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It took a while for me to understand the three letters following the name of Yinka Shonibare, “MBE,” were not some kind of advanced degree. Eventually, I was informed it was an honorary title given to the artist under the auspices of Queen Elizabeth II. The three letters stand for “Most Excellent Order of the British Empire,” a title that is read with a certain irony by those in England who know the work of Shonibare and are familiar with his critical position on the history of the colonies to which the United Kingdom once laid claim.
Shonibare’s current exhibition Prejudice at Home: A Parlour, A Library, and A Room at James Cohan arranges three large-scale, interrelated works spanning the last 20 years. As a partially disabled Nigerian–British artist, Shonibare has focused on two primary concerns throughout his 25-year career: his perspective on “otherness” and his awareness of the subtle intricacies of prejudice. Much of this has to do with a lifelong quest to establish an identity in two nations, those being his native homeland in West Africa and his professional residence in the United Kingdom. When speaking with Anthony Downey, the author of a recent monograph on the artist, Shonibare delivered a typically paradoxical statement regarding his bifurcated lifestyle: “As a black man living in the UK, I find myself in opposition where I am not so-called upper class; however, in Nigeria I would be considered upper class.”
In “Dorian Gray” (2001), one of the three works shown in the current exhibition and based on the novel written a century ago by Oscar Wilde, the artist plays the role of a somewhat insouciant power monger. In the 12 photographs (11 in black and white and one in color), the artist enacts various scenes from Wilde’s novel, functioning both as the protagonist, a fictional aristocrat, and, alternatively, the dandified author, Wilde himself. Shonibare’s comment on these roles is interesting. “Coming from a middle class background, the dandy aspired to aristocratic standing so as to distinguish himself from both the lower and middles classes. In this sense his frivolous lifestyle is a political gesture of sorts, containing within it a form of social mobility.” In a large color photograph, the artist dons a tuxedo and make-up as he stares at himself in the mirror, as if he were the “other,” his aging portrait; it’s brilliant. “Dorian Gray” interprets how identity is partially shaped by the imagination, which can sometimes adversely facilitate indulgences that lead to self-destruction.
There is a good deal of narrative in Shonibare’s work, as in the second major installation, titled “The Victorian Philanthropist’s Parlour” (1996–97). Here, a philanthropist’s sitting room is dramatically transformed to become a Victorian stage set with a surrogate bust of Queen Victoria on the fireplace mantle. The elaborate parlor decor offers a pointed commentary on the archetypal Victorian philanthropist, whose money was made through the exploitation of others from various colonies, including those in Africa.
As one looks closely at the late-19th-century wallpaper, one may notice the repeated image of Nwankwo Kanu, the famous Nigerian football star who plays for the UK team, Arsenal. As one looks again, Kanu’s image is not only repeated on the floral wallpaper, but is also present in the curtain fabric and on the sewn coverings for the chair and settee. For Shonibare, Kanu is a relatively contemporary example of this exploitation whereby the philanthropist purchases the black footballer in Nigeria to play on a major team in England, and thus creates a bond of patronage. The artist interprets the role of the philanthropist as primarily an assertion of power as it relates to colonization and “otherness” — and with it, the condescension toward those who live at the lower end of the economic scale. According to Shonibare, philanthropy has nothing to do with altruism, generosity, or benevolence. It is strictly a manifestation of the controlling interests that govern the mindset of the populace.
The final installation in the exhibition is titled “The British Library” (2014), which consists of 6,000 volumes placed side by side on shelves from floor to ceiling, each volume covered in Dutch wax cloth, inspired by colorful Indonesian fabrics. (Although discovered years ago in Nigeria, the origin of this fabric is ambiguous in terms of its design, production, and distribution.) Of the three works included in this exhibition, this formidable selection of books is perhaps the most literal. The main point of “The British Library” (which also includes a web component for visitors to contribute their experiences) is to honor the scholarly achievements of immigrants who came to the UK bereft of natural-born citizenship. The visual and conceptual impact of this work intends to deconstruct the absurd negligence given to the immigrant population in the UK to which Shonibare feels connected. Instead of segregating these cultural contributors into an unofficial class removed from the indigenous population, “The British Library” functions as a signifier whereby the contributions of immigrants have played a distinctive role in developing the cultural richness of a country’s history. In this context, “The British Library” joins with “Dorian Gray” and “The Victorian Philanthropist’s Parlour” as a statement in confronting prejudice that is disturbingly familiar not only in the UK, but in parts of Europe and the United States. One would hope that the message of Yinka Shonibare MBE will be heard in contrast to the revival of failures from the past.
Yinka Shonibare MBE’s Prejudice at Home: A Parlour, a Library, and a Room continues at James Cohan Gallery through March 18.