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Yinka Shonibare MBE: Where Art meets Post-Colonial African Artifice

30/08/2009

“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, the artist, in a portrait in Diary of a Victorian Dandy 14:00 Hours

Yinka Shonibare, the artist, in a portrait in Diary of a Victorian Dandy 14:00 Hours

Yinka Shonibare as the protagonist in The Picture of Dorian Grey series

Yinka Shonibare as the protagonist in The Picture of Dorian Grey series

Yinka Shonibare MBE: Where Art meets Post-Colonial African Artifice… Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle (2010 @ Trafalgar Sq)


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

"The Swing" after Fragonard

The Swing” after Fragonard

The Pursuit

The Pursuit

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 His use of Victorian themes, African inspired fabrics originally made for Indonesia by way of the Netherlands, and his use of highly stylized images in scenes, often variations of work from other artists, such as Fragonard’sThe 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

How to Blow Up Two Heads at Once ~ Female

How to Blow Up Two Heads at Once ~ Female

Piles of Ankara Dutch wax cloth ~ Extremely popular on the African Continent.

Piles of Ankara Dutch wax cloth ~ Extremely popular on the African Continent.

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

Victorian Couple

Victorian Couple

Odile and Odette

Odile and Odette

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

Leisure Lady with Ocelots

Leisure Lady with Ocelots

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

Black Gold ~ A reference to the continent's Oil Resources

Black Gold ~ A reference to the continent\’s Oil Resources

Maxa

Maxa

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

The Scramble for Africa

La Meduse ~ The Ship to nowhere...

La Meduse ~ The Ship to nowhere…

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

Big Boy: The Dandy in his regalia

Big Boy: The Dandy in his regalia

Reverend on Ice

Reverend on Ice

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

Gallantry and Criminal Conversations

Gallantry and Criminal Conversations

Sun, Sea and Sand

Sun, Sea and Sand

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

The Sleep of Reason ~ Asia and Africa

The Sleep of Reason ~ Asia and Africa

Dysfunctional Family

Dysfunctional Family

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

Deep Blue ~ Acrylic paint on 25 Dutch printed cotton fabric

Deep Blue ~ Acrylic paint on 25 Dutch printed cotton fabric

Alternating Currents ~ Fabric on wall shows Nigerian Eagles teammates

Alternating Currents ~ Fabric on wall shows Nigerian Eagles teammates

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?

PHOTO CREDITS/ATTRIBUTIONS: Photos culled from my personal collection, Wikipedia, various sources in print and online media; including photos from Yinka Shonibare’s website

Until Next Time…
Ask. Believe. Receive. ©
Elizabeth Obih-Frank

Mirth and Motivation
Positive Kismet

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26 Comments leave one →
  1. Goz permalink
    31/08/2009 8:58 am

    Love it!..his work is bold, visually stunning.. Fearless, provocative! Genius!

    Like

    • 20/12/2010 11:26 am

      Totally and Thank you too Goz! 🙂
      You know Goz, I have no idea why I used to insert my comments right into the feedback from others… Girl, you’ve grown! LOL! 🙂

      Like

  2. 03/09/2009 9:14 am

    Hi Elizabeth,

    Here You are again with such a great post. Where does the interest you have for Africa comes from? I wonder.

    These colors and images interest me. I’m from African descent and born and raised in a Colonial part of the Netherlands.

    What about you? I cannot see your photo on twitter neither.
    Nice post. Goz said it in the comment here and I agree with Goz.

    Like

    • 20/12/2010 11:27 am

      Thanks again Deana!
      I’ve been AWOL from our usual social media sites because of work demands. I have solid ties to the African continent and to Europe same as you.
      I have chosen to leave my pix off because I think I can focus on staying engaged without checking on my image.
      I would love to hear more about your journey… Will send you more information later. Thanks for your support! 🙂

      Like

  3. chinere ohakwe permalink
    13/09/2009 10:06 am

    brilliant, dynamic, focused, informative and as always…spiritual.
    Thanks for feeding the left brain, right brain, spirit and soul… 🙂

    Like

  4. JimmyBean permalink
    30/09/2009 4:39 pm

    I don’t know If I said it already but …Hey good stuff…keep up the good work! 🙂 A definite great read..Jim Bean

    Like

    • 20/12/2010 11:28 am

      Thank you for your comment Jim … much appreciated and do let me know if there are topics you would like to see addressed! 😉

      Like

  5. BloggerDude permalink
    08/10/2009 1:36 pm

    I don’t know If I said it already but …This blog rocks! I gotta say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks, 🙂
    A definite great read….

    Like

    • 18/05/2012 11:00 am

      Thanks Ron for your kind words as comments like this make a difference to us bloggers. I will check out your blog too. Cheers!

      Like

  6. 23/10/2009 4:40 am

    Hi,
    I am impressed of your works…not completely new to me..but found it again today online.
    I have a question, would you mind if I link you on my projectwebsite
    http://www.boerenzakdoek.com
    I just started this website..(working on texts..not my best skill writing texts) and want to connect related people, subjects…etc.
    Would that be ok with you?
    regards, Marja van Putten
    My other website is
    marjavanputten.nl
    Eliz says: Thanks for your visit Marja. You are welcome to link your project here. I’d like to hear more about it soon.

    Like

    • 20/12/2010 11:29 am

      Thanks for your visit Marja. You are welcome to link your project here. I’d like to hear more about it soon. 🙂

      Like

  7. Marianne permalink
    07/03/2010 5:05 am

    I saw Yinka Shonibare’s work at the African Art Museum in DC last NOvember and I was blown away. The exhibition is closing today (Mar. 7) and it makes me sad that I have been unable to expose my Art HIstory students to his work – live and in person.

    Like

    • 09/03/2010 6:07 pm

      Thanks for your reply Marianne!
      Perhaps a way to help them enjoy Shonibare’s artistic creation is to take them through his website.
      You may also buy a video of his work and look out for future exhibitions…
      Regards,
      E 😉

      Like

  8. 12/09/2010 7:18 pm

    We sell Wonderful African wax prints from Binzhou Group Co.,Ltd (China). Shirly

    Like

    • 20/12/2010 11:30 am

      Hi Shirly, what’s up? Do I look like a fabric store? Thanks for your visit girl! 🙂

      Like

  9. 03/11/2010 3:47 am

    You know eof737, I actually posted about this topic earlier today on my own blog. Your post has really given me some food for thought and I think that you made some important points. I simply wish I’d found it earlier, before I published my own post.

    Best wishes,

    thelockprof58

    Like

    • 20/12/2010 11:32 am

      Hi Lauren,
      I thought I responded here but I might have left my comment on your blog. Thanks for the visit and I do think you had lots of wonderful insights in your post too… Happy Holidays! 🙂

      Like

  10. Dulcine permalink
    03/11/2014 3:17 pm

    Hi!
    I am taking, this semester, a subject called Language of Art and i have decided to do my presentation about Mr Shonibare’s work.
    Thank you for posting such useful informations.

    Like

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