Yinka Shonibare: Colonial Forces - Art Collector

Issue 46, October - December 2008

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Yinka Shonibare MBE is a leading practitioner in a growing field of artists who interrogate global history from the perspective of the colonised. This quarter, Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art is staging the most substantial show to date of his work, writes Ruth Skilbeck.

Yinka Shonibare MBE is one of the most acclaimed and decorated international contemporary artists working across cultures today. Using a range of media – including photography, film, painting, and installation – he re-presents scenes from the colonial history of art and culture. His theatrical tableaux, figures of the dandy, carnivale and fabrication invert and explore themes of race and class in European modernity.

Creating socially significant yet playful works that shift the politics of colonialism to the politics of narcissism, fashion, frivolity and decadence, Shonibare is a leading innovative practitioner in a growing field of contemporary visual art that interrogates global history from new perspectives, namely that of the formerly colonised.

Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art is currently staging a major mid-career survey of Shonibare’s work, which spans 12 years of practice. The exhibition will run until February 2009, and will then tour in turn to the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York and the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of African in Washington DC. The MCA-curated exhibition presents a comprehensive survey of Shonibare’s works, including his shortlisted 2004 Turner Prize entry, Double Dutch, a multimedia solo exhibition, comprising painting, The Swing (after Fragonard) (2001), sculpture and Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball) (2004), a 32 minute colour digital video loop.

Born in London in 1962, at the age of three Shonibare moved to Lagos, Nigeria, with his family. He later returned to London where he studied fine art at Byam Shaw School of Art, followed by an MA at Goldsmiths College. In 1997 his work was included in the influential exhibition Sensation: Young British Art from the Saatchi Collection. In 2005 he was awarded a Member of the Order of the British Empire, which he accepted, not without irony given his work’s postcolonial themes, in the spirit of his belief that the most effective social and cultural change comes from within.

Shortly after he was nominated for the Turner Prize, Shonibare spoke of his transformative, playful philosophy to making art in an article in Bombsite: “As a black person…I can create fantasies of empowerment in relation to white society, even if historically that equilibrium or equality hasn’t really arrived yet. It’s like the carnival itself, where a working class person can occupy the position of master…and members of the aristocracy could take on the role of the working class…the carnival in this sense is a metaphor for the way that transformation can take place. This is something that art is able to do quite well because it’s a space of transformation where you can go beyond the ordinary.”

The reflexive humour of his works, along with their rococo theatre and colourful, highly patterned, stylish costuming, belies and reveals its darker political and social content. For example, in Scramble for Africa (2000) – which references the Berlin Conference of 1884-5, where the 14 most powerful empire leaders met to carve up Africa amongst them – his carnivalesque masquerade depicts 14 seated figures in lavish finery, but without heads.

Visual metaphors of headlessness and Indonesian waxed cloth recur throughout Shonibare’s body of work. The figures in his sculptural and 3D works, including video, are immaculately costumed in highly coloured and patterned fabric. The same waxed cloth also forms the ground of his paintings. In London’s Brixton markets, it is sold as African cloth. This conceals the fabric’s complex colonial history – a hidden story with metaphorical and symbolic cross-cultural resonances.

Shonibare tells the story of the batik cloth that originally comes from colonial Dutch Indonesia. When the cloth failed to sell widely in the Indonesian market, the so-called African fabrics were subsequently manufactured in Manchester in England by Asian workers for sale in West Africa to Africans – a material exchange that illustrates the artist’s views about cultural relativism. The English sold the fabric to West Africans, who literally refashioned it as the cloth of choice for everyday wear. In Shonibare’s work, the waxed cloth thereby represents itself as a model of cultural appropriation, both a false yet authentic sign of African identity. This foregrounds the artist’s play with the notion of fabrication as both a lie and a DIY form of self styling in art as in life.

The dandy is another recurring figure in Shonibare’s work. In his photographic series, Diary of a Victorian Dandy (1998), and in his 2001 re-construction of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray the dandy is a black man, played by himself.

Shonibare’s current projects include a commission for the Fourth Plinth, a public art commission in London’s Trafalgar Square, to be installed in 2010. Shonibare’s Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle is a replica to scale of Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory. It has been designed to further, playfully, stimulate public debate on the postcolonial themes explored throughout his work: cultural value, authenticity and the politics of representation.

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