Yinka Shonibare MBE Series, Part II: Juxtapositions, Satire, & the Politics of Imagination
Yinka Shonibare MBE‘s current show at the National Museum of African Art, serves as a 12-year retrospective of his work, featuring over 2 dozen pieces that highlight his unique vision and talent for satire, juxtaposition, and imagination – from which this post gets its title.
Shonibare is receiving serious attention this year. First his exhibition in Australia at the Museum of Contemporary Art, to the show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art which closed on September 20th, to the show currently at NMAfA, Shonibare’s work is being seen by, feted upon, and delighting and confusing a wide array of audiences.
Shonibare MBE’s schedule for the Washington, DC opening at the NMAfA has been quite comprehensive, in large part, because the Shonibare MBE exhibit serves as the anchor to launching a revitalized and reinvigorated National Museum of African Art. Festivities began on November 9th with an official opening reception, convened by the new director Johnetta B. Cole, and co-hosted as previously mentioned by Dr. Camille Cosby, and the First Lady of Nigeria Hajiya Turai Umaru Yar’ Adua.
The following day, Rachel Kent curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, Australia, held a special curator’s tour of the exhibit, followed by a book signing of the fantastic catalogue with the artist.
Later in the week, in a great collaboration between two Smithsonian museums, the Hirshhorn Museum hosted a discussion between the NMAfA curator, Karen Milbourne and Yinka Shonibare MBE. Aided by visuals of Shonibare’s pieces, Milbourne and Shonibare MBE were seated on the stage of the Hirshhorn’s Ring Auditorium, in front of at least 100 eager audience members – hipsters, the people who love them, artists, and a surprisingly (and wonderfully) a diverse audience, to discuss Shonibare’s work, his message, and the way in which his work has evolved over the last 10 years.
It was a great relief to see such a diverse audience, and I think serves as notice of how excited the DC-area is about Shonibare’s work. It has become all too common to attend an event at the Smithsonian, only to find very few people of color in attendance. Despite this wonderful representation, the tone of the Q&A portion of the evening still proved problematic – but more on that later.
To say that Yinka Shonibare MBE is charming is to commit a crime of understatement. He is magnetic. He is genuinely compelling in a quiet, cool, and absolutely fully possessed way, at a time when the cult of personality in the art world, often has artists adopting personalities that have nothing to do with their core. In the old Black Southern vernacular, one might say, “he’s right on time,” to highlight the perfection of the timing of his responses, his unconquerable wit, sense of humor, and his unshakeable cool. Too often, the audience has a vision of who the artist should be, Shonibare seems wholly aware of this, and obliges, just enough, without moving from his center.
With a voice like nutty honey, as enigmatically sensuous and strong as his work, Shonibare MBE discussed his influences and what he is attempting to convey. That’s important for any artist, but even more so for an artist that deals with concepts of race, identity, power, “sexual decadence,” and globalization, in a society in which not all people have the same visual or conceptual vocabulary. Shonibare MBE then, must be prepared to have discussions on many different levels, depending on his audience’s ability to comprehend his symbology, their own understanding of global history, and their comfort with historical syncretism. As Shonibare MBE explained, “my work refuses one way of looking.”
Shonibare MBE is committed to complicating our ideas about power, race, and sexuality, but as he says, rather than screaming about what he does not like, ” a lot of my work is about critique of something I don’t like. Rather than screaming about it, I make art.”
While he uses humor and fun – a certain irreverence in his work, perhaps best represented in his 2005 Headless Man Trying to Drink, a sculpture featuring the ever recurring figure of a well-dressed dandy in bespoke Dutch wax-print cloth, drinking (or attempting to at least) inexplicably from a water fountain, and 2008’s Globe Children, in which two diminutive fiberglass mannequins prance atop a globe that shows the impact of global climate change – Shonibare’s work is deeply serious and reflective of what he said on Thursday evening was about “something that’s happening in the moment.” Frivolity, play, and the imagination are an entry point for Shonibare, devices that when launched, capture and compel the viewer, but it is what is stuck on the underside of the humor and satire, that propels his work.
Take for instance Shonibare MBE’s playful juxtaposition and satire of Jean Honore Fragonard’s 18th century painting, The Swing (1767), which Shonibare has re-interpreted and re-presented in one of his most well-known sculptural pieces, The Swing (after Fradonard), made in 2001. Shonibare’s life-size re-presentation is ripe for interpretation. Fragonard, who gained popularity in the 18th century as an artist who captured the decadence and exuberance of the French pre-revolution elite, in The Swing, shows an aristocratic young womyn being pushed on a swing, surrounded by lush greenery, while her lover lay prone below her, in full view of what is under her elaborate skirts, as her shoe whimsically flies through the air. Behind her, hidden by shadow, a clergyman pushes her to and ‘fro.
In Shonibare’s sculptural rendering, reflected in minute detail, a life-size and headless fiberglass mannequin stands in for the aristocratic womyn in Fragonard’s work. Instead of the highly feminine pink accoutrements of the womyn in Fragonard’s image, Shonibare’s sculptural womyn is headless and ostentatiously outfitted in an elaborate Dutch wax-print cloth, that is emblazoned with the Chanel logo. In Shonibare’s revision of The Swing, the young womyn’s lover and the clergyman are absent, instead the figure floats through space, held only by the limb of the tree, her shoe, still flying though the air. Now we, as the viewer, are positioned where the lover once was, able to see the figure’s garter, which during the 18th century was considered a rather racy element of a womyn’s toilette. Shonibare’s piece updates and reinterprets the sexual decadence of the 18th century, exhibiting the abandon and materialism of an over-sexualized youth obsessed culture.
Dutch wax-print cloth is used throughout Shonibare’s work. Shonibare MBE explains his use of the fabric through analogy, ” a picture of a pipe isn’t necessarily a pipe, an image of “African” fabric isn’t necessarily authentically [and wholly] African.” In the case of Dutch wax-print cloth, the designs and use of the cloth were originally developed and based on batik prints from Indonesia. The Dutch noticed the popularity of these prints in Indonesia and throughout Southeast Asia, and in an attempt to open and cultivate a new market – or in the language of our telling current business lingo, in an attempt to “penetrate a new market,” the Dutch began to manufacture fabric that mimicked the batiks of Indonesia, attempting to sell the fabric in Southeast Asia’s (and cut out the local manufacturers of the fabric.)
The Dutch attempts were unsuccessful – the quality of their imitation batiks were deemed of less quality and did not sell in Indonesia and in Southeast Asia. So in the mid 1850s, the Dutch began to market (and later to brand) the wax-print cloth in Africa, particularly in Western Africa in countries such as Nigeria and Ghana. According to VLISCO the company primarily responsible for the Dutch wax cloth for the last 200 years…; they provide a VLISCO timeline on their website, outlining their perspective on how Dutch wax-print cloth became so widely used throughout Africa. As Shonibare explained, as independence movement swept the African continent, Dutch wax-print cloth became an emblem of liberation, and thus was identified (cleverly and erroneously) with Africa, even though its creation was originally based on an exploitative relationship with the Dutch cloth market, and with Dutch entrepeneurs, whose relationship with Africa, and particularly slavery (rum trade, anyone?) is particularly fraught with inequitable issues of power and exportation (both of cloth and of people.)
By using Dutch wax-print cloth repeatedly in his work, fashioned in styles that replicate 18th century French and British Victorian fashion, upon headless mannequins, Shonibare reframes Europe and its relationship to its own colonialism and to Africa. So often, the pressure is on the colonized to reframe or retrain the gaze of the oppressor, Shonibare offers us the opportunity to look differently at the colonizer, to reframe and complicate the simple story of power and conqueror, and challenges us to imagine that “blackness” in the white imagination has so very much to do with projection, covered in playfulness.
Learn more about the exhibit, hear about the artist, and from the curators Rachel Kent and Karen Milbourne here. Susan Samberg did a piece for NPR’s Morning Edition.