From the daily archives:

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

The Distortion Of Art History

by admin on 08/03/2023

A response to those who are using these textile trademarks to push their agenda and a false history

Original shipper’s ticket for the Indian market ticket from the Adrian Wilson collection
and a facsimile, hand-painted as decoration (including the merchant’s name) in India.
© Ilay Cooper

Manchester was unique as a city of Free Trade for all and as such, it attracted textile merchants from around the world, especially after the Levant, East India and Royal African monopolies expired. The city had more foreign consulates than London, where information and news was freely available from remote markets, plus the local cloth importers in far off markets would provide the exporters with accurate and relevant ideas as to what kind of images would appeal to specific buyers in their markets.

Textile trademarks were the largest and most specifically targeted branding exercise in history, carried out by a wide range of nationalities who really understood what type of images would appeal to their customers.

Photo of Indian child holding cricket bat sent by an Indian importer to Manchester and the resulting ticket
Tandil balanced rock in Argentina
Merchant Street in Rangoon
Idea chosen for India and final ticket design

It is important to understand that the worst thing that could happen to any merchant was that their potential customers around the world, mostly women, found the image unappealing, or even offensive. Unlike modern global branding by companies such as Nike or Coca-Cola, the images and designs chosen as brands varied immensely and were probably the largest concentration of “ethnic” art ever brought together in one place. In 1913, an incredible 250 million pieces of fabric were hand-stamped and ticketed for export. Of the 800 international merchants in the city, the biggest could have around 10,000 different trademarks for the specific markets they traded in. Merchants Stavert Zigomola, who sold in Latin America, had 2,500 different trademark designs.

Stavert Zigomola ticket celebrating independence from colonial rule by showing Liberty wearing a Phrygian cap and holding a length of pink “liberty satin” fabric

Many of the tickets I have seem bizarre or offensive to our modern eyes but they weren’t designed for us. What looks like KKK outfits in the Africa label selection is actually a traditional Nigerian costume and this ticket, executed in the locally recognized style of a traditional Chinese silk painting, would no doubt be banned by current social media algorithms in the west…

Manchester was the first industrial city and, like China today, created factories full of oppressed workers in order to manufacture fabric cheaper than anyone else in the world. Manchester cotton was world renowned as being cheap but good quality, capturing 80% of the world’s fabric markets in the 1880’s, partly because the merchants who sold it and the importers who brought it to market used these stamps and tickets to generate a brand loyalty amongst customers from Argentina to Belgium to China. Not by sticking a standard logo on it like Apple or Sony, (who curiously are never accused of patronizing commercial colonialism despite their intense government ties and local tax avoidance) but by respecting and appealing to the potential buyer’s local culture, even by adapting their well known brand to different markets.

A popular brand design, adapted to suit different markets
Dumbell Exercise brand adaptation

Manchester cloth was a standard in terms of quality, so a recognizable brand was also a seal of good manufacture, with strength, colours that wouldn’t run etc. If there was something new, such as a bicycle, steam train, building or ship, images of those things would be used as brands in order to be associated with that modernity. Current brands promote their product’s desirability by including any religious, aristocratic or celebrity associations. Merchant shipper’s tickets were already masters of this kind of branding 150 years ago but are now being criticized for the same thing modern marketers, including museums, do

A random selection of tickets used in African markets
A random selection of tickets used in Asian markets
The map of India was a common device for tickets there

The image of an elephants couldn’t be trademarked but they became a memorable brand if depicted doing unusual things and customers would collect them.

With literally hundreds of thousands of designs created, there is an undeniable proof that, in the Manchester textile trade at least, it was considered absolutely vital to respect your customer’s culture. If you offended them or they felt patronized by your trademark, they would simply choose the one on display next to it for sale by your competitor.

The problem now is that this idea of colonial powers actually being interested in local culture, albeit to make money by encouraging a purchase, goes against the perception and stereotype of the oppressor and the oppressed. It is one thing dismissing this work of countless indigenous artists as mere “commercial art” but far worse is how an ignorance of this `part of art history means it is being used to depict these images as patronizing and colonial. The complete opposite of what the vast majority were.

Not your stereotypical colonialist image

There are several things to note here once you look at the history. Manchester fabric was famous and popular across the world. Yes, it was sold in the colonies (and yes, Manchester textile workers were thanked by Lincoln for supporting the abolishment of slavery in the US) but, like the same fabric from China today, it was simply a globally successful good quality and cheap product. Like Chinese produced fabric sold now, Victorian merchants worked with whoever who ran the country where it was sold. If the British were being kicked out of a country and if Manchester merchants could increase their sales there by depicting that on a trademark, they did so…

Manchester merchant ticket depicting a Malayan Communist Party activist,
who overthrew the British in Singapore

As mentioned before, there were so many designs, it is easy to make selective and biased judgements, especially from our modern perspective. Again, if the image offended the customer, the merchant lost the sale, so to judge these images (often from a tiny sample) as offensive is the distortion of history to either gain attention or not appear contrarian. However, ignorance and agenda are no way to learn from past or present history. I watched an Indian museum promotional video recently where two employees, who are not researchers, describe the Indian images as “exoticized” when the images were in fact chosen and created by Indians 100 years ago to appeal to Indians and would only ever appear in Indian markets. Their opinion was based on two selective examples from just 300 in their collection. Click here to see just one of the 60 volumes I digitized from my collection from a ticket printer. I invite you to look through the hundreds of images and make your own mind up if they were respectful to their local customers, or not. Count the proportion of images that are stereotypical British colonialist, compared to the images that are Indian. Despite the curator’s naïve assumptions, the book shows that these were not “exoticized” images, chosen by a British merchant in 1800’s Manchester as his ignorant idea of Indian culture. The fact is, Westerners actually never saw these tickets because they were only stuck on cloth that went on display in the Indian markets, plus Indian artists created them, so who exactly were they being “exoticized” for?

To be fair, I do understand that it is good to look at history from different perspectives and with fresh attitudes but it is vital, especially if you are a museum or other academic institution, not to be selective just to prove a viewpoint that isn’t based on fact. For instance, it would be easy to draw different conclusions from the following two examples…

“Hindu With Child”

This ticket could easily be used to illustrate colonialism by showing a white, wealthy child riding on the back of an Indian. What a perfect allegoric image for those who want to see it that way. However, we do not know who the people depicted actually are, or any context.

Man Carrying Child

Conversely, during the colonization of India, why did a merchant take this very English looking illustration and not make the child white, depicting India supporting Britain like in the previous example?
The point being that anyone can select particular tickets, look at them from their perspective and distort the narrative to fit them to their agenda.

Indian deity scene

Even tickets depicting religious scenes are being criticized as wrong, when in fact the merchants would serialize tales such as the Ramayana or depict the local’s beliefs so that they could be used as free decorations in homes or places of worship, as explained in more detail by academic Ilay Cooper here and in this, one of his many photos of the supposedly negative tickets actually being appreciated by the local people.

A religious ticket forming the centerpiece of a mural in India
© Ilay Cooper

The image above takes us back to the first, which has been repainted, including the supposedly oppressive merchant’s name, by another local artist. No doubt because they didn’t find it patronizing, colonial, exoticized, misogynistic or offensive.

Courtesy Ilay Cooper

Here is a local Indian merchant importer or ‘dalal’, named Babu Shiv Bux showing the cloth he sells, with the shipper’s tickets attached. Before independence, India purchased textile machinery from Manchester’s mills and factories as they closed down following the 1929 Depression. Tickets also began to be printed in India and, apart from showing very British subjects such as Royalty, were not so different at all.

One last point is that the curators at the Indian museum only has around 300 tickets and they never went to the Manchester warehouses, never spoke to the merchants, didn’t look at this free resource website. I have spoken with two renowned academics with decades of research between them on these tickets, one being the most revered Indian writer on this subject, and both were appalled at the way these tickets are being misrepresented by a museum that freely admits they are just putting out “opinion” videos to attract “young people”. Despite the museum claiming that they are Creating a culture of constructive feedback and openness to discussion and Working responsibly and being accountable they have blocked the comments section on the videos and had no interest in my free offer of describing the actual history of these tickets in a new video.

The museum’s YouTube video was in English, without any Indian language subtitles. It used what sounded like a copyright free “upbeat and inoffensive” western jingle in the background instead of Indian music. The video content was about one culture not really understanding the culture of market they were promoting their brand to – just giving them clichés and stereotypes of what they thought they wanted to see to attract attention.

Ironically, they didn’t even realize that their video was doing exactly what they were accusing the textile merchants of.

As a serious museum, not a Twitter feed desperate for attention, I hope they understand their responsibility to present the facts fully and invite experts to pass on their knowledge and put across different opinions. A museum should never misrepresent history just to increase visitor income, or for social media ‘likes’ and ‘views’.

Deity tickets pasted on walls in Fatehpur, India.
© Ilay Cooper

And I hope this website helps people understand that, although slavery and colonialism was and still is a stain on our lives, in Victorian Manchester, alongside the toxic, child-labour factories was the largest collection of ethnocentric art that ever existed, depicting cultures or traditions around the world that have long since vanished.

An image that is baffling to us…
…but instantly recognizable as a proverb in a region of Nigeria

It is a real shame if, because of ignorance and bias, people dismiss all that creative talent and the important lesson that it is to everyone’s advantage, both ethically and economically to respect and appreciate different cultures.

I did not name the museum or link to the video, which was so upsetting and one-sided that I posted this response, as I do not want the video to gain any popularity. However, I am always happy to share, either privately or via a talk, any of my collection, history or personal knowledge with anyone who is interested.

This post’s content has been checked by people across three continents, including India, who between them have nearly 100 years of practical and academic research between them but encourage anyone to add their direct or research knowledge or perspective to this fascinating but overlooked part of art and branding history.