The William Morris Gallery has done it again, with another great guest exhibition. This time Alke Schmidt’s Tangled Yarns has taken over the space at the top of the stairs (we used to call it ‘the landing’ in our house, but that description feels both antiquated and out of place as I write this from 30,000 feet over the Atlantic and hoping for an uneventful landing of a different kind in a few hours time) and done so to great effect.
The yarn in question is the cotton-based stuff used to make our clothes, and the tangling is derived from Schmidt’s musing on “the politics and morality of the textile trade”. This colourful, fabric-based show ranges from the desolation of rows of blackened sewing machines in ‘Ghosts’ – a stark memorial to the factory fire that killed over 400 Bangladeshi seamstresses – to a joyful celebration of workers’ solidarity in ‘End of Empire’.
The latter depicts Gandhi surrounded by cheering Lancashire mill workers, fists in the air and smiles on their faces, as the great Indian anti-colonialist visited England in 1931. Such is Gandhi’s posthumous reputation the adoration depicted is unsurprising, until one learns that he was in Lancashire to call for a boycott on the products of his country’s imperial oppressor, upon the export of which the immediate livelihoods of his adoring crowd depended. It is a wonderful evocation of the strength that comes from putting aside immediate self-interest and recognising that your struggle is my struggle for working people everywhere.
Schmidt’s work pulls you in gradually. I started with a casual glance at ‘Child’s Play’ (children bent double picking cotton against a backdrop of play-room wallpaper), got hooked by ‘End of Empire’, and had to come back a second time later in the afternoon to properly take in ‘Morris’ Dilemma’ and ‘The Spectre’ (two large hangings above the staircase depicting the darkly magnificent engines that drove Victorian mass production).
Given William Morris’ eloquence on the dehumanising impact of the factory system, his eponymous gallery is the perfect setting for Schmidt’s work and well worth an hour of anyone’s time. Plus, for as long as London’s Indian Summer lasts, a trip to the gallery can be followed by further background reading in the lovely gardens (Morris’ News from Nowhere for the utopians, or Engles’ The Condition of the Working Class in England for the materialists!).
Alke Schmidt’s ‘Tangled Yarns’ runs at the William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow, from 15 October to 25 January.