West Dean Visual Arts alumnus, Georgia Hughes, spent part of the summer in Goa, India as part of a unique artist residency run by Vice Versa, an independent non-profit foundation that conducts workshops, seminars and residencies across a wide variety of cultural projects. From a base in a Heritage Portuguese house, which itself provided inspiration for a new series of drawings on paper, Georgia conducted wide-ranging independent research within the Goan community, including resources such as the State Library and associates of Indian fashion designer, Wendell Rodricks, at Goa College of Home Science – a place where the Kunbi saree was again being manufactured by hand as a heritage cloth and reintroduced into the Home Science educational curriculum.
Georgia made numerous contacts at both major conferences and in informal meetings, soon realising how little academic research has been undertaken concerning the Kunbi saree specifically. Trips to Quepem in south Goa were organised, and to Margao, to visit members of the Kunbi community now very much a part of modern society, yet whose adapted lifestyles still show hints of past traditional values. Kunbi communities that still abide by their traditions do exist but are far and few between. The United Tribal Associations Alliance (UTAA), set up to protect indigenous people’s’ human rights and protect their land, which is constantly threatened by urbanisation and the heavy burden of the tourist industry.
Georgia has had a long-standing affinity and passion for India, many aspects of which emerge in her drawing, sculpture and installation-based practice. She has also an ongoing research interest in heritage sites, as well as the placement of traditional crafts alongside contemporary making technologies, considering the possibilities of using their combination to safeguard heritage skills in specific cultural contexts, in line with established social identities and communities. Taking a different approach to NGOs, Georgia is interested in what she describes as a “non-paternalistic” engagement with such communities, resisting any pull toward mainstream commercialisation of cultural or symbolic values, encouraging instead indigenous efforts in furthering the development of craft-based communities that otherwise can become too reliant on their Western benefactors. Georgia explains:
“In this case, cultural values are now reliant on internal funding, with benefactors from Mumbai and India in general showing a keen interest in capitalising on culturally specific cloth and the identities being promoted by the modern Kunbi saree (as presented by Wendell Rodricks). Local resources are limited in terms of the manufacture of this cloth however. The weaving community has diminished to the extent that now only one Goan weaver remains! Weaving is now mainly sourced from the neighboring state of Karnataka but Goa still has natural dyeing resources – i.e. the Goan earth provides the hue that coincides with Kunbi sari.”
The original cotton checkered red and white Kunbi saree was designed by the community as a labourer’s costume, uniquely worn short above the knee to make it easier to work in. The saree is draped and wrapped between the legs to make it easier to move around paddy fields, explicitly designed for practical purposes. Over time the design has been adjusted for individual comfort. Wendell Rodricks modified traditional garments for consumer use – using fine cotton or silk (not as thick or sturdy) and loose, complimentary drapes, adjusting the colour palette and using the identifiable Kunbi ‘dentil’ knots very subtly. The portrait of the woman above epitomizes the complex status of this costume – it is worn in the manner of a Kunbi saree yet is in fact a very modern version, one popularly adopted due to the bold colours, pattern and the cheaper fabric. There are numerous complexities within cultural groups concerning what constitutes Goan costume identity, and the academic research can ask questions about how the conservation of heritage cloth can directly benefit the society through striving to create more stable and sustainable social, economic and cultural infrastructure.
Georgia further comments on this photograph from her studio, currently located at Spike Island in Bristol:
“The smaller orange garland is traditionally worn as a hair adornment in Goa. The flowers are called Crossandra and are all hand-stitched together to form garlands. Most often this is done with Jasmine but Crossandra infundibuliformis (commonly known as firecrackers) are also used. Popular due to their bright colour and long tubular stems, they are the perfect garland flower. They are also given as an offering to temples, again often tied with Jasmine. The purple garland is made up of Gomphrena globosa, also known as ‘bachelor button’! Both flowers have long-lasting colour and retain their shape after drying. Such garlands worn in women’s hair are called Gajra. The red-checked fabric is related to the Adivasi Kunbi community. Men traditionally wear it as a loincloth and also as a headpiece. It is often adopted in the costumes of younger children too. It is a very simple, plain weave, with a change of colour in the weft. This is an open weave fabric, ideal for the sari, yet the fabric here is woven closer together, making it thicker and sturdier, ideal for wearing whilst working. The cotton was often starched to prevent tearing and strengthen the fabric.”
Georgia’s ongoing project seeks to highlight the bridge between contemporary and traditional skills, and the status of craftsmanship in the local area, not only using and promoting local materials and facilities, but also looking to re-purpose derelict or under-used buildings in order to stage an exhibition of large-scale pencil drawings that open up discussion about the role of costume, cloth making and textile industries on the social, political and economic aspects of the community. The research has touched upon the notion of the ‘exotic’ in relation to non-Western cultures, as well as attending to the discourse around ‘otherness’ in the context of orientalist and neocolonial attitudes. By engaging with unrecognized or undervalued members of the community, especially those involved in handcrafted textiles (such as weaving) Georgia hope to learn more about the relationships such groups have with their craft, how it ties in with their sense of identity as both individuals and as a community.
(All images taken from https://www.instagram.com/georgia.lhughes/)