Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Yinka Shonibare (Prestel)

BY JESSICA HEMMINGS

Yinka Shonibare, MBE
Essays by Rachel Kent and Robert Hobbs, interview by Anthony Downey
published by Prestel (ISBN 978-3-7913-4123-1)

Published to coincide with a major mid-career touring exhibition, Yinka Shonibare, MBE charts the prodigious output of this British-born Nigerian artist. Working across the mediums of sculpture, painting, photography and film, Shonibare’s work is most commonly identified by its use of brightly coloured wax resist textiles often used to clothe headless figures in Victorian dress. This book reveals the consistency with which Shonibare uses this vibrant textile to complicate our understanding of European culture.
The history of wax resist cloth is complex, often associated with the Indonesian archipelago, but later manufactured in Holland and Manchester and then imported to central and west Africa where it became a symbol of national pride associated with Nigeria’s independence in 1960. The message is two-fold: the textile suggests that the wealth of Victorian Britain was, and is, inextricably tied to labour and materials from the colonies; the absent heads and indeterminate skin colour of the sculptures critique the idea that possessions alone create identity.

Two essays and an interview set the stage for this 222-page book and provide comprehensive introductions to Shonibare’s work. Rachel Kent and Robert Hobbs write from their respective curatorial and academic perspectives, followed by an interview with the artist by Anthony Downey. Before getting lost in the remaining three-quarters of this beautifully illustrated book, it is worth digesting their insightful contributions. One minor criticism is that the two essays and interview feel as though they have been written in isolation from each other and, as a result, repeat some of the key facts of the artist’s life. But they also shed considerable light on the complex web of references Shonibare makes in his own practice to celebrated artworks from the European cannon.

Again and again, Shonibare knowingly plays with the ease in which textiles can be misread. Families of aliens, astronauts, Victorians in compromising positions and ballerinas’ tutus all appear in the patterned cloth and toy with our own cultural expectations of identity. Curiously, the cover depicts a detail of Flower Time (2006), a bouquet of wax-resist cloth. Considering the central role garments and the figure have played in Shonibare’s work the choice seems, at first, unusual. One wonders if the cover image reflects an effort to disentangle the artist’s name from the figure and the costumes that have predominated his practice thus far, and celebrate instead the textile and its many meanings. Awarded in 2005, the MBE that now accompanies Shonibare’s name is another indication, not only of the recognition he enjoys today, but also the cultural contradictions he mines for his work. Like the cloth he uses, there is a great irony that an artist celebrated for his critique of the British Empire has been honoured by the very institution that is the subject of his work. This handsome book charts how Shonibare has taken this irony and run with it, embracing the accolade as part of his artistic identity.

World of Interiors (April 2009: 50)

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This handsome coffee table book is published to coincide with the artist’s mid-career exhibition, which opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, Australia late last year and will move to the Brooklyn Museum of Art in July of 2009, before travelling to the Smithsonian in Washington DC. Well known for his use of wax resist cloth, the British-born Nigerian artist often uses batik fabric for the Victorian garments of his headless sculptures.

A cursory glance suggests the danger of this brightly patterned cloth beginning to feel like a one-liner. This redundancy reveals itself to be more thoughtful when Shonibare’s work is approached with an understanding of the complex references he makes to western art history in his work. While the bulk of the book is comprised of glossy full-page images, two essays and an interview introduce readers to the web of references the artist draws upon. It is a shame if these contributions are overlooked in favour of a skim through the images, because they help refute some of the redundancy suggested by his ongoing use of batik.

For the textile enthusiast, Robert Hobbs’ rigorous research unearths some fascinating historical anomalies. For example, Hobbs suggests the wax resist cloth arriving in west Africa was, in part, the result of Indonesia’s Dutch government and their decision to “protect local productions by imposing stiff tariffs, thus forcing Vlisco [the manufacturer of the cloth Shonibare uses today] and other Dutch companies to develop markets elsewhere, including Africa”. The more common explanation is that the sophisticated Indonesian market rejected the imported batik on aesthetic grounds.

Overall, this book offers a comprehensive record of Shonibare’s sculptures, paintings, photography and film from The Victorian Philanthropist’s Parlour (1996-7) through to his recent photographic series The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (Australia/Africa/America/Asia/Europe) 2008. While the artist’s work is likely to be most familiar to a British audience, the background and insights the contributors provide suggest references that are unlikely to be apparent at first glance.

Dr Jessica Hemmings

Embroidery Magazine 2009.