British Textile Biennial 2023

The British Textile Biennial launches next Friday 29th September with a programme that focuses on the issue of sustainability in textile production, asking whether it can ever be a regenerative enterprise, environmentally and socially.   Artists from Benin to Bangladesh present work that takes active steps to address the legacy of colonialism while others look back on its pre-industrial history.

The third edition of British Textile Biennial 2023 (BTB23) traces the routes of fibres and fabrics across continents and centuries to and from the north of England in a series of commissions and exhibitions throughout October in the spaces left behind by the Lancashire textile industry. From the so-called ‘slave cloth’, spun and woven by hand on the Pennine moors, to the bales of used fast fashion that make their way from British high streets to the markets and toxic mountains of waste in West Africa, BTB23 follows that journey.

Highlights of this year’s British Textile Biennial include a keynote by Gus Casely-Hayford, installations by Nest Collective, Victoria Udondian, Tenant of Culture, and Thierry Oussou, a new performance by Common Wealth Theatre, new commissions by Christine Borland, Rebecca Chesney, Nick Jordan and Jacob Cartwright, sculpture by Jeremy Hutchison and a major exhibition by South Asian artists from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Britain.

Penistone Cloth Hall, built in 1765, was where pieces of cloth hand spun and woven in Lancashire and Yorkshire were sold. A tiny fragment of such cloth, known as Penistone Cloth, has recently come to light, with an 18th century label describing it as “Penistone sent for Negro clothing in 1783, which for substance, strength and unchangeable colour is best adapted to that purpose”. This type of fabric was used to clothe millions of enslaved people in the Caribbean and America for two hundred years, in the artificial ‘production platforms’ of sugar and cotton that were the engines of colonialism and capitalism. This precious and hugely significant piece will be shown in Blackburn Museum, accompanied by a timeline charting the complex global history that it represents.

The exhibition in The Cotton Exchange Blackburn charts our ongoing problematic relationship with cotton in a space which itself is bound up in that story. Its opening in 1865 coincided with the Northern blockade of cotton from the plantations of the South in the American Civil War in a stand against the enslavement of people transported from Africa, which was supported by the local mill workers and, as a result, was never used for the purpose of cotton trading.

For the first time, raw cotton will be presented on the floor of the Exchange, this time coming from 3 hectares of land in Benin, farmed by artist Thierry Oussou with local workers and agriculture students. In this way, Oussou re-connects the dots of cotton manufacturing, pointing out the sequence of actions that we, as consumers, often forget about. The cotton stands as a bold challenge to ask if we can put the whole unrestrained capitalist project in reverse and whether textile production can ever be a globally regenerative enterprise. It seems unlikely, as Nairobi’s Nest Collective demonstrates in their haunting film running in a structure built from the second-hand garment bales destined for landfill in Ghana where, in a perverse trick of history, the discarded desires of the global north are dumped on communities in West Africa, stalling the local textile economy and contaminating the environment.

Meanwhile, out in Blackburn town centre, Jeremy Hutchison’s monster sculptures stalk the streets created from the clothing bales destined for Africa as a haunting reminder of what he calls our ‘zombie imperialism’.

29 September – 29 October 2023