Photo: Protesters demonstrate against France's ban of the burkini, outside the French Embassy in London, Britain August 25, 2016. REUTERS/Neil Hall
In December, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), home to one of the world’s leading collections of art and design, acquired a burkini, as part of its Rapid Response Collecting initiative. Alongside a ‘Vote Leave’ leaflet (used during the UK referendum campaign to exit the European Union), a tile from Grayson Perry's holiday house and the flag of the Refugee Nation Olympic team, the garment represents a response to major moments in 2016 that influenced the world of design and manufacturing.
According to the V&A, each Rapid Response acquisition “raises different questions about globalisation, popular culture, political and social change, demographics, technology, regulation or the law.”
Rapid Response Collecting began at the V&A in 2014 as a method of responding to new design objects in the moment they become culturally important.
In an interview with Salaam Gateway, Corinna Gardner, Senior Curator of Design and Digital at the V&A, said, “The objects that the V&A collects through its Rapid Response Collecting programme are evidence of social, political, technological and economic change and therefore mean more than their material value.”
In the recent years, this has included objects such as a 3D printed gun, a pair of Primark jeans acquired shortly after the collapse in 2013 of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh that claimed the lives of at least 1,130 garment workers, and a metal-free bra popular amongst Shenzhen factory workers in order to avoid invasive searches when passing through security at the gates.
By de-contextualising such quotidian entities and reframing them in the museum environment, the Rapid Response strategy allows these objects to be considered in terms of their relationship to crucial questions about labour laws, building regulations, and the relationship between materials and the broader technological evolution of issues like global trade, cultural growth and the transfer of information.
Some of the V&A’s newly-collected pieces interrogate the design elements within the objects themselves – the ‘Vote Leave’ leaflet became part of a UK parliamentary enquiry that questioned the absence of hard facts in the cases made for and against leaving the EU.
The acquisition of the burkini poses questions about how issues surrounding cultural integration operate using women’s bodies as a site for debate.
Launched in early 2004, replicas of Australian designer Aheda Zanetti’s burkini (her company Ahiida owns the trademarks for the words ‘burkini’ and ‘burqini’) have since appeared in major retailers globally, indicating a commercial response to changing cultural dynamics in Europe.
The garment gathered political charge in August 2016, after a photograph emerged of four armed, male police officers seeming to force a woman wearing the burkini to remove her clothing on a beach in France, following the ‘burkini ban’ that swept through the French Riviera that summer. The image, reproduced across the globe, came to represent the enduring debate in France and across Europe around the limits of legal intervention on women’s rights and cultural or religious respect.
Photo: A man wears a placard with the message, 'Burkini = Liberty- outside the Conseil d'Etat after France's highest administrative court suspended a ban on full-body burkini swimsuits, in Paris, France, August 26, 2016. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau
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