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Wonder and Dread exhibition blog (0): Introduction

Sharing thoughts, processes and research related to 'Wonder and Dread', an Arts Council England - supported solo exhibition at Bradford Industrial Museum that explores the politics of the global textile supply chains through time.


This blog is about making the new works for the Wonder and Dread exhibition, which are all inspired by the Bradford wool industry.

The exhibition also includes work I made earlier for my "Tangled Yarns" project. These were inspired by other parts of the textile industry, in particular the cotton trade and the modern ready-made garment industry and were accompanied by a different blog which you can find here.

Then as now, the theory was that I would be writing blog posts as I was developing the work. In practice, I write when I come up for air afterwards, once I've finished a piece. Or, in this case, finished almost all the new pieces for the show. How did that happen? At some point in July I was really in writing mode and then - my internet and phone connection were struck by lightning. I know this sounds like "the dog ate my homework" but I am not making this up. Three weeks "disconnected" (except for my phone - and I wasn't going to write a blog on my phone, I'm too clumsy.) Once I was back online I was already deep into making again....

The challenge now is: where to start?

Maybe by explaining: why "Wonder and Dread"? These were the words chosen by Marshall Bernam (in his brilliant book "All That is Solid Melts into Air") to recount how Marx describes the feelings of the bourgeoisie about capitalism's innovative self-destruction, "like the sorcerer who can no longer control the powers of the underworld that he has called upon by his spells." I think "Wonder and Dread" is particularly apt for the labour-intensive textile and fashion industries: where the beautiful product often stands in stark contrast to the misery involved in its production; where a factory job could mean ruthless exploitation or empowerment and a way out of poverty; where global outsourcing / trade may bring prosperity to people on one side of the globe and hardship to the people on the opposite side. It's these complexities and ambiguities that attract me to the textile industry and make me want to make art about it.

AlkeSchmidt_PrincessParty (2010)

"Princess Party" (2010). Oil on patterned cotton fabric, 100 x 40 cm. One of the firsts works I made about young women as producers and consumers of "fast fashion" - plus a dig at the "pinkification" of girls.

Having the opportunity to examine Bradford's wool industry was exciting. At the start of the project I knew very little of the city or the industry, but a visit to Bradford and Saltaire in 2016 had me hooked, wanting to know more about this proud "Worstedopolis" and its people. Researching England's great landmarks of the Industrial Revolution had already led me to Manchester, Lancashire and the Derwent valley in Derbyshire; now I was eager to see what I might discover in Bradford.

Throughout the project, I was very aware of my perspective as an outsider with only a finite time for local research. I know that to really understand a place, you need to live there for some time, otherwise you're just 'dipping in'. Therefore, my works inspired by Bradford would be, quite consciously, from an outsider's perspective - situating my discoveries in Bradford in the international context of global textile supply chains past and present. Having said that, when I learnt about the German community of cloth merchants in Victorian Bradford I realised that I had more of a personal connection to Bradford than I had imagined. More of that in a later post.

Street view of cloth warehouses in "Little Germany", established by immigrant German cloth merchants in the mid-19th century.

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