YINKA SHONIBARE MBE (global & central)

December 26, 2009 2009 - articles, Culture, Travel & Heritage, Features

by Patricia Spears Jones

The Brooklyn Museum of Art through September 20, 2009.

Curated by Rachel Kent, Senior Curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney

Member of the British Empire is both an honor and a gesture.  The honor is coveted as it moves the member up towards more celebrated realms.  But it is also a gesture of recognition for celebrity, talent, or notoriety.  Yinka Shonibare, the London-based Nigerian artist has amazing talent, is now an art-world celebrity and is just a bit notorious.  His touring exhibition which also serves as a mid-career retrospective focuses on his sustained examination of 19th century European culture, the colonization of Africa and African identity in the post-colonialist context, with a focus on the body costumed.  In addition to those overarching themes, he also explores patriarchy, female subjugation, capitalism and its privileges, racism and rebellion.  His is an art career infused w/ a solid study of feminist theory, queer theory, post-colonial literature combined with his biography as a man moving between Lagos and London comfortable and discomforted in both places.  While these themes work their way through his installations, sculptures and media projects, what remains is a profound sense of beauty—color combinations, patterns, stance that provoke and please the eye.

As an African artist, Shonibare refuses marginalization.  While push towards dealing with this “African identity” he found his way to looking more deeply at global trade—thus the fabrics he has used for his discourse on Victoriana.  More importantly, he puts himself in the picture.  In his brilliant photography series Diary of a Victorian Dandy, he is the dandy and it is both unsettling and heartening to see him be the center of attention.

The Brooklyn Museum’s has provided a number of galleries for Shonibare’s large-scale installations.  The bejeweled ocelots pulling the headless lady, Leisure Lady (with ocelots) (2001) introduces the museumgoer to many of Shonibare’s elements:  life sized headless mannequin, lush fabric (Dutch wax fabric produced for a West African market) that would never have been worn by that “leisure lady” and the exotic beasts she possesses (or do they possess her?).  The costs of those jewels, her time are paid in blood and soil. Because he was trained as a painter, Shonibare uses those Dutch fabrics to explore color dynamics while musing on the colonization and globalization.  Indeed the use of the fabric created in Europe for an African market provides him with the material to broadly use European dress in which to explore themes of wealth, privilege, violence and decadence.  In a nearby gallery, the magnificent Scramble for Africa (2003) recreates a meeting at the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 in which European nations carved up Africa—who got the big pieces/who got the small.  Combined with his film version of Un Ballo in Maschera (2004), the installations in the first floor galleries offer museum goers Shonibare’s vocabulary.

On the second floor, a series of sculptures and staged photographs quote The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters and The Age of Enlightenment.  These philosophical gestures are contrasted with the largest and most daring installation, Gallantry and Criminal Conversation a brilliantly produced and erotically charged set piece that delves into 19th century “sex tourism.”  The museum’s signage notes that term “criminal conversation” was defined as adultery.  The uptight, sexually repressed Victorian era is turned upside down as couples and more indulge themselves.  What’s more the installation takes full advantage of the volume and expanse of the museum’s space so that viewers get to see each salacious act and contemplate how and who are exploited here. And finally, he shows the rage beneath women’s position in the patriarchy in How to Blow Up Two Heads at Once (Ladies) (2006)—those dueling pistols (instead of heads) say plenty about the competition between women for status—the gowns’ bodices look like armor.

One of the great pleasures of this touring exhibition is that Shonibare was able to add an important project to the Brooklyn Museum’s show.  He uses the Brooklyn Museum’s famous period rooms for the series called Mother and Father Worked Hard So I can Play (2009) a playful yet disturbing look at childhood innocence and play that one knows is paid for with the suffering and violence carried out by the  privileged—the work of empire.   You really have to explore all of the rooms to see where and how he places these headless children.

The Yinka Shonibare MBE show is a great introduction to one of many contemporary African artists who are coming to prominence in this new century.  Shonibare has the intellectual curiosity and superb art making required to portray a number of important themes: how complicated identity issues are; how complex our world is and how much of our times are based in the recent past (1884 is just over a century or so ago).  The exhibition catalogue includes an excellent bibliography and photographs of a number of works that are not included in this Brooklyn museum’s exhibition—my favorite is Space Walk (2002) in which the astronauts are clothed in those same colorful Dutch wax fabrics.  His creations are intellectually rigorous, beautiful, playful, troubling, and memorable.  They must be seen.


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Comments (1)


  1. Wow, thats a very crazy article . I like your wordpress blog. Maybe you should write more articles of these type. (=

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