THE QUEEN OF DALSTON
by Neil Hunter
Those with an interest in art inspired by drag queens should stop by Dalston’s KHP Social in September, where the award-winning mixed media artist Pal Nangla will be exhibiting a twenty-piece embroidery collection that sprung out of a chance viewing of Ru Paul’s Drag Race.
It is his first time showing in the UK, his creations previously being seen only by the sort of industry people who have access to exclusive trade fairs in far
off locations such as New York, Frankfurt, and Beijing.
‘I never had a TV, but last year I gave Netflix a try, and got introduced to this programme (Ru Paul’s Drag Race),’ he says. ‘And there’s a scene in it where a performer gets voted off and they look at themselves in a mirror and write something on it in lipstick, and I found that image so powerful that it gave me the impetus to go and do a collection.
‘There was enough there in that moment to get my creative juices flowing. But instead of putting pen to paper, I put needle and thread to fabric.’
The twenty looks on display, a series of intricately constructed drawings of drag outfits comprising a variety of textiles and materials that showcase Nangla’s skilful handwork, examine gender from a British Asian viewpoint, while also provoking a discussion about the use of drag and where it is heading.
‘I’m interested in the politics of clothing. I could wear a woman’s garment but I’m not trying to be a woman. I’m always going to challenge fashion in very different ways and the aim of this work is to explore that.
‘Some of the material is controversial. For instance there’s fur in the show. I’m a vegetarian, but I found real fur in the market and as a designer I challenge my own preconceived ideas, and try things that are outside my comfort zone. I love animals. I don’t eat them, but I use fur.
‘You need to choose the right material to express an emotion. Fabrics have emotion. Colour has emotion. And it’s how you blend those emotions together that creates a mood, and says something.’
And what are you saying with this exhibition?
‘I’m not saying anything and I’m saying everything.’
It seems an unlikely project for a former roofer and plasterer from Leeds, but then Nangla’s vision and artisanship has taken him a long way from those humble origins. While studying surface design at Buckinghamshire he was head hunted by the Royal College of Art, where he earned an MA in mixed
media textiles and won the coveted RCA Best in Show.
‘For the graduate show I made a dress and a coat, but I had to work out how I was going to show them. So I constructed this space. I used plaster to create an interior, I made a floor out of clay, and I had all these toys that I pushed into the clay—it was kind of a take on consumerism—and there was a tree I had to get, and I hung the dress and coat off the branches so that it looked like people had got naked. And there was all this other detail—a sword I spray painted pink, and on the sword there was all these samples I skewered, and
there was a flip book, a big log that I got from the Thames, and at the end of it was an apple, and in between the tiles on the floor there was grass that I got
so it looked like it had been growing for ages. I called it “The Tufty Club”.
‘That lead to me doing all these trade fairs around the world. Trade fairs are attended by people from Louis Vuitton, Nike, Harrods, Harvey Nichols, those sorts of places. They pay a lot of money just to get in the door, and they want to see new things.
‘I did China Design Week, which featured the best designers in all the disciplines of design—textiles, architecture, product design—we all got chosen to go to China to show how we work conceptually, and how we use sustainability in our work practice.
‘I made a collection out of butterfly wings. I was collaborating with a footwear designer, who was using salmon skin, which is a byproduct of the food industry; I was using eggshells, which is also a byproduct of the food industry. We were using byproducts that would normally be left on the floor and we were elevating it to luxury status. Not only does it become a new desirable but it’s eco-friendly.
‘Eco-friendly has become a huge trend now, but we were exploring it years ago.’
Do you think your work is challenging?
‘I don’t think my work’s challenging at all. I do live in a very visual place. You need to show people something new, and something new is something that’s outside your comfort zone.
‘Our language is quite cryptic. But people who do this view each other’s way of working and say, “I see what you’re saying and I like what you’re saying.”
‘We’re very ambiguous. People get put in boxes but we’ve been trained to be so much outside the box that even the industry goes to us, “What are you?”’
And what are you?
‘I feel like I’m still a labourer and plasterer. I’m just doing it this way now.’
Nangla’s drag queen exhibition doesn’t have a specific date yet, due to the uncertainty arising from Covid19. Check palvindernangla on Instagram for an announcement in due course.