Breaking with Stereotypes in the Wallpaper Collection

Wallpaper could be understood as innocuous and purely decorative, yet bodies as patterns are repeated across the wallpaper collection at the Whitworth. Bodies of Colour offers an alternative view, acknowledging the part that these wallpapers have played in repeating and affirming cultural stereotypes by exploring the representation of people and showing how we could begin to break ranks, by disarming these patterns to offer something new.

Whitworth art gallery

8 march 2019

My intention to see this collection was to solely explore wallpaper design, pattern from a new perception. I contacted the wallpaper head curator of this gallery and she asked me to come and see the collection on display.

This exhibition has used the Whitworth’s significant wallpaper collection to focus on how imperial attitudes to people are reflected in wallpaper.

The wallpapers in this exhibition were designed in Western Europe (and a few in America) but inspiration for the patterns comes from across the globe. The popularity of wallpaper grew through the 18th to 20th centuries, at the same time as the rapid expansion of the British Empire. 

Stereotypes are created through the regular repetition of ideas about people. Made in multiples with repetitive designs, wallpapers repeat again and again and again. Wallpaper is also imitative, taking inspiration from what is popular: the figures in this exhibition come from ancient myths, pop stars, novels, tapestries, toys, film genres, ‘exotic’ objects, news stories, art and cartoon characters.The artists featured in the exhibition have used wallpaper to make social critique. In 1989 Robert Gober used the repeating patterns of wallpaper to startling effect with Hanging Man / Sleeping Man. The alternating vignettes of a black man hanging from a tree by a noose and a white man sleeping make a stark critique of the harrowing history of slavery in America. The white man asleep is a powerful metaphor for enduring blindness to the international legacies of empire. On a more intimate level, Virgil Marti's Bullies (1992) uses lurid fluorescents to colour the yearbook portraits of the artist's school tormentors, the 1970s setting evoked by repeating their faces across flock wallpaper. Action Man, Spice Girls, Sindy, even Mickey Mouse wallpapers, all aimed at children and seemingly innocent.The exhibition is grouped around themes of racism, cultural conflicts and gender, history, and sexuality. Although many of these designs could still decorate a living room. Zineb Sedira does so.

Zineb Sedira uses wallpaper patterns to illustrate social inequalities and gender difference from her French-Algerian Islamic perspective. Her fascination for the relationship between mother and daughter, depicts three generations of women  in work “ Une Generation de Femmes”, 1997.

This  makes me realize that wallpaper is not always a harmless backdrop. Developed within colonialism and industrial capitalism, it has been a ready reflector of social visual histories as well. When so many prominent designers and artists using the medium as their primary method of expression, this exhibition provides me potential exploration of possibilities and influences of print. here are few of the images from the exhibition including the one I have mentioned in the text.