In a plane of crisp sunlight that angles down through the door frame, and dissolves into rust-coloured shadows settling across the dark floor, unease spreads along the walls of this wooden interior. A woman in the centre hugs a small infant close to her breast. Next to her, another holds a child on her lap. To their left is a muscular man dressed in light yellow work trousers and a waistcoat: he watches them, his face expressively surly. Seated in a semi-circle the women stare intently at the stove, or let their eyes settle on something outside the room. They are dressed well in respectable printed cotton dresses, their sleeves billowing out from under stiff white aprons. Four white men – one in the background and the other three conversing in the doorway on the left – like sentinels, stand watch. And as they watch and we watch them, these slaves, neatly arranged on rough wooden benches, quietly wait to be sold.
As the service industry has taken over goods, the parameters of conspicuous consumption have also shifted. The ‘lifestyle experience’ is how architectural theorist, Brian Lonsway, describes the subtle aesthetic choices used to complement the interests of target consumers. And for spaces like Coal Drops Yard in London and Birmingham’s Custard Factory, where a creative, ‘edgy’ lifestyle is cultivated through its authentic-slash-heritage infrastructure, digital technology has been as essential as the buildings themselves. Embedded within these spaces then is a connection to the past and a lucrative, aestheticised placemaking that emphasises authenticity – an especially important factor in a digital, social media-driven age.
My mother has not held a job in nearly fifty years. This is not because she chose to be a stay-at-home mom or enjoyed independent wealth or relied on a man to dole out an allowance. She had four children from different fathers, none of whom contributed financially in any notable or legally mandated way. We lived with my grandmother in her once-stately New England home in a small Connecticut town in which we, as a familial economic entity, were ill-fitted at best. We were poor and happy. And my mother was jobless but prolific. She woke every day between four and five in the morning, made coffee and began to work. That is: to sew.
I felt like an outsider because I wanted to be a part of that group but I couldn’t afford it. I couldn’t go to Biarritz, I couldn’t go to Gstaad, I couldn’t go to St. Barts or to the places where rich people go to have fabulous luncheons and dinners, but I could afford to buy some cheap taffeta and make a ball gown and go to the clubs where those people went, and walk into them like I owned them.
An Amish catechism manual devotes nine pages and forty-three questions and answers to dress – second only to the topic of heaven. In hypermodernity, dress articulates individuality and personal taste. In Amish life, clothing expresses exactly the opposite meaning. When members wear Amish garb, they relinquish their right to self-expression and signal their commitment to communal authority. Clothing that shows off one’s individuality produces a proud, haughty person, and pride is considered an abomination in the eyes of God.
To be pregnant, and then to be a mother, is to be reliant on others – to greater and lesser degrees dependent, like almost everything, on access to money, although family and community can play a vital role of support here too. I was reliant on the information and care of each different midwife I saw throughout my pregnancy. Then I was reliant on doctors, nurses, more midwives and the neonatal care team to keep me and my baby alive. I was reliant on my employer and the government to provide maternity leave, I was reliant on my boyfriend to provide income when I couldn’t, though many mothers, my own included, are reliant on government support instead. The extreme individualism of late capitalism both ensures this dependency, and does not make space for it having any value, any sense of positivity. It is simply a drain on resources. As I lost my privacy and sense of self-governance, I was no longer able to feel like an autonomous woman, and I craved the aesthetics of a woman who did.
The Chinese dragon is Chinese, but how did it become so? And what does ‘Chinese’ even mean in the context of a transcontinental empire from the 1300s? What does it mean today? Decentring fixed notions and dichotomies can be the first step in initiating transcultural discussions, and doing so acknowledges the interdisciplinary nature of transcultural, globalised study. History and art history, archaeology and material studies and visual studies — all of these go hand-in-hand when disassembling dishonest labels of ‘pure’ or ‘original’ or ‘national.’ In this way the broader realisations of hybridity, influence, or exchange can shine through.