The Singh Twins’ decorative works often have a strongly political message, says Terry Grimley.
The Singh Twins are a remarkable one-off in recent British art – or perhaps I should really say a remarkable “two-off”.
Rabindra Kaur Singh and Amrit Kaur Singh are identical twins from Liverpool, who use the highly decorative style of traditional Indian miniature painting to record scenes from their domestic lives as British Asians, or to reflect on popular culture or politics.
Clearly their highly-detailed and meticulously-painted works take a long time to make. But during what is now approaching a 20-year career, they have developed an ever-expanding and beautiful body of work which tours regularly in retrospective exhibitions like the one which has just opened at Leamington Spa Art Gallery and Museum.
This is their first exhibition since they suspended their touring programme in 2006 to concentrate on two large commissions for Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture.
In a way, their work uses a formula you might almost have expected someone to hit on, although you might not necessarily have expected it to draw in such a wide range of cultural references, or to be executed with such exquisite skill.
Yet their teachers at art school were far from encouraging about adopting a traditional Indian language. As the twins put it on their website, “it seemed that our work represented all the taboos of contemporary Western art in that it was decorative, figurative, narrative, small scale, non-individualistic and coming from a non-European tradition.”
The struggle they had to pursue their instincts against the grain is reflected in three versions of the small painting Daddy in the Sitting Room, which was made as students in 1987 and where the composition is repeated exactly each time but, as their father’s thoughts become more focused on India, the style shifts progressively from West to East.
Today, the Singh Twins are clearly recognised as an artistic jewel in their home town. In Arts Matters: the Pool of Life, one of two elaborate compositions commissioned for Liverpool 2008, they paint themselves in a boat in the foreground, rubbing shoulders with Sir Simon Rattle, Ken Dodd, Cilla Black and Steven Gerrard. Elsewhere in this complex and heavily populated painting, you will find The Beatles and even a reference to Francis Bacon.
Liverpool’s 2008 celebrations also saw the Singhs moving into animation for the first time with their short film The Making of Liverpool, which recently won them a creative media Award at the Spinning Wheel Film & Art Festival in Hollywood.
The largest work in the exhibition, however, is Nineteen Eighty-Four (the Storming of the Golden Temple) from 1998, a blood-curdling and angry depiction of the Indian army’s attack on the Golden Temple at Amritsar. The assault 25 years ago on the holiest of Sikh sites was an anti-terrorist operation called Operation Blue Star, which resulted in the deaths of nearly 500 civilians.
Another politically outspoken work is Rabindra’s Partners in Crime: Deception and Lies (2004), a double portrait of President George W Bush and Tony Blair shown, hands dripping with blood, in front of a burning oil well. The decorative border is made from photographic images of dead Iraqi children.
Some of the paintings are joint works and some are attributed to the sisters individually.
If there is an discernible difference in style, to judge from a group of individually painted domestic scenes from the mid-1990s, it may just be that Amrit tends to paint more thickly, Rabindra more transparently.
Most of their work is in a lighter key than either Nineteen Eighty-Four or Partners in Crime and they have a fondness for working in series. One of these originated in Birmingham, when they were commissioned to create a series of female portraits to accompany the Barber Institute’s exhibition based on its Rossetti painting The Blue Bower.
Taking Rossetti’s background of flat decorative tiles as a linking motif, they produced miniature portraits of Marilyn Monroe, Madonna, Princess Diana, Lady Thatcher and Mother Teresa.
Another series, SPOrTLIGHT, marked the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester. One of the sport-themed paintings, Zero to Hero, showing Victoria and David Beckham enthroned, is a defining image of 21st century celebrity.
It’s possible to miss the homely charm of some of the paintings from the early to mid-90s, but the world has become the Singhs’ playground. The sheer number of popular references in their paintings, from King Kong to Ronald McDonald and Torvill and Dean, is extraordinary.
Everything is painted with exemplary skill, but is meant to challenge cultural perspectives. It’s a unique take on life in multicultural, 21st century Britain.
* The Singh Twins: Art in Motion is at Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum until May 24 (Mon-Sat 9.30am-5pm, Sun 11am-4pm; admission free). The Singh Twins will give a talk on their inspirations, themes and development on April 30. Admission £3; call 01926 742700 to reserve a place.