The medium is the message: Decolonising the curriculum through textiles

Asked to reflect on issues around decolonising the curriculum, PGCert student and lecturer Nicola Truman began to explore her ideas through the creation of a textile piece that recognised the multicultural influences on western textile development and, more immediately, recognised the different cultures in her classroom – unifying them. She is at once reflecting on the decolonised classroom and creating it.

Her textile piece is a reminder too that, in an inclusive curriculum, students – and academics – can offer valuable insights through modes of thinking other than the written one. This is happening now in arts-based PhDs, but it seems to be taking time to filter through into other courses on any scale. In this connection, some of the most exciting work to have come out of the UCA Postgraduate Certificate in Creative Education has been image-based, film or mixed media, and online recordings. The 2020-21 cohorts’ Cabinets of Curiosities were a joy – and in some cases were probably more profound than they might have been had the students been asked to submit a written piece. Certainly, the students had more fun.

Nicola’s reflection is followed by some notes on the history of textiles that demonstrate the potential of research into the creativity in other cultures (more or less untouched in the western canon). Such research might offer a richer, more varied educational diet that can deepen understanding of the global world and help students to build a multicultural community within their classrooms and, later, their workplaces. It’s also a reminder of how fascinating other cultures are and what wonderful contributions they can make to our curricula.


Written by Nicola Truman | PUBLISHED ON 15th September 2022 | Image by Nicola Truman

The starting point for my textile artwork is bell hooks: ‘The function of art,’ says hooks, ‘is to do more than tell it like it is – it’s to imagine what is possible’ (2012:6). Focusing on the decolonisation of knowledge systems, the piece represents the cultural fabric of a student community of practice and shows possibilities for discussion by ‘amplifying the voices underrepresented in the curriculum’ (UAL, 2015). Rather than relying on the usual western perspective, the artwork shows a library of fashion and textile imagery representing the cultural backgrounds of the Fashion Business Management students I currently teach. Here, for so long, teaching has focused on the revered hierarchy of Parisian or Italian fashion brands or the creativity of British fashion designers.

In this piece, I have taken this structure apart by cutting the fabric to include imagery that students could bring to the classroom from Korea, Malaysia and China and underrepresented voices from Cyprus, Norway and Sweden. In this way, decolonizing the curriculum involves creating an opportunity for students to share their cultural perspectives, taking a social constructivist approach. French artist Matisse’s painting of a Romanian blouse has been included to acknowledge the value of students bringing their own cultural references not cultural imagery presented through a Western lens. It also acknowledges the importance of students’ understanding of ‘cultural appropriation’ on fashion trends.

The background of the artwork is created in calico to represent the background of academic structure and systems: ‘This is the oppressor’s language, yet I need it to talk to you’ (Rich, 1968, cited in hooks, 1994). The word ‘calico’ is derived from ‘Calicut’, the English name for the Indian city of Kozhikode (Davenport, 2020). This represents the colonisers’ disregard for language and the oppression of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in cotton during the 18th century. Intricate lace is laid over the work to represent complex academic language used as a ‘mask which hides the loss of so many tongues’ (hooks, 1994:168). The British labels are stitched with white thread to represent the white curriculum but then cut apart to reflect contemporary global fashion design and sourcing capability.

Rather than sharing voices as words, I have chosen to represent decolonisation as photographic imagery as it is helpful to ‘decolonise assessments by encouraging students to work with images and metaphors, allowing them to carry these over from creative practice’ (Hall and Ames, cited in Mueller, 2021). The imagery is stitched together with a continuous red thread to represent the connections within the classroom. In Teaching Community: a pedagogy of hope (2003), hooks writes that ‘finding out what connects us, revelling in our differences; this is the process that brings us closer, that gives us a world of shared values of meaningful community.’

I chose red thread so that the connections could be clearly seen, and I did not at first consider meaning for different cultures. It might suggest that for a Chinese student red symbolizes celebration, while in South Africa it is associated with mourning. In South Korea, red once had negative connotations but, in the 21st century, it has become a symbol of social cohesion.

I had a clear idea that I wanted the piece to represent the possibilities for course content but also a breaking apart of the ‘structural context within which is taught’ (Crilly, 2020:6). I learned so much from the process of co-creating something using the cultural backgrounds of the students I teach, incorporating multiple ideas and perspectives and would like to try it again with imagery selected by the students themselves. 

It might be useful as a community-building exercise too: if a class was asked to create a piece like this, reflecting on the cultures in their cohort, they would be obliged to mix more widely. You might find home students talking to international students (with whom they may never normally have extended conversations) asking for advice.

Some notes on the history of textiles

Lithic means ‘of stone’. Thus, Neolithic peoples were people who worked with stone, fashioning it into utensils and weapons. But they might equally well have been seen as people of the String Age, as Virginia Postrel says in The Fabric of Civilisation (2020), since their weapons, their implements, their clothes were held together with a form of string that made them functional. For example, the sharpened or knapped flint could be safely secured to a handle and thrown. The value of textiles was already clear.

Textiles have been essential to the development of our civilisations: the binary system originated in weaving, says Postrel, along with elements of mathematics; and the origins of chemistry lie in the early desire to dye textiles. There’s very little that the western world can take credit for here:  early textile development took place far from Europe and North America: modern cotton seeds developed out of one species in Africa; there was a cotton industry in the Indus Valley during the Bronze Age; and people were manipulating cotton seeds to create better yields in southern Africa and Peru then; sheep were first domesticated for meat and wool in southwestern Asia in the Neolithic period; the ancient Romans were wearing silk from China.

Many of the weaving and dyeing techniques that we now value originated outside the West: ikat, for example, was a traditional dyeing technique that spread to the West when, in the early 20th century, Dutch researchers began looking at textile traditions from the Netherland Indies (now Indonesia); examples of batik dyeing have been found across Asia and the East dating back over 2,000 years. Each of these demonstrate ways of thinking that were and remain pathfinding, and they offer ways of thinking about the world that we can usefully offer our students. A western ‘colonised’ approach to textiles makes no sense against this rich history.

The Holy Grail is, perhaps, Japanese weaving, born out of a Zen Buddhist attitude to aesthetics and making that cannot be subsumed into western ways of thinking. Here, says Eloise Rapp, ‘beauty emerges not just from the self but from an unwavering dedication to process’.

The creation of textiles is a commitment to process over product; to cultivating the self instead of being self-expressive. The handmade textile process requires that we temporarily abandon our vision of the final designed object in order to give ourselves over to the meticulous nature of constructing cloth. For a textile practitioner, the diligence required during the process is what gradually reveals one’s individual character. When the finished object emerges, it is a moment of clarity, expression and recognition (Rapp, 2018).

Already here, there is a way to aid students in reflecting on their own practice: it is often easier to clarify one thing by comparing it to something very different. It’s also a way to challenge and perhaps enrich practice.  


References

Postrel, V. (2020) The Fabric of Civilisation: how textiles made the world New York: Basic Books

Rapp, E. (2018) Intuitive Thread: the beauty of process in Japanese textiles. Garland Magazine. (accessed 24 May 2022)

Bibliography

Crilly, J, Suka-Bill, Z. & Panesar, L. (2020) Co-constructing a Liberated/Decolonised Arts CurriculumJournal of University Teaching & Learning Practice. 17(2)

Davenport, D. (2020) What is Calico? House Beautiful. (accessed 3 April 2022).

Encyclopaedia Britannica (2022). calico | textile. at: https://www.britannica.com/ [Accessed 3 April 2022].

hooks, b (1994) Teaching to Transgress. New York: Routledge

hooks, b. (2003) Teaching Community: a pedagogy of hope. New York: Routledge

hooks, b. (2006) Outlaw Culture: resisting representations New York: Routledge.

Muller, B. (2021) Decolonising Assessment: can we ever truly assess for justice and equity? JUICE. (accessed 6 April 2022).

Skelton, T. and hooks, b. (1996) Outlaw Culture: resisting representation. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 21(3) 590.

UAL (2022) Decolonising the Arts Curriculum: Perspectives on Higher Education. [Accessed 3 April 2022].

List of images in the textile

Fig 1.  Wolday, Mekonnen Vestfoldtepper Slottsfjellsmuseet [Photograph] Available at: https://robbielafleur.com/2021/03/03/vestfoldsmett-in-the-norwegian-textile-letter/ (Accessed 3 April 2022).

Fig. 2. Matisse, Henri (1936) Peasant Blouse [Newspaper Photography] Available at: https://threadwritten.com/journal/2020/7/29/the-romanian-blouse (Accessed 3 April 2022).

Fig 3. Akulamataiu (2011) Malaysia Textile Batik pattern [Textile Photograph] Available at: https://www.canstockphoto.com/malaysia-batik-pattern-16076358.html (Accessed 3 April 2022)

Fig 4. Danha, Kim (2020) A Look from the label Danha, A Centuries-Old Korean Style Gets an Update [Newspaper Photography] Available at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/19/style/hanbok-k-popfashion.html (Accessed 3 April 2022).

Fig 5. Dolce, Gabbana (2021) Dolce- Gabbana Carretto Print Dress [Photograph] Available at: https://www.farfetch.com/uk/shopping/women/dolce-gabbana-carretto-print-flared-midi-dressitem / (Accessed 3 April 2022).

Fig. 6. Guo Xi (ca.1020–ca.1090). Asian Art, Scroll Cover with Animals Birds and Flowers [Textile Scroll] Available at: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/39731 (Accessed 3 April 2022).

Fig 7. Cyprus Weaving (2021) Cyprus Weaving [Photograph] https://www.cyprusisland.net/cyprusculture/folk-art/cyprus-weaving (Accessed 3 April 2022).

Fig. 8. The Khalili Collections Swedish Textiles (1700 – 1900) [Textile Scroll] at: https://www.khalilicollections.org/all-collections/swedish-textiles/ (accessed 3 April 2022).

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