“Complicity and protest is a paradox within myself,” explains Yinka Shonibare, MBE. Born in London, Shonibare was raised Lagos, Nigeria. Today he deploys the label 'post-cultural hybrid' to explain the influence of his formative years shared between the two cities. Themes of race, cultural identity and authenticity are apparent throughout his work, most consistently evident in the appropriation of wax resist cloth, which has developed since his graduation from Goldsmith College, London fifteen years ago. “Memory is very much a part of the future,” Shonibare explains. He is, in many ways, the quintessential postcolonial artist. Visual templates and histories of colonial culture are reworked with content and references that reveal another side of the story. Refreshingly, his work is astute as well as humorously mocking, but treads a path that studiously avoids anger or righteousness.
Shonibare’s decision to accept the award of MBE (Member of the British Empire) is one such example of his canny ability to both critique and contribute to the complexities of his identity. (Several artists have handed the honour back to the British government and the Queen, as a pointed statement of protest. The poet and activist Benjamin Zephaniah, for example, refused an OBE in recognition of his contribution to literature, remarked: “Benjamin Zephaniah OBE - no way Mr Blair, no way Mrs Queen. I am profoundly anti-empire.”) But Shonibare explains, “To step away from establishment is to create convenience for the establishment.” Instead he seems to relish the irony of the honour, explaining “I would have liked to have faked it myself, but someone else did it for me.” As a result, he has negotiated a position for his work that allows him to voice critique from within establishment, rather than relishing the margins. His MBE now hangs, proudly ironic, at the end of his not particularly British name.
Postcolonial theory is central to understanding Shonibare’s work, despite the fact that he would be the first to argue that we are living in a world where the “postcolonial is not post”. If colonialism was driven by a desire to accumulate the resources of other nations for the wealth and benefit of a few central sites of power, then it is fair to say that the world no longer has ‘colonies’ in the historic sense of the world. (Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe was Britain’s last colony gaining independence in 1980.) Instead we have a plethora of power structures that function in manner very similar to colonial distributions of wealth and power, but without the label.
Shonibare’s practice is diverse, spanning photography, film and what, for want of a better term, could be called installation. (He refers to it as “not sculpture, costume or installation”.) One recurring element of this work is the wax resist fabric that operates as a symbol of the complexities of ‘authentic’ identity within contemporary culture. Authenticity, Shonibare’s appropriated batik seems to say, is impossible. Batik finds roots in the textile traditions of Indonesia. When the archipelago was colonised by the Dutch, they adopted the tradition and began production at home. But the Dutch methods were inferior to traditional batik and thus presented little interest in the Indonesian market. Instead the cloth was shipped to West Africa, where it found a new identity within the national dress of nations such as Nigeria. Nothing, Shonibare seems to suggest, is ever as it first appears.
Prominent works of art from the art historical cannon often find themselves revisited in Shonibare’s work. The technique is much like that of authors such as Jean Rhys whose novel Wide Sargasso Sea is meant to act as an anachronistic prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre or J.M. Coetzee’s Foe, also written as “earlier” version of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. In these literary examples, authors attempt to set a different stage, to bring to light characters written out or silenced in the ‘original’ narrative. Similarly, Shonibare unearths alternative narratives by reworking paintings that hail from the distinctly European cannon of art history. “Mr. and Mrs. Andrews without Their Heads” (1998), for instance, restages the famous painting by Thomas Gainsborough “Mr. and Mrs. Andrews” (1748-1749). Conspicuously absent are the couple’s heads, as well as the backdrop of affluent grounds so central to the aristocracy’s wealth and thus identity. Coined “postcolonial revenge” by several critics, the work presents an image of aristocracy literally stripped of their land and, as a consequence, their identity.
In fact Shonibare’s mannequins are more often than not headless, a gesture he explains as an attempt to not “racialise figures”. For the same reason, the glimpses of skin we do see are often an ambiguous blend of black and white, not pointing clearly to any particular association. Layers of contradiction, inauthenticities that are in fact much closer to the truth, build up across Shonibare’s work. For instance, “Gay Victorians” (1999) alludes to both joy and homosexuality, suggesting that the Victorian image of propriety was not always quite as it seemed. The bustle-style dress popular in the late 1800s and used by Shonibare refers not simply to a fashion of the time, but can also be read as a reference to the female African body that was mocked and ridiculed. The tragic story of the Sarah Bartmann involves a woman who was taken from South Africa, caged and put on display in France as an object rather than a person because of her pronounced buttocks. Shonibare’s vibrant eye catching style manages to include layers of meaning some humorous and entertaining, others dark with stories of cultural violence and abuse.
In 2006 Shonibare was the third artist invited to guest curate an exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York City. In addition to selecting works from the permanent collection for an eclectic display, he also created several life size models and wax resist cloth, this time sculptures of the Museum's founders, Sarah and Eleanor Hewitt, elevated on stilts to tower over viewers. Shonibare explains of the stilts that the sister’s elevated status makes literal their "superiority over their contemporaries in terms of their taste and adventurous spirit." Much like his own MBE, there is both a touch of admiration and irony in evidence, an awareness of vantage wealth and power can provide, even when it is put to positive use.
More recent work such as his “Flower Time” exhibition at the Stephen Freidman Gallery, London, in late 2006 expanded his circle of references to include a timely critique on the war in Iraq. (The exhibition title owes much to the Flower Power imagery of sixties America and the antiwar sentiment of the time.) In addition to further explorations of wax resist cloth within sculpture, Shonibare also exhibited the video “Odile and Odette” from Swan Lake. Two female dancers, one white and one black, but otherwise perfectly matched bodies, dance and duet of sorts in front of what at times looks to be a mirror, but acts as a frame. Speaking of the work at a recent lecture at Goldsmiths College Shonibare explained the ballerina represents “the epitome of ‘civilized sensibilities’.” Accompanying the film was a sculpture of a ballerina of ambivalent race perched atop a black cloud: “a ballerina balanced on a black mushroom cloud of war and destruction.” Irony, again, is writ large. Civilization creates beautiful things, beautiful art in particular, but at what cost?
Shonibare’s work is seductive, rich in both material and meaning. His use of textiles confirms their communicative power, but also their complexity. Ironically, the arrival of textiles in Shonibare’s artistic vocabulary was one response to the advice of a tutor who thought Shonibare should express more of his own origins within his work. Dubious advice that ironically put Shonibare on the path to creating work that now reflects a particularly global worldview. “As a student I was told not to use vulgar colours,” he quips of his education. “Now I can use all the vulgar colours I want.”
Surface Design Journal (fall 2007: 34-37)
image: Yinka Shonibare "Gay Victorians" (1999)