Yinka Shonibare MBE’s decapitated mannequins in their vibrant batik fabric outfits cavort through a collage of influences that the British-born, Nigeria-raised artist has excavated from the complicated history of culture. Now his over two-decade career in remixing the perceptions of the exotic and imperial in striking tableaux is examined in an updated monograph.
Yinka Shonibare MBE released this January by Prestel is an expanded version of its 2008 edition, reaching even further into Shonibare’s evolving narrative of Africa, Europe, and the international collisions of identity. It’s a colossal book for a mid-career artist, with some 240 pages including two essays, and an interview, yet as the work shows there is a lot of meaning to delve through as Shonibare stitches together his own background with the broader history of race and class in the world. It’s even right there in his name where the “Member of the Order of the British Empire” distinction he was awarded in 2005 is tacked onto his African name. As Rachel Kent, chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, writes in her introduction, he always puts himself “both within and outside the structures he critiques.”
In his book interview with Anthony Downey, who directs the master’s in contemporary art program at Sotheby’s Institute of Art, Shonibare describes how in school a tutor asked him, “You are African, aren’t you; why don’t you make authentic African art?” He was “quite taken aback by this” but through “thinking about authenticity” he started to wonder what an “authentic Africanness” would be. And this is how he ended up working with the batik fabrics as his main medium.
While batik is seen as an “African-print,” it’s far from being so straightforward. The Dutch wax fabric was derived from traditions in Indonesia, produced in the Netherlands and then Manchester, England, and in the 19th century was sold in West Africa. Shonibare has used it to deck out headless mannequins with period clothing, much from the Victorian era when the British Empire was at its peak. Replicating famed European paintings, taking inspiration from the decadent aristocratic beauty of Jean-Honoré Fragonard, and responding to the continued issue of the rich wearing elaborate outfits made by the less fortunate, he’s built cinematic scenes (which has appropriately continued in his recent video work) of surreal beauty. The figures dine at lavish meals they could not possibly eat in their mouthless state, and even go to space, a comment on the fear of “alien invasions” from immigrants.
Shonibare describes himself as “an aesthete, an artist,” in that order. There is perhaps an edge lost in the immaculate presentations where some grittiness could bring across the brutal history in colonization, although their beauty is what has made them engaging to a wider audience than might not knowingly step into this pit of writhing histories. Kent writes in her introduction:
Underpinning the artist’s work is an engagement with themes of time: of history and its legacy for future generations, of how we live in the present, and of cycles or patterns that repeat across time despite their often destructive consequences. In this way he pricks the consciences of those who encounter his art, using beauty and seduction instead of words as his chosen weapons.
However, while much of the book focuses on the sculptural, his paintings are a much more intimate expression of the artificial nature of boundaries and culture. As an artist with a partly paralyzing disability, he works on these without the assistance necessary for much of his installations. As he explains in his interview, is easier for him to “paint things that are broken down into smaller pieces” due to his physical limitations, and “so rather than actually trying to make some heroic large painting, what I do is fragment that heroism by reducing it to smaller manageable chunks.” These can be just as striking, although more subtle, as the batik becomes a canvas for ripples of paint encircled by nails like some ancient fetish object updated for the galleries, or arranged in circles on a burst of black like the “Black Gold I” (2006) painting that graces the monograph cover.
It would be great to get more of Shonibare’s voice in this hefty monograph outside of the structured interview, although there is plenty of his voice in the essays and in each piece. After his touring retrospective that visited the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, the Brooklyn Museum, and the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian from 2008 to 2010, along with his continued prolific exhibition schedule (he currently has a solo show at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia), he doesn’t show signs of slowing down. It will be interesting to see how far he continues to take this dismembering and reassembling of the complex attributes of identity.
Yinka Shonibare MBE is available from Prestel.