For more than 25 years, British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare MBE has been making work incorporating Dutch wax batik fabrics, a material layered with cultural influences. Originally manufactured by textile companies in the Netherlands to mimic Javanese designs and appeal to the Indonesian market, the fabrics instead became so popular in West Africa that they are commonly believed to have originated there — making them a powerful metaphor for global trade, migration, interconnectivity, and the enduring legacies of European colonialism. Taking inspiration from these Dutch wax fabrics, Shonibare has created “Wind Sculpture (SG) I” (2018), the latest in a series of monumental outdoor works. Commissioned by the Public Art Fund, it was unveiled at Doris C. Freedman Plaza at the southeast corner of Central Park earlier this month and will remain through mid-October.
On the day of an unprecedented London snowstorm in February, I spoke to Shonibare by phone from his home in London as he prepared to travel to New York for the unveiling of his sculpture. We discussed the logistical challenges of these kinds large-scale projects, the transformative potential of public art, and his feelings on US President Donald Trump’s immigration policies.
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Jessica Holmes: What about “Wind Sculpture (SG) I” makes it especially pertinent to New York?
Yinka Shonibare MBE: Well, a number of things. My wind sculptures evolved out of a project I did in Trafalgar Square, London called “Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle” (2010). I changed the sails of Admiral Nelson’s ship to African textiles and after that project I realized that there was something quite dynamic about the sails, and also symbolic of migration through the seas. Given my own history as somebody who was born in London but grew up in Nigeria, and then returned to London again, travel and migration has always been part of my story. The wind sculptures are a metaphor for that.
In the United States, people have traveled from all different parts of the world, and the story of migrants is really an American story. The history of the fabrics is that the Dutch first produced them to fulfill the Indonesian market, but the industrially produced material didn’t sell there. So then they tried selling them in West Africa, where they’ve become synonymous. The fabric has that multi-layered story of the relationship between different cultures which I also think is kind of an apt metaphor for what I am trying to do with the work. “Wind Sculpture (SG) I” accumulates the diversity of America.
JH: You’ve called your work “zeitgeist-inspired,” and this sculpture is arriving here at a fraught time in the United States. Has the Trump administration affected the making of this piece?
YS: Well, as you know, Trump Tower is not far from where this sculpture is being located. It is quite close. Would we like to have a more equal society, a kinder, more inclusive society? Of course we want that. But some of [Trump’s] policies are not going in that direction, and so I think it’s very important for artists like myself to be visible in the public realm. I’m the opposite of Donald Trump. I don’t endorse his attitudes towards women, or towards immigrants, and I feel that we need to have a society where everyone feels valued. I feel that at a time where the Dreamers are in danger of losing their residency in the United States, it is very important to acknowledge that what makes America great again is that it is diverse.
JH: The sculpture is situated right in the heart of Midtown Manhattan; how does it feel to know that millions of people will be experiencing what you have created?
YS: That feels very good. Public art is a way to reach people, but I prefer to do that in a magical way, in a way that kind of engages them, in a surprising way as well. So the work is not just about content, it’s also visually transgressive. That is one of the reasons why I like public art. It’s democratic, lots of people can engage with it. So politically, I think that public art does something that art in museums can’t actually do.
JH: “Wind Sculpture (SG) I” is such a huge work. What is the process that goes into making something so large? How do you begin?
YS: Well at first it was a very basic thing of blowing a hair dryer through fabric and seeing how the fabric behaves, and photographing it. It was that basic to begin with, and then I made sketches from those photographs, modifying the shapes, and trying to understand the requirements of the public space.
JH: It seems like movement and mobility are elements that cross through your work no matter what media you are working in.
YS: I also see movement as a metaphor for a number of things — migration, travel, independence. And also, it’s a good device for making a work kind of dynamic and animated. Aside from the fact that “Wind Sculpture (SG) I” itself is also about sculpture and it’s also very beautiful to look at, it’s about the impossibility of sculpting wind. The fabric holds the impression of wind, which gives it the dynamic movement it has, the form, but also that this is actually about multicultural America.
JH: Your contribution to the upcoming FRONT Triennial in Cleveland touches on this theme as well, doesn’t it?
YS: Yes, they commissioned a new piece called “The American Library,” a library of 6,000 books. On the spines of the books are the names of immigrants, first- and second-generation immigrants who have contributed to the United States, and it’s going to be installed in a public library in Cleveland.
JH: You also run Guest Projects, a project space downstairs from your studio in London. What was the original impetus behind it, and what makes it different than other artist residency programs?
YS: Around 2008, I realized that in London, it’s really quite difficult for artists to have space to show their work. When I was starting out as an artist, it was possible to take over a disused office, a disused building — real estate wasn’t as expensive as it is now. I did a lot of projects in temporary spaces and I realized that for the younger generation it’s getting more and more difficult. So, I decided to provide a space in which artists could have residency for a month, and put up shows and bring people to look at their work.
But I am also planning a residency space now in Lagos, Nigeria, which is where I grew up, an international artist residency space, which ideally will open in 2020. I want to create a platform for cultural exchange where artists from different parts of the world can go and have a couple of months in Lagos, make work and also talk and engage with local artists. Right now, Lagos is quite an exciting place. The global interest in African contemporary art has really started in Nigeria.
JH: Has anyone that has come through Guest Projects gone on to become famous?
YS: A lot of them are young artists and they are emerging, but it’ll be interesting to see what happens — I must have had over 200 artists show at the space. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with them, their practices. Some of them use Guest Projects to find galleries, or people who might want to show their work, and it’s great because they have an opportunity to market their own work.
JH: It’s something that young artists are rarely taught how to do. You just have to throw yourself in and it’s probably nice to have a supportive atmosphere where you can work on those kinds of things.
YS: Yes, because commercial galleries want an artist that is ready, that they can sell. And they can use this room for experimentation, which is what I hope I provide.
Yinka Shonibare MBE’s “Wind Sculpture (SG) I” is on view at Doris C. Freedman Plaza (60th Street and Fifth Avenue, Midtown, Manhattan) through October 14.