“I am very interested in using the idea of something which is visually very beautiful because I think that I want my audience to engage with my work even though I am actually tackling quite serious issues…” Yinka Shonibare
Yinka Shonibare MBE: Where Art meets Post-Colonial African Artifice Born in London, England and raised in Lagos, Nigeria, Yinka Shonibare MBE; the contemporary, multifaceted, supremely talented installation artist likes to refer to himself as a bi-cultural, post colonial hybrid. As an artist who is acutely aware of the two distinct cultures he inhabits; one Western, the other African, it is not surprising that Shonibare’s creative endeavors, whether sculpture, painting, photography, film or installation art, straddle both worlds.
“All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique. All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story; to vomit the anguish up.” James Baldwin
Yinka Shonibare often brings an exaggerated, tongue-in-cheek sensibility to his installations even when the topics he addresses are serious. His use of Victorian themes, African inspired fabrics originally made for Indonesia by way of the Netherlands, and his use of highly stylized images in scenes, often variations of work from other artists, such as Fragonard’s “The Swing” and Gainsborough’s portraits, all showcase Shonibare’s determination to juxtapose the obvious with the ambiguous.
“All that I desire to point out is the general principle that Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.” Oscar Wilde
As a young art student in the mid 1980s in London, Shonibare recalls how an art teacher challenged him to seek an authentic African voice in his artistic work. This comment led him to Brixton Market where he bought batik fabrics (Ankara fabric, kente cloth) favored by women and men in West Africa. Shonibare understood the popularity of these fabrics in his native Nigeria; especially for women’s social groups. Members of these groups often spent enormous amounts of money procuring unique designs that would then become cultural identifiers of their wealth, social club exclusivity or privileged social connections.
“Art is both creation and recreation. Of the two ideas, I think art as recreation or as sheer play of the human spirit is more important.” Lin Yutang
Shonibare’s motivation might have been to portray how African women and men use these beautiful fabrics to highlight their special, idealized cultural connections. However, his research found something more; a remarkable historical paradox. The paradox was that the fabrics were originally manufactured in Holland for the Indonesian batik market. When the Indonesian traders rejected the designs as unsuitable for their market, the fabrics were sold to African traders who transformed this unexpected reject into a cultural windfall that remains a staple of every African woman’s wardrobe.
“Art is the imposing of a pattern on experience, and our aesthetic enjoyment is recognition of the pattern.” Alfred North Whitehead
Because many people presume the fabric origins are inherently African, Shonibare uses his artwork to force us to consider how the themes of artifice and authenticity can be presented and lampooned. How does he accomplish his objective? He dresses his Victorian mannequins in appropriately styled period clothing made from these “authentic African” fabrics. He then presents some of his mannequins in inappropriate, lascivious postures.
Interestingly, for the last several years, the Ankara trend has been overtaken by wax prints from Cote d’Ivoire and perhaps more recently, Ghana. The prints from Cote d’Ivoire are called “Woodin” (tied to Vlisco), while the Ghanaian ones are simply referred to as “Ghana!” These fabrics which are made into traditional wear; wrapper, igele, and boubou, bear special names like Treasures (a tradition of naming fabrics continues even today), and are vibrant, colorful and rich… The designs show a high level of creativity too. Woodin did a range of hugely successful animal prints with liberal use of gold and silver paint, faux lace and more. In general, the fabric colors range from pastels to brilliant blues, bright reds and oranges, to black and white monochromatic designs. Additionally, the younger generations have jettisoned the Dutch wax in favor of these newer fabrics especially because they are more affordable.
“There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterward you can remove all traces of reality.” Pablo Picasso
According to Shonibare, another source of inspiration for his Victorian era installation pieces came from former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s call for Victorian values in the decadent 1980s. This was also the era when Thatcher re-evaluated British immigration policy and sent many British residents from the former colonies packing. His depiction of characters from the colonial era, dressed in African patterned Dutch made fabrics, was not accidental; any student of colonial African history knows that the scramble for Africa created chaotic geographic boundaries. The new nations that emerged were a mishmash of former opponents led by warlords eager to maintain the interests of their specific ethnic group. Today, leaders on the continent continue to seek ways to stem the resultant warfare; a legacy of those ancient affiliations. More below!
“All art is contemporary, if it’s alive, and if it’s not alive, what’s the point of it?” David Hockney
The Scramble for Africa left behind a complex hodgepodge of competing cultures created by European colonialists in the form of Anglophone/Francophone/Lusophone nations on the continent. The terms actually identify English/French/Portuguese speaking African nations; each nation representing a miniature cultural version of the former ruling entity. Ironically, in the similarly named installation by Shonibare, “The Scramble for Africa,” he depicts a scene where African leaders sit around a dinner table considering ways to divide and pillage the continent’s resources; thereby perpetuating the atrocities of its past history.
“I want the point of entry to be intriguing and to be engaging and hopefully people will enter the other levels of the work.” Yinka Shonibare
In reviewing Shonibare’s art installations, one is led to see how a Post colonial African artist juxtaposes artifice with the authentic, and creates something refreshingly original that can’t be easily typecast. The fabrics on these Victorian figures (from the staid to the sexualized) are an artificial construct exported to the continent by textile merchants from Manchester, England and from, Vlisco, a company in the Netherlands.
“Respect the masterpiece. It is true reverence to man. There is no quality so great, none so much needed now.” Frank Lloyd Wright
While Shonibare’s work addresses issues of culture, race, identity politics and reconstructed history, his art is still quite entertaining, playful and colorful. Even his acceptance of an MBE (Member of the British Empire) from the Queen, and his subsequent use of that honorific title in his recent exhibitions, hints at the humor he finds in what could potentially be deemed ironic. Here is an outsider, particularly one who lampoons the draconian dictates and high brow hypocrisies of the old establishment, being honored instead of vilified by the descendants of the establishment.
“Is there such a thing as pure origin? For those of the post colonial generation this is a very difficult question. I’m bilingual because I was brought up in Lagos and London.” Yinka Shonibare
As Yinka Shonibare shared in an interview with Anthony Downey for Bomb Magazine, “In the end, I felt that, given what my work is about; to have actually been acknowledged and honored by the establishment was quite interesting … I think it’s better to make an impact from within rather than from without. In a way I feel flattered, because I never really thought the establishment took any notice of what artists did.” As long as he maintains creative license, some artistic distance and remains observant of the cultural mores of the social milieu he tackles in his art work, his impact from “within” should remain fresh and unencumbered. We hope…
“Another unsettling element in modern art is that common symptom of immaturity, the dread of doing what has been done before.” Edith Wharton
Shonibare’s art installations and short films are currently being exhibited at both the Brooklyn Museum in Brooklyn, NY from June 26–September 20, 2009 and at the Newark Museum in Newark, NJ from July 1, 2009 – January 3, 2010. I encourage you to visit and share your thoughts with us here. What do you think?
- Yinka Shonibare’s ship in a bottle goes on permanent display in Greenwich (guardian.co.uk)
- Dyrham Park: global crossroads (nttreasurehunt.wordpress.com)
- Artists come together in a Crisis for homeless exhibition (guardian.co.uk)
- British Sailors for British Ships! (spectator.co.uk)