Dr. Cristin McKnight Sethi is an assistant professor of Art History at the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design at George Washington University (GW). She holds a Ph.D. in Art History from the University of California, Berkeley (2015) and a Master’s in Art History from the University of Texas at Austin (2008). Her research and teaching interests focus on South Asia and include the study of textiles and vernacular art, the intersection of gender and practices of making, networks of circulation and exchange, and histories of colonialism and British imperialism. Prior to joining the faculty at GW, Cristin taught at the California College of the Arts and at Colorado College and held curatorial and research positions at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the UCLA Fowler Museum, the Asian Art Museum San Francisco, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Cristin‘s current book project examines gender, labor, and hand embroidery in Punjab during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Repetition, Copies, Tradition: Making and Re-Making Textiles in South Asia

The central role of “tradition” in diverse creative practices on the Indian subcontinent is well-known amongst scholars of South Asian art. Historically, many artists rejected individualism and embraced templates or rules considered part of their tradition. Copying was not thought of as debased or derivative, but instead was an honored practice that closely considered artistic predecessors, or what Molly Aitken has referred to as “the intelligence of tradition.” As Aitken argues, for many artists, following the canon was a mark of professionalism and adherence to rules was considered a “form of artfulness.” Contemporary artists on the subcontinent, particularly those working within so-called vernacular or folk art, continue to prize this relationship with their visual predecessors and consider adherence to tradition – both as an idea and as a practice – to be of paramount importance.

This paper considers practices of repetition and copying alongside conceptions of tradition amongst textile artists from South Asia with particular consideration of constructions of gender throughout these processes. What are the “originals” in these instances? Who is responsible for disseminating these visual predecessors and through what means? What happens when contemporary copies of older textiles engage in practices of cross-dressing (e.g. a man’s scarf becomes a woman’s saree)? What is at stake for artists who draw upon objects in the collection of foreign museums and who is able to take ownership of and carry on tradition? By examining a few different case studies of textiles across South Asia, this paper seeks to explore how definitions of tradition and practices of making are in a state of constant negotiation.