over a week had to manifest the power, status and wealth of the family. Business deals worth millions were sealed.
The designer dress that Anjali wore was handmade in Lucknow and took six girls more than five months to embroider. Anjali wore it only once. The dress cost more than a 5 year salary of one of the embroiderers.
Two parallel dependent worlds
India is often imaged as consisting of two parallel worlds – of the worlds of the poor and the rich or middle class. In reality, however, these two worlds are profoundly dependent on one another. One cannot exist without the other. The rich perpetuate poverty in order to satisfy their needs, while the poor have to find ways of surviving, depending on the scraps from the rich’s table. Nowhere is this more visible than in the emerging Indian fashion industry.
Indian fashion industry
After the neoliberal reforms of the 1990s and the opening up of the market, Indian fashion industry, modelled upon its western counterpart, began taking shape. However, as opposed to western fashion that is all about cuts, the unique selling point of Indian fashion is handicraft and embellishment. Therefore, Indian fashion designers depend on the labour and creativity of millions of India’s craftsmen. Paradoxically, while the craftspeople are celebrated as India’s living heritage and their crafts become symbolic of the nation and Indianness, the credit for the fashion pieces goes to the individual designer, the artisans remaining impoverished.
Projecting an image of a 'new' India
This exhibition explores commodification of culture, heritage, past and the living bodies of craftspeople set within the context of identity politics of contemporary Indian elite that tries to project an image of a ‘new’ India, a global power confident in its Indianness. It also uncovers bits and pieces of the logic of spectacular capitalism, of the mythologies of capitalism, such as the one claiming that if you work hard enough and have a vision, you can make it big no matter your background. The reality often defies this myth.
The exhibition is based on Tereza Kuldova’s doctoral thesis called ‘Designing Elites: Fashion and Prestige in Urban North India’ and research conducted between 2010-12 in Lucknow and New Delhi. The thesis followed traditional hand embroidery from its production in Lucknow, via collaborations with Delhi-based fashion designers to its consumption by Indian elite clientele, thus throwing light on an anthropologically understudied phenomenon of fashion.
STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN
By Lill-Ann Chepstow-Lusty and Tereza Kuldova
Once upon a time, glamorous smoking has become a dirty silly habit of the unenlightened that increasingly offends the sensitivity of the vulnerable non-smoker striving for health. On behalf of the vulnerable individual and against the unenlightened irrational smoker, the state has decided to place disturbing health warnings on cigarette packages and prohibit smoking in a range of public places.Difficult questions arise from this: In what ways are we convinced by, for instance, the state to perceive people either as vulnerable individuals or unenlightened creatures? Is the state to treat citizens as children and prescribe them the 'right life', impose bans and issue warnings? Is such a state able to respect its citizens as free adults? Is the Norwegian 'smoking law' a prohibition law, as some would argue, or a freedom law, as others would claim? What rhetoric is used when we are forced to choose between freedom from smoke and freedom to smoke and what are its political and social implications? 'Stairway to Heaven' raises some of these crucial questions by setting against each other the opposing views of Robert Pfaller, a Viennese professor of philosophy and Asbjørn Kjønstad, Oslo's father of the smoking law and law professor. The installation also features an art video of a discussion between Robert Pfaller and a muse about smoking produced by the students at the University of Linz and a back side wall of trigger words.