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Yinka Shonibare MBE Series Part III: Crippled Politics, Whole Identity, Body Politics in Yinka Shonibare MBE’s Art

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on December 7, 2009 by thebibliophile

Artist Yinka Shonibare MBE

 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. 

Mannequin representing Adam Smith in Yinka Shonibare's In The Age of Enlightenment series.

 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.         

Adam Smith

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.       

Textile conservator, Tracey Wedge, cleaning the fabric on The Age of Enlightenment - Jean le Rond d'Alembert to ensure it is spotless for the opening. Photo credit: John McIver

 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.    

The last image of Yinka Shonibare's Dorian Gray




Yinka Shonibare MBE Series, Part II: Juxtapositions, Satire, & the Politics of Imagination

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on November 16, 2009 by thebibliophile

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.

Yinka Shonibare, MBE

Yinka Shonibare MBE catalogue

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.”

A swatch of Dutch wax-print cloth

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.




Yinka Shonibare Mbe, A Series

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on November 10, 2009 by thebibliophile

In recognition of Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare Mbe, who has two exhibits up in the U.S. – one at the Brooklyn Museum of Art and the other at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, I’ll be doing a series on Shonibare and his art. In an earlier post I linked to the National Museum of African Art’s foray into using social media and blogging to introduce the public to their exhibitions.

Tonight the National Museum of African Art hosted a very elegant and extremely well attended opening reception for the show. The opening was convened by the new Director of the museum, Dr. Johnetta B. Cole, and co-hosted by Dr. Camille Cosby, and Her Excellency the First lady of Nigeria Hajiya Turai Umaru Yar’ Adua. Guests included Lonnie Bunch the Director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, as well as the Deputy Director of that museum Kinshasha Holman Conwill.

The artist, Yinka Shonibare Mbe, spoke briefly about the importance of challenging normativity and the great power of art; particularly in art’s power to directly confront, engage, and deconstruct concepts of race. He also joked gamely about being good at art bringing “ladies.” The event went smoothly until one of the guests passed out from the heat. Shonibare was unperturbed, pausing considerately until the situation was handled, and then continuing on graciously.

I’ll post pictures and additional thoughts as Part II of this series. I imagine that I’ll write 5 parts to the series, discussing Shonibare’s exhibit in Washington, DC; the exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum; Shonibare’s positioning in the art field; the role of identity in his work; and Shonibare’s own unique perspective based on his global citizenship, race, gender, and ability – which I am particularly interested in exploring as it impacts how his art his produced.

Infographic Maps

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on October 26, 2009 by thebibliophile

The 2009 CSS awards have been given, and I’m particularly interested in the winners for  the “30 Best Infographic Maps.” Above, is a map that looks at both the location and gross income of McDonald’s and Starbucks. Not only do McDonald’s and Starbucks make billions in the U.S., but their placement globally has spread – even in locations that have a rich history of coffee bean cultivation; though this I imagine has stymied much of Starbuck’s growth. You can see a larger version of this interactive map here.

The map looking at health care costs by state is particularly pertinent giving all the debates about health care costs. Two words: public option.

To see a larger version of this map, check it out here. What I like about these maps is that they both tell a story, deal with a great deal of information, and do so over a large geographic area. Which is great for visual learners and those who need more guidance or support when looking at and understanding data. It makes the information more accessible, and I would argue, easier to digest and convey.

Yinka Shonibare Mbe

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on October 22, 2009 by thebibliophile

Artist Yinka Shonibare Mbe will have an exhibit up at the National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC.  In an interesting new move for this particular museum, they’ve posted a blog, Yinka Shonibare Mbe at the NMAfA, about the installation of the show. You can check out the blog here.

You can learn more about Yinka Shonibare Mbe , via the great Art 21 blog, here. This looks like its going to be a good exhibit.

The Swing (after Fragonard)," 2001. Collection of Tate Britain (purchased 2002). Courtesy the Artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London.

Social Hierarchy In America Captured, Robert Franks at the Met

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on September 26, 2009 by thebibliophile

"Trolley" by Robert Franks, 1955


What a great example of James Sidanius’  nuanced theory of social dominance, which establishes a quadrant system to understand race, gender, and class hierarchy.  In the image, by Robert Franks, we see the hierarchy of race in mid-century American (and some would argue the hierarchy continues today. Seated in the trolley care in New Orleans in order of the hierarchy is: a white man, a white womyn, a white male child, a white female child, a Black man, and seated in the last seat, a Black womyn. The quadrant theory of race and gender holds that white men have the privilege of race and gender, yielding a ++, white womyn have the privlege of race juxtaposed with the disempowerment of gender (+-), as do Black men (+-), while Black womyn experience the hierarchy as a double negative of race and gender (–). This photo seems to capture that hieararchy perfectly.

Robert Franks was a German-Jewish- American photographer who came to the United States and began his career. An exhibition of his work entitled, “The Americans,” is being shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I’m not very familiar with his work and am excited to check out the exhibit.

Kifwebe Mask

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on August 12, 2009 by thebibliophile

 The Kifwebe mask is generally associated with the Democratic Republic of the Congo and has been used to police society and establish and enforce norms. Kifwebe masks with lighter faces are generally understood to serve as female representations – though they would be worn by a male. The mask to the left, is from the Songya People, it’s provenance is the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It was made in the 19th – 20th century, and is made of wood and pigment. This Kifwebe mask is in the collection of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

The detailing and craftsmynship of the Kifwebe mask is what draws me. The face is so evocative, the features stylized and the pattern of carving so beautiful. Indeed, in it’s particular cultural context, the kifwebe mask isn’t intended to be seen as “beautiful.” It’s function is to serve as a reminder of social norms and ideals. When considering African objects or art, one must consider function first – what purpose was this object used for?; what meaning is it intended to convey?; how is it used and in what context? – and beauty comes after context and meaning. In other words, African objects that in the West, we call art (and indeed are beautiful, artistic, and considered overwhelmingly as art) were in many cases with older African objects, first created to serve a function. The fact that the object is also extraoridinarily beautiful, created with exquisite form and wonderful lines, is part of the effortless integration of beauty and art into daily life, that I see in African art.

I love the Kifwebe mask at left. The one below and to the right is also wonderful.  I’m struck by the alternating color, the elegantly shaped and prominent stylized eyes, and the harmony of the work. The sense of geometry, form, and placement is superb.  This mask from the Songye people of Zaire is made of wood, pigment, cord, beading and polychrome.

Here is an up close detail of an eye of the Kifwebe mask – in this view you can see the preciseness of the carving, and the use of pigment.

Below is another Kifwebe mask, with much darker pigment and raffia for hair. It has a decidely different look than the other masks – is less streamlined, and offers a diverse look at the Kifwebe style.