Singh Twins Artby Peter Elson
Launches Liverpool Fest
Small, but perfectly formed, the Singh Twins recreation of Liverpool's coat of arms must be one of the city's best presents to itself for 2007.
The two Wirral-based, internationally-acclaimed watercolourists, Amrit and Rabindra Kaur Singh, have produced a glowing tribute to the city for its 800th anniversary, that is colourful, exquisitely executed and humorous.
"We approached Liverpool Culture Company with various proposals and they selected this one," says Amrit.
"As artists, we are always keen to promote traditional and modern forms, in a style we call past-modern," says Rabindra.
"To us, this style of painting is a terrific way to tell a story. Here we are telling an 800-year story of a seaport that became second city of the British Empire."
The watercolour painting, 20 inches wide and 30 inches long, was started last summer and took around 700 hours to complete.
It is packed with the city's history and colour. So thorough has been their research it's difficult to spot any major civic achievement that is not represented in some way.
The upper half carries the specific reworking of the city's coat of arms, incorporating all sorts of extra details and jokes around the figures of Poseidon and Triton.
Viewers will do a double take when they see what the Singh Twins have done with the Liverpool waterfront skyline, which divides the picture across the centre.
The overall linking of subject matter is both clever and witty. Ships' masts sprout into telegraph poles and wires to represent the transatlantic cables laid by the ships Armageddon and Niagara.
Cunard Line's 1840 mail steamer RMS Britannia chugs off to open scheduled services to North America, but paradoxically leaves a Liverpool skyline that incorporates the Empire State Building (denoting the city's pioneering work in creating skyscrapers) with King Kong on top (symbolising its filmwork and that the first captured gorilla was imported into Liverpool).
To the right, or east, Blue Funnel Line's cargo-liner Patrocullus represents Liverpool magnate Alfred Holt opening up the Far East via Suez, his crews forming Europe's oldest-established Chinese population, commemorated by the great Arch, also here.
Plants associated with the city's trade, like tobacco and cotton, intertwine the items. Imperial lilies are for power, peonies for glory, chrysanthemums for truth.
Pomegranates stand for seasonal change and rebirth, which tie in with polymath William Roscoe inaugurating the first Botanic Gardens.
The mariners' church of Our Lady and St Nicholas parish church nestle next to the UK's first mosque (also built in Liverpool) with the Liverpool Overhead Railway rumbling behind. Known as the dockers' umbrella, floating above is a classic Singh Twin comic touch, an umbrella with an anchor-shaped handle.
The list goes on endlessly: Cranes not only show the rising Grosvenor Paradise Street development, but also a Fathers 4 Justice banner dangling from a gantry.
Lest we forget Liverpool's artistic culture, instead of the Liver Bird having seaweed or laver in its beak, it is holding a paintbrush.
"The city's comic history is represented by Triton getting a harlequin tail, which links with Dale Street once being called Jester Street," says Amrit. More cleverly still, his tail splits into fins that are Liverpool FC and Everton scarves, which again is linked to the first televised Match of the Day in 1964, between Liverpool and Arsenal.
"We agree on 99% of things and divide the work up, although Amrit is more disciplined on details like the waves, whereas I volunteered for the buildings," says Rabindra.
The painting is packed with intriguing symbolism that draws both on British and Indian traditions. The twins also commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Sikh religion through Liverpool's Sikh Festival.
One of the Liver Birds is transposed into a swan, the Indian mythological symbol of art, culture and learning. Then there is a butterfly, symbolising the city's rebirth.
"One of the traditions of Indian art is to represent the artists themselves, so we are at each side, one with a camera and the other with a notepad and paintbrush," says Rabindra.
"This work has made us a lot prouder of living in this area and learning about all the innovations that have come out of it. There's so much more than just the Beatles and football," says Amrit.
The Singh Twins' new Liverpool Coat of Arms has gone on permanent public display at St George's Hall, Liverpool, commencing April 23, 2007, after its unveiling by the Prince of Wales, when he was also presented with a collectors edition fine art print of the painting.
Reviving an ancient art
Drawing "since the year dot", the Singh Twins employ traditional techniques used in Indian miniature painting (which they discovered as teenagers) in a contemporary form.
It is a huge tribute to their talent that the Singh Twins have single, or rather double-handedly, revived this fine art, which had become moribund in India itself. Inspired by their lead, other Indian artists are now exploring the medium.
This combination of Asian and Western influences, coupled with the Singh Twins, reflects their dual cultural identity and is a channel for their political and social views. Their Liverpool Coat of Arms picture incorporates a tiny banner from the Save Quiggins campaign, indicating the twins' active support for the famous store.
Their paintings blend the exotic and the familiar; a western photo-realism that is framed by intricately exquisite patterns of the traditional ragmala miniature paintings that evolved in 17th-century India.
They see themselves as one artist (splitting the work between them), yet their creations divide into two levels or meanings, just as their British-Asian identity is a whole made from two cultures.
Born in London to Indian parents and moving to Wirral at the age of eight, Amrit and Rabindra Kaur Singh planned to be academics in their degree subject of ecclesiastic history and comparative religion.
However, they claim to have been confronted with prejudice while studying an elective in art at Liverpool University's Chester College, which made them determined to prove their instructors wrong.
"We would not have been artists if it hadn't been for the negative treatment we found going through art college," says Rabindra.
"We had been fascinated by Indian miniatures since we were teenagers and we wanted to incorporate that style into our work, but we were criticised for this," says Amrit.
"Yet all around us other students were copying Western artists and being praised for it," adds Rabindra.
Their tenacity and self-belief has paid off. Besides exhibiting in the UK, the twins have had successful shows all over the world, including the US, Canada and the Netherlands.
In 2002, they became the only British artists after Henry Moore honoured by a solo exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi, India.
[Courtesy: The Liverpool Daily Post]
Photos: Front Page, Thumbnail and top of this page: Amrit and Rabindra Kaur Singh with Prince Charles at the unveiling of the painting in Liverpool on St George's Day, April 23, 2007. The remaining images are details from the painting, including the one at the bottom which depicts, amongst a variety of icons reflecting the diversity of the local population, an image of Guru Nanak to mark five centuries since the birth of the Faith practised by Sikh-Britons.
Conversation about this article
1: Georgina Williams (Wickford, Essex, U.K.), August 27, 2009, 10:38 AM.
I`m keen to know more details about their work, The Last Supper. It's beautiful, totally multi-cultural ... I really want to know more about it.
2: Aradhana Khemani (Manchester, United Kingdom), October 04, 2010, 7:14 AM.
I am doing a B.A. in fine arts at Manchester Metropolitan University and did my foundation course in Chelsea College of Art and Design, London. I am intrigued by the work of the Twins and would like to know more about them. I am also an Indian trying to combine Indian and Western culture but in a very different way. I find the Singh Twins work very inspiring. Please, can I get names of books and articles, etc. that I can read up to get to know more about these sisters. [Editor: If you google "Singh Twins" or their website, it'll take you to them.]