The artist on how discarded tailoring patterns, a lost garden of his boyhood in India and his new British citizenship inspired a very personal new exhibition
When I was a boy, I used to visit a beautiful community garden in my hometown of Pune, India. I thought of this garden during the EU referendum. I was starting a new art project – a series of 12 works destined to span the top floor of the Royal Festival Hall, in London.
Hormazd Narielwalla: ‘After my naturalisation ceremony, I went for a big English breakfast.’ Photograph: Marco Pereira
The garden, which was a couple of acres, was one of the few traces of British colonial history left in Pune. It housed beautiful rose beds, and was maintained as a cooperative. People from the community visited, socialised, caught up on local gossip and bought roses. It was a splendid treat that everyone was free to enjoy.
One day, we went to visitto the garden and were shocked to find it completely flattened and the rose beds gone. The land had been sold to a property developer and a modern building swiftly rose in its place. It was a sad, empty, uprooted feeling. The garden represented years of caring and longing, taken away from us.
When I woke up to the result of the referendum on 24 June, that overwhelming feeling of loss came back to me. Overnight, my new artworks had become a warning of what might be lost here in Britain. On a personal level, they also made me revisit my 13-year journey to UK citizenship.
I have always worked in collage, using unwanted tailoring and sewing patterns as raw materials. I was already interested in it when I arrived in the UK in 2003 to embark on a degree in fashion design at the University of Wales in Newport. In the 1980s and 90s, India was still very closed. I used to visit secondhand book markets to buy British Vogues from the 60s and 70s. They became my visual references and fuelled my desire to work in fashion.
The art of losing: Lost Gardens, currently on exhibit at Southbank Centre, London. Photograph: Hormazd Narielwalla
It was on my master’s course at the University of Westminster that I met the director of a prominent Savile Row tailor, who told me the firm ceremoniously shredded the bespoke patterns of customers when they died. As the body no longer existed, he explained, it was pointless to archive the patterns.
This left a profound impression on me, and I begged him to give me the patterns. He finally gave me a selection after removing all traces of the customers’ identities. Tailoring patterns have been around since the late 1500s. As technical drafts, they are used to create structured clothing. But freed from function, these patterns are abstract drawings in their own right, outlines containing and defining the human body and culture. I made them into an artist book, Dead Man’s Patterns.
The British Library and the V&A’s National Art Library bought copies, as did 25 other public collections across Europe and the US. Paul Smith sponsored my first solo show, and I was awarded a scholarship to do a PhD at London College of Fashion, researching British army uniforms in the archives of the National Army Museums in London and at Sandhurst. My final project – five sculptures made from military patterns – were exhibited at the Saatchi Gallery in 2013.
In February 2016, I became an official subject of Her Majesty the Queen, just as the leave campaign began riding on – and stirring up – a wave of anti-immigration sentiment. My naturalisation ceremony was a proud moment. My new identity had dawned, and I was full of optimism and strength. The country that had given me so much had, in turn, recognised my contributions to art and academia – as well as my taxes.
God Save the Queen, a Savile Row-inspired work Narielwalla made to celebrate his UK citizenship. Photograph: Hormazd Narielwalla
After the ceremony, my partner and best friend took me out for a big English breakfast. I also celebrated by releasing a large-scale artwork of the Queen, depicted in abstract form on small squares resembling stamps. It was my thank you for all the opportunities and privileges I had received as an immigrant.
By this time, immigration was already at the centre of the referendum debate. Politicians and personalities were defending the contributions made by generations of immigrants, and while the rhetoric from some of the leave campaigners was quite threatening, I was certain British people would stand in solidarity and not succumb to alienating themselves from their neighbours. The speech Sheila Hancock made on the final television debate was poignant and honest and came from such a warm place. That’s the person I was looking to as a voice of hope.
Then the vote was for Brexit, and the leave side seemed to take back control. I fear what this means for us all. Of course, not everyone who voted leave is racist – many had different reasons for wanting out of the EU – but I can’t help feeling that half of Britain doesn’t want me here. Like the lost rose garden, my contributions and successes have disappeared into oblivion.
My new series of work is made on sewing patterns from the 1950s. Paper was a luxury and companies would print the entire pattern of the garment on a single sheet. I have inserted block colour into the intersections, and the finished works are meant to communicate both the body in cubist form and the cultural landscape we all share.
At the time of making, the series didn’t have a title. It has now become Lost Gardens and is exhibited against a backdrop ranging from the Houses of Parliament to the west through the City of London and over to the East End. It is a promenade experience that is meant to trigger thoughts from the personal to the political. And for me it is also a reminder that things can all too easily be lost.
• Lost Gardens is at Southbank Centre, London, until 21 October.