Yinka Shonibare the embodiment of irony

Shonibare is the embodiment of irony. Forced at 18 to consider why as a black artist he wasn’t making authentic African art, Shonibare, now 57, has spent a lifetime pondering this question. He is an artist who turned the concept of authentic African art on its head; continually questioning the construction of stereotypes and cultural identity while forcing the viewer to consider their own prejudices.

Born in South London, England in 1962, to Nigerian parents, Shonibare was raised biculturally. He returned to Lagos with his family when he was 3, but the family kept the house in South London, allowing him to return to Britain at 18 to do his A-levels at Redrice School. Shonibare contracted transverse myelitis, an inflammation of the spinal cord, which resulted in long-term physical disability. One side of his body is paralysed and he uses a wheelchair.

Any lesser person would have given up at this point, but Shonibare didn’t allow the disability to hold him back. He went on to study Fine Art first at Byam Shaw School of Art (now Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design), a notoriously competitive and difficult college to gain access to. Thousands apply every year but only the exceptional go on to study there. This experience completely transformed his life and, in turn, his work.

While studying at Byam, Shonibare took an interest in Perestroika, a political movement widely associated with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his glasnost policy. Glasnost is a 1980s communist policy adopted by the Soviet government that stressed openness about the economic problems in the country. This was extremely relatable to Shonibare at the time, but not so to his lecturer who asked him why Russia? Why not Africa? This comment set in motion a narrative that would dominate his life.

In an attempt to be ‘more’ African, Shonibare visits an African fabric shop in the Brixton market in South London, discovering, to his amazement, that the most authentic African fabric was actually manufactured in the Netherlands and exported to Africa. Further, the Dutch wax prints, as they are known, were originally inspired by Indonesian batiks; so the fabric which identifies a nation isn’t African at all. The idea of appropriation is born and is the precursor for every piece of art from that moment on.

A duel. After Yinka Shonibare.
Shonibare recreates traditional Western European scenes using fabrics that recall the colours of African dress.

Years later, talking to Andrew Carnduff Ritchie at a lecture at The Yale Center For British Art about his piece Gallantry and Criminal Conversation for Documenta XI, otherwise known as Nelson’s ship in a bottle, a commission in 2010 for the fourth plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square. Shonibare discusses the use of this Dutch waxed fabric in the sails and the location of the plinth next to Nelson’s column in a comment on colonialism. Shonibare is quick to comment on this piece, as most believe it is a celebration of the Battle of Trafalgar – jingoism, when in fact it is the contrary. Looking forward, this vital piece of information punctuates his work from the very beginning of his career to his most recent piece the Refugee Astronaut 2020.

Moving on to Goldsmiths, the University of London, where he received his Masters (MFA), graduating as part of the Young British Artists generation, with Damien Hirst the most prominent of the group. Shonibare is quick to point out he is nothing like Hirst and his cohorts, working to support himself throughout this time; it’s true to say while his work is beautiful it is quiet in comparison. However, like them, Shonibare got a major break from the collector Charles Saatchi.

Saatchi of the Saatchi Gallery London bought two of his pieces, for what the artist then in 1982  considered an astronomical sum, about £8,000 each. One piece is owned by the Museum of Modern Art Salzburg and is on show in a retrospective exhibition, called ‘End of Empire’. This early success did not change Shonibare, who worked tirelessly as an arts development officer for Shape Arts, an organisation which makes arts accessible to people with disabilities.

A statement maker all his life, in 1998 Shonibare elaborately stages photographic works to illustrate his point, like ‘Diary of a Victorian Dandy’. Clearly identifying himself with the lead character, an outsider who gains entry to society through wit and style. In One-piece Shonibare cast himself as a dandy who is fussed over in bed by white maids or, in another piece, looked up to at a billiards table by white associates. These pieces bring with them a comment on class and race. In 2003 in a strong visual statement, we see a piece called Scramble for Africa. A large installation, the focal point is the positioning of 14 headless and “brainless” men at a conference table adorned with the map of Africa as if they were European leaders dividing up the continent, reminiscent of events of the late 1800s and succinctly sums up the end of the century.

Shonibare, the artist who continuously challenges assumptions and stereotypes, was shortlisted in 2004 for the Turner Prize for his Double Dutch exhibition; at the same time, he was awarded an MBE (Most Excellent Order of the British Empire). While Shonibare didn’t win he continued to make art and comment about issues of colonialism alongside those of race and class, through a range of media where he openly examines the construction of identity and tangled interrelationship between Africa and Europe and their respective economic and political histories, describing himself as a ‘post-colonial’ hybrid, all of this makes him intriguing.

So here’s the irony, why would Shonibare accept the MBE award and later the CBE? There is no doubt he is talented and his comment is more relevant now than ever. Quoted as a “born contrarian, not constitutionally designed to belong to any art movement”. This award celebrates contribution to art and science, this in itself is laudable. However, the MBE is a symbol of colonialism, of repression and worst of all slavery. Surely the use of Dutch Wax fabric in every piece of work acts as a reminder of his philosophy? But maybe the acceptance and use of MBE/CBE appended to his name is the biggest irony of all.

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