Part III of the series on Yinka Shonibare, MBE’s work, focuses on the body politics and ability by looking at two pieces: The Age of Enlightenment series and his cinematically photographed Dorian Gray, in which the artist himself appears as the title character. Both works confront and subvert iconic Western philosophers, in the case of The Age of Enlightenment, or the fictional character in the case of Dorian Gray.
In The Age of Enlightenment, a series of Shonibare’s signature headless fiberglass mannequins, in Dutch wax print cloth. Five mannequins are featured, each representing a Western philosopher or thinker at work, and shown with a physical difference (or (dis)ability). Adam Smith, for example, is positioned in front of a bookcase, returning a book to a shelf. Smith’s headless mannequin is featured with a curvature or “hump” in the spine, medically known as scioliosis. Upon closer inspection one may notice that all of the books in the bookcase are Smith’s pivotal text Wealth of Nations. Not only is this a humorous turn, but it also suggests the narcissistic misunderstanding of a system that has used Smith’s work to build a myth of the infallibility of capitalism.
A myth, that within the last decade, from Enron to corporate bailouts, has taken a serious tumble from the shelf. Not to mention that Smith’s understanding of capitalism and economy is often misunderstood: Smith wasn’t suggesting that capitalism should be completely unregulated, he was discussing the power and economic relationship between the colonizer (England) and the colonized (in this case the colonies of the U.S.). Such juxtaposition adds an additional level to Shonibare’s work. The presence of a physical difference can be read in multiple ways.
Traditionally, in the Western canon, in the visual and narrative vocabulary, a physical difference or disability, stood in to represent a character’s moral weakness or turpitude. In this case, Shonibare has taken great figures in the Western canon and placed the weight of Western associations with (dis)ability – lack of morality, weakness of character, inherent and core miscreancy and disorder, onto, not only their physical bodies, but also onto their body of work – Wealth of Nations, it’s myth, and repercussions for those in the colonized position, for example.
In this way, the concepts of (dis)ability and “crippledness” are placed on the bodies of those whose theories and understandings have led to the further colonialization or exploitation of the Third World - particularly at the expense of people of color. Such an inversion of ability and its meaning, perhaps has a double meaning for the artist, who has a difference in ability himself.
At 19, Shonibare contracted a virus that caused partial paralysis. By reframing and subverting the concept of ability, in some ways perhaps the artist is able to comment on the perception of individuals with ability differences; challenges the idea that it is the appearance of the physical difference that signals character flaws as opposed to actual behavior and concepts – or the idea that the body can stand in and signal anything but myth. Signifiers play an important role in Shonibare’s work. As he explained it in 2005,
“The main preoccupation within my art education was the construction of signs as outlined in Roland Barthes’s Mythologies. So the idea of the theatrical for me is actually about art as the construction of a fiction, art as the biggest liar. What I want to suggest is that there is no such thing as a natural signifier, that the signifier is always constructed–in other words, that what you represent things with is a form of mythology.”
The title of Shonibare’s work is telling. He references the much celebrated “Age of Enlightenment,” an age in which Europe was experiencing a renaissance in philosophical and scientific discovery, at a time when the rapid changes in Europe were fueled by the forced labor of enslaved Africans, the rise of the imperial nation-state, and a modern capitalist nation that perpetuated inequity and mechanization.
Moreover, many of the scientific “discoveries” appearing on the European continent during the 18th century, where discoveries that were well-known, or had been adapted from ancient Persian, Greece, and Africa culture. It is questionable then, who precisely was being enlightened? And what it means to christen an age as such, when it has been built very literally, on the backs of enslaved human beings. The “age of enlightenment” has a suggestion of a certain heady intellectualism divorced from the body, and yet its an era that happened when very real physical violence, oppression, and production made the luxury of the age possible. The state of enlightenment is referencing everything mechanical, commercial, and intellectual, but avoids looking at the impact of the so-called enlightenment on human beings.
In addition to Adam Smith, Shonibare continues the series, featuring five key figures: mathematician and ecyclopedist Jean le Rond d’Alembert, mathematician Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier, Marquise de Châtelet, philosopher Immanuel Kant, and chemist Antoine Lavoisier. While the connections to Smith and Kant, and its impact on the colonized world are clear, the remaining three characters require a keen remembrance of Enlightenment history. What is clear, is that the five leaders of the Enlightenment impacted the conceptions the West had of itself and thus on global parity.
The ideas and concepts of these leaders often “crippled” the Wests’ thinking – seducing the West into thinking that imperialism and colonial aspirations were in fact enlightened ways to relate to the rest of the world. Who then is the real “cripple?
In Dorian Gray, Shonibare’s photo-cinematic representation of Oscar Wilde’s classic, that leans heavily on the 1948 film, features Shonibare as the morally corrupt dandy. Here Shonibare engages in two forms of subversion and play. First, as a Black male artist he displaces the white male dandy. In this way, the Black body becomes central to the narrative, as opposed to being used as a narrative device or othered. Second, the story of Dorian Gray exemplifies the Western idea of evil character, speaking upon the body.
The ultimate reveal of Gray(Shonibare), represented in the last image and the only image in color, shows a prone Gray wearing the full weight of his “diseased” living on his body. Shonibare has said that Dorian Gray was part of his working out the idea of mortality. I would suggest that it is a way to understand the projections of disease onto the body. As a Black male differently abled body, creating art that is unapologetically post-colonial, and yet deals with the global colonialist project, much is foisted onto both the physical person of Shonibare, as well as his work.
The (dis)abled body is often assumed to reflect transgression. In the case of Gray, where the title character lived a debauched life, violating Victorian mores and prohibitions, the punishment in the end is to carry the violation of social norms on the body. But of course, Victorian culture was deeply hypocritical – holding incredibly high standards for behavior and yet engaging in exploitative imperialist practices. By inserting himself into the narrative, Shonibare forces us to see the ablist discourse underpinning Wilde’s original text. It also causes us to reflect more carefully on the idea of the politized dandy. For after all, Wilde himself was called a dandy, imprisoned for his sexuality – his ideas and morality put upon his body – and in fact used to weight and mark his body, labeling him as “diseased.” The visual disruption, that Shonibare’s physical presence haults the immediate association of morality with the body, and enables the viewer to engage with the true epistemology of the text: the ideas of mortality, justice, self-reflection, and internal pain, instead of projecting morality onto the body.