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India Recycled - Horniman Museum

Preview by Lizzie Guilfoyle

A PHOTOGRAPHIC exhibition entitled India Recycled (From UK charity shop to Indian market) will be on display at the Horniman Museum from May 24, 2008 to January 25, 2009.

The exhibition explores the journey of donated clothing from UK charity shops to the pavement traders and tailoring shops of northern India, as well as the contrasting flow of recycled silk saris and textiles that begin life in India before being recycled as Western fashion items.

As anthropologist and co-curator of the exhibition, Dr Lucy Norris explains: “Clothing is now given in such huge quantities to UK charities that they can’t sell them all in the shops. So some items of clothing are taken to the charities’ depots, such as Oxfam’s Wastesavers’ depot in Yorkshire, and sold on to textile reclaimers – the modern day equivalent of rag-and-bone dealers.”

In Wastesavers’ depot, the clothes are fed into a ‘mutilating machine’ which cuts strips into the items to make them unwearable, preventing them from being sold illegally in countries like India. Imports of wearable clothing are banned by the Indian authorities in order to protect their clothing manufacturing industries, so Western clothing always arrives in India in this mutilated form.

Textile reclaimers then sort the mutilated clothing by type, selling on appropriate items to international dealers who transport to countries like India. Here, the mutilated clothes are traded to India’s wholesale markets. Buyers from the markets, including Azad Market in Delhi, then transport the items to warehouses, where they are shred by workers who spin the reclaimed fabric into yarn or ‘shoddy’ thread – a term used to describe broken-down knitted and woven clothing.

The Indian warehouse workers cut out garment labels and discard even those advertising expensive brands. The shoddy thread is then used to create new items such as blankets or shawls and new labels are attached, with the discarded Western brand names being replaced by names of Indian gods such as the Hindu God Shiva.

India Recycled documents this process in fascinating detail, as well as exploring the contrasting flow of recycled Indian clothing. Clothes recycling is a growing industry in India, with thousands of traders regularly purchasing cast-off clothing in the large-scale outdoor markets of India’s cities. Second-hand clothing is usually mended, washed and ironed before being sold back to poorer Indians at local markets.

Maria Ragan, the Horniman Museum’s Exhibitions and Design Manager, said: “We are delighted to be hosting this exhibition. With recycling such a vitally important issue, India Recycled demonstrates how the world’s resources are being re-used across the sub-continent, and we hope visitors to the Horniman will draw inspiration from the exhibition’s depiction of this very unique recycling process.”

In some cases, Indian clothes are recycled into Western fashion items. India Recycled features images of Mrs Sharma, who is commissioned by clients across Europe, America and Australia to create new designs using the recycled saris she stores at her New Delhi home. Bedspreads, cushion covers and bags created from old saris, shawls and blouses are increasingly popular with Western visitors to India’s markets and such items can often be found in boutiques, markets and festivals across the UK.

India Recycled is the result of fieldwork undertaken by Lucy Norris, who spent several months interviewing dealers in Azad Market, mill owners and industrialists in Panipat, and tradespeople from Ludhiana, Amritsar and beyond. In particular, she spent time with the Waghri community (originally from Gujarat) in north Delhi, who use clothes as bargaining tools to barter for domestic items such as steel and plastic kitchen utensils.

Photographer and co-curator of the exhibition, Tim Mitchell, travelled with Dr Norris, capturing the workers, market traders, dealers and consumers involved in the contrasting flow of cast-off clothing between the UK and India. His photography demonstrates in vivid and colourful detail the journey from Yorkshire depot to Delhi market – and from Delhi trader to Western boutique.

India Recycled is on display at the same time as Utsavam – Music from India which runs until November 2, 2008. A groundbreaking exhibition, it provides a unique insight into traditional Indian music through its displays of music, film footage and musical instruments.

Also at the Horniman Museum is China: Symbols in Silk.
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