A 700-year-old Grade-1 listed heritage venue has teamed up with leading South Asian artists to shine a spotlight on a culture woven into Britain’s history.
St Mary’s Guildhall, which avoided Luftwaffe bombing raids in World War Two and reopened last summer following a £5.5m restoration, will help the city celebrate South Asian Heritage Month by hosting ‘What We Wore: Stories of South Asian Textiles’ – an innovative textile exhibition and community arts programme in partnership with Coventry Artspace from July 22.
The free exhibition is part of St Mary’s Guildhall community engagement programme, which is funded by the Heritage Fund thanks to National Lottery players. The exhibition is curated by Coventry-based artist Hardish Virk and is inspired by his archive called ‘Stories That Made Us’, which includes thousands of artefacts documenting the South Asian experience in Coventry and beyond since World War II.
The archive is managed by Hardish Virk in partnership with Coventry Artspace and includes audio recordings and writings of Virk’s late Mother, the author, activist and radio broadcaster Jasvir Kang, as well as clothes, jewellery, photographs, music, artwork and books collected by Virk.
In addition to an upcycling workshop on July 22 there is a launch celebration featuring new music from world music percussionist Mahandra Patel on July 28. The exhibition will include new artworks created in response to the textiles, fashion and patterns found in ‘The Stories That Made Us' archive, and features digital artworks by South Asian visual artists Tejal Gohil and Daya Bhatti.
South Asian Heritage Month runs from July 18 to August 17, but St Mary’s Guildhall will host the exhibition as part of their visitor offering until the end of September to allow more time to engage with the rich history and personal stories preserved by the archive.
The venue’s community engagement team are hoping the exhibition and activities will resonate with anyone who has a connection to Coventry, a love of history or an interest in multicultural Britain.
Niamh Carton, Community Engagement Manager at St Mary’s Guildhall, said: “With a project like this we get to tell stories that are both personal and universal. We always have and always will tell stories about ourselves through the clothes we wear and the materials we use.
“This speaks directly to the history of the Guildhall, which houses the oldest tapestry still in situ in Britain which was, and still is, a channel for storytelling with meanings and stories yet to be discovered. We have been intrigued by how the Coventry tapestry was used to tell stories and communicate meaning at a time of its creation. This exhibition very much tied into that. There are meanings to be found in the medium of fabric and clothes which might not be apparent to us at first glance, but if we take a closer look, reveal all sorts of hidden fascinating facets which give us a better understanding of the world around us.’
“The common threads and universal themes make this a perfect collaboration, and we are extremely excited to get started, and hope to see people of all backgrounds joining us and revelling in the stories and history that Hardish has brought to life in this exhibition.”
Hardish Virk said: “The authentic telling of our stories is a fundamental element of the ‘Stories That Made Us’ South Asian heritage project, and ‘What We Wore: Stories of South Asian Textiles’ is a great opportunity to do exactly that.
“The social, cultural and political influence of South Asian textiles and fashion is global and this exhibition will allow us to share some of this conversation while showcasing incredible pieces, each item rich with history.
“It’s fantastic to be working with Coventry Artspace and St Mary’s Guildhall’s community engagement team as both organisations respect the lens through which these stories need to be told and are instrumental in providing the space, resources, expertise and experience.
“It’s also great to have a diverse range of South Asian artists working with us on this exhibition and to be part of South Asian Heritage Month 2023.”
Mindy Chillery, Executive Director, Coventry Artspace, said: "It will be such a treat to enjoy these carefully selected treasures from Hardish's rich archive in a beautiful setting like the guildhall. We want to encourage artists to draw inspiration from this archive, which documents Coventry's South Asian stories in so many ways, and celebrates their influence on British art and culture."
To kickstart the exhibition, an upcycling workshop hosted by Bhatti will take place on Saturday, July 22 at 2pm, encouraging visitors to use clothing as a canvas to express themselves and transform old clothes into wearable art – responding to pieces in the exhibition and echoing the guildhall’s historical use as a medieval textile hub for the city’s merchants.
The official launch will take place on Friday, July 28 at 6.30pm, with Srividya Venkat, a South Indian Carnatic violinist and Anandithya Venkat on keyboard and as translator.
Kang’s Punjabi poem 'My Mothers Sari’ and Bengali poet Sri Rabindranath Tagore’s poem ‘Keep Walking Alone’ will also be performed to live music.
Mehru Fitter, an influential figure in sharing Coventry’s multicultural history and identity, will host a pair of talks on Saturday, August 5 and Saturday, September 2, exploring the garments worn by UK’s South Asian migrants and the influence of African textile heritage, with a significant number of South Asians moving to the UK via African countries.
Tickets are available at www.stmarysguildhall.co.uk.