CHICAGO — In one story arc of The West Wing, the political drama created by Aaron Sorkin that ran on NBC television in the early 2000s, Josh Lyman, the White House Deputy Chief of Staff, is shot and critically wounded by white supremacists. Lyman recovers in the hospital and eventually returns to work where he begins to behave in increasingly erratic ways. It’s determined that he needs to speak with a psychiatrist, a trauma specialist: Dr. Stanley Keyworth. At some point during their conversations, the doctor shares the essential marker by which he can tell when Lyman is no longer experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder: when he can remember the shooting without reliving it. The memory of this scene washes over me when I visit the Driehaus Museum several days ago to view the current exhibition, A Tale of Today: Yinka Shonibare CBE. Here, the specter that haunts the artist’s imagination is the colonial project.
His work displayed in the Driehaus is very much in keeping with the themes of colonialism, post-colonialism (which may not really exist yet), and cultural identity that Shonibare has been working with for many years. His most recognizable work is likely the headless mannequins he dresses in a lush variety of Dutch wax fabrics, tailored into period costumes. The figures of his installations are placed in animated poses that make for provocative tableaux: engaged in debate around a table, immobilized by the weight of enormous stacks of books or suitcases, or aggressively confronting a rival with a firearm. Because his figures lack a head by which the viewer might read personality or emotional response, and thereby fall down the rabbit hole of individual narrative, the resonances that whirl out of his scenes are primarily propelled by the action of the scene and the historical costuming — and these resonances are layered.
Just in his use of the wax fabrics, which to my own eyes look like “African” prints, Shonibare calls up the convoluted history of colonialism’s conditioning of cultural provenance and authenticity. The wax-printed fabrics actually consist of Indonesian batik, first mass-produced in Holland in the late 19th century before being sold into West Africa, where there was a market for this merchandise. Even Africans have developed a taste for the colonizer’s invented wares that sell a version of their own selves back to them.
In some respects, it makes sense that Shonibare has installed his workin the Driehaus, a consecrated monument and tomb for the gilded age. A Tale of Today is also rightly titled, given that it is the inaugural exhibition in the museum’s new contemporary art series. When first invited to visit the Driehaus, I was told by the PR representative that the museum looks to engage new audiences by attempting “to look directly at how the Gilded Age mirrors the socio-economic issues of our own time, and bring those issues to the fore through exhibitions and programs.” Shonibare does dramatize these issues in depicting a scene of wanton indulgence: a waiting servant holds a peacock on a platter while the guests at the feasting table are in full revelry: oysters on the half shell on dinner plates, the guests tossing glasses brimming over with wine, kicking legs onto the table. In another room, the pater familias stands by himself preening in all his finery, which in part consists of a tail coat that ends in a double-faced train that drapes along the floor, his hands held out in a gesture that reads to me as “welcome to my kingdom.” In the hallway, a figure atop a unicycle gestures excitedly.
All of these moments of celebration are staged in the restored Nickerson Mansion, built in 1883 by Edward Burling for Samuel Mayo Nickerson, who spent nearly half a million dollars on building the residence, which is almost $12 million in today’s money. While Nickerson was making his wealth in liquor distillation, explosives manufacturing, and banking, workers were typically forced to work 12 to 14 hours per day, six days a week. And both Shonibare and the museum sell a version of our aspirational selves back to us through this exhibition — the parts of ourselves that desire this kind of unchecked agency, these kinds of sumptuous surroundings, that kind of money and power.
That Shonibare remixes the identities that many of us in the United States associate with inherited power and wealth, only somewhat blunts the force of the trauma caused by the robber baron or planter class. It has only been by checking their exploitation of the labor force throughout the 20th century that the life chances of the precariat have been steadily improved. Yet there is something in us that wants to preserve the shrines to their dominance, and restage their experiences of lavish indulgence. These restagings happen across the range of storytelling: films, television, novels, plays, and radio dramas. And there is something in these retellings that pulls us into reenacting and reliving these moments. What if, instead, we could remember the colonizer without lavishing horror and awe upon them? What if we let their mansions fill with sea water and never entered them again, or repurposed them so that they had a utilitarian function for those who have fewer resources? Even the rather ostentatious use of the British honorific in Shonibare’s name — Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) — in the exhibition’s title is telling of this lingering attitude of obeisance to historical symbols of power. But the dead can be remembered without being invoked and the living have much work to do. And we should do this work without obsessively revisiting the scenes and circumstances that had impelled us to do our work of critical appraisal of this history in the first place.
[Editor’s Note: After publishing, the author was informed that the use of “CBE” after Shonibare’s name in the title is not the museum’s doing, but rather is at the request of the artist.]
The series, A Tale of Today: New Artists at the Driehaus, began in March with an installation by Yinka Shonibare, A Tale of Today: Yinka Shonibare CBE, which continues at the Driehaus Museum (40 East Erie Street, Chicago) through September 29. It was curated by the museum’s director, Richard P. Townsend.