The French presidential election is soon, and the rhetoric of nationalism has not been more clear in contemporary Western politics than ever before. One of the front-running candidates, Marine Le Pen, appears to have a very large network of supporters at her globalisation-shunning, immigration-rejecting, Franc-over-Euro speeches.
What public and private art institutions have done to address the rise of nationalist sentiments has been heartening, including in the USA and the UK. Many institutions in London have attempted an intellectual examination of historical instances of revolutionary behaviour, while institutions in the United States have mostly opted to making clear political statements using curatorial methods like removing works of immigrant artists (The Davis Museum at Wellesley College, Massachusetts).
I went to the ‘Lockwood Kipling: Arts and Crafts in the Punjab and London' exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum this weekend. Being of Rajput descent, it is always tricky to contextualise Indian arts and crafts within the chapter of colonial commercialisation that it went through in order to become celebrated and widely available in markets beyond India.
Towards the beginning of the exhibition, there is much mention of ‘The Great Exhibition’ of 1851.This was the first exhibition of its kind, an international exhibition of manufactured products from across the British colonies and dependencies as well as other regions and states across Europe and the Americas. Some items that were exhibited at the India exhibit within ‘The Great Exhibition’ are currently on exhibit at the Lockwood Kipling exhibition at the V&A Museum.
I observed an anklet with a familiar design. Rajasthani design. It was a delicate looking silver thing, with tiny bells on its edges and many shadows between the details. Beside it another anklet with a very different design: beginning with a ring of little diamond-shaped reds strung together, with widening rings of the same red moving outwards to form what looked more like a pretty table coaster than an anklet. No bells on it.
This variety of design and craft from a single region in India is one of the ingredients that made the India exhibit so enticing, and attracted attention to the possible commercial value they could generate. Where the norms of accessorising must have been much stricter in Britain, the free-flowing creativity in self-embellishment invited patrons to reconsider the purposes of art, craft and design.
The French electorate and the rest of us as members of local communities have to make clear conscious decisions daily regarding the extent to which we engage with global communities where our presence is less direct but no less impactful. The Great Exhibition and the growth that followed it is a special and isolated example of what sorts of good can come out of global engagement. Here’s to hoping the art world, at least, continues moving in that direction.