The Interview : The Singh Twins
(Rachna Singh in conversation with The Singh Twins, Artists of International repute)
The Wise Owl talks to The Singh Twins, internationally renowned, contemporary British artists whose award-winning work explores important issues of social, political and cultural debate and re-defines perceptions of art, heritage and identity. The Twins collaborate on their art, describing their creative practice as ‘Past-Modern’ as opposed to ‘Post Modern’. Their work has pioneered a modern revival of Indian miniature painting within contemporary art practice. In addition to the Indian miniature tradition of painting, they also draw on the artistic language and conventions of other traditions, east and west, old and new.
The Twins are also published illustrators, writers, filmmakers and designers. In 2015 they collaborated with top Indian Fashion Designer, Tarun Tahiliani, whose 2015 Spring Summer Collection was inspired by their artwork.
The Singh Twins have received many awards and official recognition for their work - including an MBE for ‘Services to the Indian miniature tradition of painting within Contemporary Art' and three Honorary Doctorates (from the University of Liverpool, Chester and Wolverhampton) for their contribution to contemporary art. They have been made Honorary citizens of Liverpool and in 2019 were recipients of the UK Asian Achievers Awards for Media, Arts and Culture. An independently commissioned Arts Council film about their work, ‘Alone Together’, received 'The Best Film on Art' prize at the 2001 Asolo International Film Festival. Their two artist films, titled 'Nineteen Eighty-Four and the Via Dolorosa Project' and 'The Making of Liverpool' have both won awards.
Solo exhibitions of their work have been hosted by the prestigious National Portrait Gallery London, National Museums Liverpool, National Museums Scotland and the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai and in Delhi, among others. In 2016 their public commission for the Museum of London which explores an important event in the history of the British Empire was selected for Tate Britain’s ‘Artist and Empire’ international touring exhibition. That same year and in 2022 The Singh Twins exhibited by special invitation at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. In 2018 they launched their ground-breaking and hugely popular exhibition Slaves of Fashion, and were commissioned by Royal Collection Trust to create a large scale digital mixed-medium artwork for display at Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace as a contemporary response to the Splendours of the Subcontinent exhibition.
Thank you, The Singh Twins, for taking time out of a very packed schedule to speak to The Wise Owl. We are honoured and delighted to speak to you.
RS: You have such a huge body of stunning work and so many awards and honours under your belt that I don’t really know where to begin. So let me start by asking you a question that you have probably been asked several times before. When and where did your journey as artists begin?
TST: It began as children. We can’t remember a time when we haven’t been drawing or scribbling on something - including on the walls of our house and in some of the many books we had at home! - until we started to receive art pads as regular gifts for birthdays and Christmas. That interest in creating continued at school where we studied both O’ Level and A’ Level art. But at that time, we never considered a career in art. It was just a hobby. At University we read for a combined studies degree in Ecclesiastical History, Comparative Religion and Twentieth Century Western Art History. But even then, our decision to take art was based purely on the fact that we were required to select three modules, and art was the only other subject available that fitted in with the timetable. It was during our time at university that we first thought about adopting art professionally as a way of challenging the cultural prejudice we experienced within the art department towards the kind of art we wanted to develop which was based on the ancient Indian miniature tradition.
RS: I believe your work was publicly exhibited when you were just 5 years old. Tell us a little about how that happened.
TST: As we recall, our school was approached by a large department store in Chester to enter a competition inviting people to create artwork for one of their window displays and our work was chosen alongside the other winners.
RS: I happened to read somewhere that you attribute your career as artists to ‘a meddling tutor.’ Is that a fact?
TST: As mentioned previously, we never had any interest in a career in art. We had always wanted to read for medicine and in fact applied to do both that and law at University. But our school teachers wanted us to apply for art at either Oxford or Cambridge because they felt it would be a feather in the cap for the school. We explained that we just weren’t interested. But they were very persistent, so we agreed on the condition that we be allowed to take our art A’ Level in one year - in order that we could concentrate more on the sciences in our final exam year. We didn’t mention anything about our talent for art in our UCAS applications and we also asked our teachers not to, as we suspected they might place too much emphasis on it in their report and that this would detract from our first subject choice. However, when we attended the one and only interview, we received from that application, we were questioned almost entirely about our art and were asked why we had chosen not to pursue that. We were pretty annoyed about this and quizzed our teachers about it. They assured us that they had not written anything about our art on the UCAS application. We basically didn’t believe them and so, we asked our friend to keep watch whilst we looked at our files in the Sixth Form secretary’s office. We discovered that our school had submitted a report in our application stating that we were only pursuing medicine because of ‘family tradition and parental persuasion’ and advising that our talent lay in art and that this is what they recommended we should be pursuing at University! To us, their statement betrayed a typical stereotype view of young Asians being pressured into pursuing certain career choices. Which was not the case for us. We believe that their lack of support, based on a false cultural assumption of our situation, jeopardised our chances of studying medicine as we did not receive any other offers from our UCAS application. Even more determined not to do art, we decide instead to read for a career in academia. It just so happened that the course we chose to do at University included a module on art. So, to that degree our school teachers had a hand in where fate took us. But ultimately, we attribute our decision to become professional artists, to the way we were treated by one of the University’s external art examiners who basically refused to mark our end of year art dissertations because he hadn’t liked what we had written about the significant impact of Indian art on western art. His attitude as well as the cultural bias we experienced from other art tutors during our time at University made us determined to use our art to redress institutional prejudice.
RS: On a more serious note, tell us about people in your life who recognized and encouraged your talent. Were there any special influences that moulded you as artists?
TST: Our immediate family has always recognised and encouraged our art. In terms of what’s moulded us as artists, one of our earliest influences came from our Convent Catholic education. The school had a Chapel filled with beautiful stained-glass windows, statues and religious artworks that introduced us to the world of symbolic and narrative art. Another key influence was a trip to India as teenagers which reaffirmed our pride in our Indian heritage in all its diversity. It’s when we also discovered the Indian miniature tradition which we later adopted as our core stylistic inspiration. And generally, we have also been moulded by various life experiences - including the cultural values we have grown up with; our exposure to different aspects of global heritage through other places we have visited; our academic background and love of research; our interest in the mediums of film and creative digital technologies; and a keen interest in political debate which is something that has always been encouraged by our family. As far as wider art influences go, we are especially inspired by Tudor painting and decorative art forms such as Art Nouveau and the Pre-Raphaelites. Collectively all of these influences have led us to develop art that is very eclectic both in style and content.
RS: I believe you visited India in 1980 as teenagers and were entranced by the work of Indian miniature painting but were also disappointed that the Indian contemporary art scene was aping the Western masters. For the benefit of our readers and viewers please tell us how you mastered the art of Indian miniature painting. Did you follow a particular school of miniature painting, or did you absorb an eclectic mix of the various schools of this artform?
TST: We mastered the techniques by first copying historical examples from books. Later we studied actual Indian miniatures in private and museum collections around UK where we were able to take close-up photographs of different details, and then enlarge them so that we could see how the different techniques of brush strokes had been applied. We drew on various schools of miniature art from different periods in history, but our favourite school was the Imperial Mughal miniatures - not just for their particularly fine detail but also their political satire. Many of our symbolic, allegorical portraits of contemporary figures for example employ conventions inspired by historical depictions of the Mughal Emperors.
RS: Although Indian miniature painting is an old and traditional art form, you have infused a contemporaneity in it making it relevant even today. I especially liked your ‘Facets of Femininity’ series with portraits of Diana (with its symbolism of the mask), Eva Peron, Spotlight series, Colossus of woes (about Brexit). How did the amazing idea of melding a traditional art form with modern issues and themes come to you?
TST: This idea was initially influenced by our first visit to India as teenagers, where we were disappointed to find that the exquisite tradition of miniature painting was devalued and generally overlooked by an Indian contemporary art scene which as far as we could see was essentially more interested in aping western styles and trends in modern art. We decided to teach ourselves the technique as a way of reviving that tradition. Later, when studying art at university, tutors dismissed our attempts to create work inspired by Indian miniatures (as a non-European and ancient art tradition) as backward, outdated and having no place in contemporary art. At that point we started to develop the style further to prove them wrong. We exaggerated what we felt were the key characteristics of the miniature tradition but also incorporated elements inspired by other art global forms and used our modern development of the miniature tradition to explore contemporary issues.
RS: Your artwork is a gorgeous mix of traditional and modern symbols and of course a lot of fine and intricate detailing. So, every artwork would require not only a lot of research but also a lot of dedicated time for all the fine detailing you put into it. How long does it take for you to finish an artwork, right from inception to the final work?
TST: Almost every artwork starts with a period of research which depending on the theme, can take anything from a few days to a year. Then, the creation of the final work can take from around 50 hours to a thousand hours to complete.
RS: You describe your work as ‘Past-Modern’. Could you please elaborate on this term for the benefit of our viewers and readers?
TST: This term relates to how our art encourages people to re-think what’s often thought of as the divide between east and west, tradition and modernity, and the value judgments linked to that perception - within a context where eastern cultures are often equated with stagnant, antiquated, oppressive customs and values whilst western culture is equated with modernity, progress, free thinking and innovation. Responding to the institutional racism we experienced from our art tutors, which we regarded as an extension of colonial mindset of western superiority we experienced as young Asians growing up in a British society that expected us to conform to western values and lifestyle, the term Past-Modern asserts the relevance and value of traditional and non-European art forms and cultures to contemporary art practice and society.
RS: Do both of you work together always? That would require an identical creative approach to any work of art? Does that come naturally or has it developed and evolved over years of creative partnership?
TST: As far back as we can remember, we’ve always done everything together. It’s a natural consequence of being the same age. Our creative partnership is just an extension of that relationship - built on an identical upbringing, education, shared life experiences and tastes in art, as well as, other interests such as an academic fascination with history, ancient world cultures and comparative religion. These, along with our identical political and social outlook have all informed the kind of themes we explore creatively. We never really analysed our closeness of working together. We just took it for granted. However, during our time at University, when we faced prejudice towards the style of art we wanted to pursue, we definitely became more conscious about presenting ourselves as one artist - being a united front initially against the criticism and attitudes we experienced then but also the challenges we have continued to face as artists. With us working so closely together, it certainly helps that we have the same goals as artists. However, our creative partnership doesn't necessarily involve an identical creative approach. In fact, we often find that we have very different ideas on how certain things should be done!
RS: You partner seamlessly in creative projects. You also dress up identically. Is it a conscious defiance of twin stereotypes and western concept of individualism or is it simply an expression of creative minds that think alike?
TST: Growing up as twins we have often been criticised for not being different enough. There was a perception back then (which still exists today) that the closeness and similarity of twins (in thinking, character, tastes and mannerisms) was somehow unhealthy and detrimental to their development as individuals. At school, our teachers took great pains to separate us in class. At first, they made us sit at desks away from each other within the same classroom. Later on, they placed us in totally different classrooms within the same year group. When we were at University, our art tutors taught that ‘self-expression’ and ‘individuality’ were the be all and end all of being an artist. But ironically, they denied us the freedom to express ourselves in a way that we chose - namely through a non-European traditional art form. They insisted that we look instead to western role models in art and develop a style more in keeping with their narrow Eurocentric evaluation of what contemporary art should look like. They also criticised us for developing similar styles of art (falsely assuming that we were copying each other) and told us to find different sources of influence. Meanwhile, fellow art students were allowed to develop work similar to each other that essentially copied styles from western modern history. It was then, that we decided to dress identically and present ourselves as one artist, not just as a political statement against the hypocrisy of our art tutors’ attitudes and reaction to our twin-ness but also as a way of challenging wider western society’s obsession with individuality: as something touted as being core to western values and notions of freedom of expression but which, we feel, doesn’t exist in reality - when you think about how we are all dictated to by the advertising and fashion industry, by peer pressure and a desire to fit in or be accepted by what’s perceived to be the norm.
RS: Your Colchester exhibition ‘Slaves of Fashion’ (7th May to 11th Sep) has won a lot of accolades for its exploration of narratives around the colonial British empire, enslavement, consumerism etc and also garnered praise for the life size portraits of historical figures as vast digital fabric light box artworks. Tell us about the birth and growth of this tremendous idea.
TST: It began in 2014 when we were invited by the British Council to travel to Nantes in France as part of a British delegation of educators, curators and artists from Liverpool. The aim was to explore links and collaborations with civic and cultural partners in Nantes. We visited the slavery museum there and came across some 17th century textiles which looked African in style. The curator explained that they were in fact made in India for Nantes merchants who used them to purchase enslaved Africans. It’s the first time we came to know about India’s involvement in the Transatlantic slave trade - which most people think of as a triangular trade confined to Europe, the Americas and Africa. This revelation sparked an interest to learn more about the history of Indian textiles which we soon discovered was a global story of trade, conquest, enslavement and consumerism inextricably linked to Empire and colonialism. It was a fascinating story that we felt inspired to document through our art in a way that would not only make this complex period in our shared history accessible to diverse audiences but would challenge how people think about the Empire and reveal how colonial history has impacted and remains relevant today.
RS: You said in your Art Room Podcast that you’re working on a project that highlights the teachings of Sikhism and its universality. Please tell us a little about this project.
TST: It’s a heavily illustrated coffee table book on Sikh wisdom and teachings for daily living and contemplation, containing extracts from Sikh sacred writings and offering insights into how the Sikh tradition developed in response to the changing social and political climate of its times. It focuses very much on the universality of Sikh teachings as a faith perspective rooted in the oneness of humanity and the equality of all and which promotes the importance of playing an active part in the world and making a positive contribution to society. The core teaching of oneness and equality is reflected in the artworks we have both selected (from existing work) and created especially for the book which draw on traditions of art and the symbolic language of flowers, colour and animals from across the globe. The project was initially developed by Harinder Singh (an author of children’s books on Sikhism) but produced in collaboration with both Sikhlens California who are dedicated to raising awareness about the universal outlook and contemporary value of Sikh heritage and teachings through education and the arts, and the Nishkam Trust Birmingham which amongst other things has established a pioneering group of academy schools with a Sikh ethos, multi-faith, ‘virtues-led’ approach to education inspired by the inter-religious legacy of the Sikh faith.
RS: Your work is so extensive and there is so much more I would like to ask you about your work, but you have a packed schedule, and I don’t want to encroach on your precious work time. So, one last question. What advice would you like to give upcoming artists?
TST: Be true to yourself rather than trying to fit in with and following the trends in modern art. In that way you will create work that has depth and meaning, and which stands out from the crowd. Believe in your ability to succeed and don’t be afraid to be proactive in promoting your work because being successful artists is as much about having a good head for business as it is about creative talent.
Thank you so much for talking to The Wise Owl about your stunning and eclectic work that has graced prestigious Art Galleries across the world. Hats off to you for bringing the art of Indian Miniature Painting to the world and at the same time innovating to blend it and make it your own.
Slaves of Fashion exhibition is showing at Firstsite Gallery, Colchester until 11th September 2022 and then opens at Norwich Castle Museum Gallery and East Gallery on 1st October 2022.