Behind the whimsical artistry of Nigerian-British artist Yinka Shonibare CBE RA is a maverick who likes to challenge the higher-ups. An award-winning multimedia artist who works with sculpture, painting, photography, dance and video, Shonibare is perhaps best known for his use of fabric. Shonibare tells me he hopes to use this medium to “explore the complex relationship between Africa and Europe, particularly the complexity of contemporary hyphenated identities.” This signature element, printed with a batik-like technique, has become a metaphor for cross-cultural representation and exchange within his work.
Shonibare’s popular sculptural installation, Mr. and Mrs. Andrews without their heads (1998), characterizes his method. Using an interdisciplinary process to address elements of the Western canon, Shonibare references the 1750 portrait of Thomas Gainsborough Mr and Mrs Andrews, both in name and composition. In Shonibare’s version, the iconic British couple are dressed in 18th century fashion but the fabric has been replaced with an “African” batik print. His references to art history and Western literature, represented and re-presented through his decolonial lens, have been critically acclaimed.
In the late 1990s, Shonibare broke into a wider audience with his project, Diary of a Victorian Dandy, a tribute to Oscar Wilde commissioned by Iniva (Institute of International Visual Artists). Twenty-five years after the exhibition was presented in the London Underground, Shonibare was commissioned by the permanent sculpture park of the Royal Djurgården in Stockholm. In Sculpture of the Wind in Bronze I, Shonibare transforms her signature textile into a bronze sculpture, painted in a vivid purple hue. On the occasion of the unveiling of the sculpture, I sat down with the artist to discuss his life and work.
Malin Ebbing: You call yourself both a rebel and a dreamer. How are these personal characteristics reflected in your art?
Yinka Shonibare: I have a love-hate relationship with the establishment. Like everyone else, the artist is reflected in his work. Their state of mind, their emotions will always be present. There are times when things are quite dark, but they can be simultaneously dark and humorous. There are times when I talk about shaking things up, but I also look at the flip side. Visually, you can actually represent multiple ideas simultaneously. That’s what I love about artistic creation: this tension and this dichotomy of ideas. I love a paradox.
ME: You often refer to historical representations of high society in your work, as in The Swing (after Fragonard)in Tate’s collection – what draws you to this material?
YS: High society and the notion of leisure have always fascinated me. To be able to indulge in leisure, one must be rich and privileged. You need time off. Money buys you free time. While the pursuit of leisure may seem frivolous, my description is a way of engaging with this power; it expresses something more profoundly serious. The accumulation of wealth and power personified in leisure is the product of the exploitation of others.
ME: The series of prints Diary of a Victorian Dandy, 7:00 p.m. from 1998 is inspired by William Hogarth’s The progress of the rake – do you have old paintings by Swedish masters that have intrigued or inspired you in the same way?
YS: Art history has provided me with a rich source of subjects. I am fascinated by the culture of 18th century Europe and its aristocrats with their love of frivolity and excess. Swedish old masters, including Alexander Roslin and Gustaf Lundberg, depict aristocracy, decadence and wealth in a totally uninhibited way in their paintings. These types of representations have inspired me to create works that celebrate excess and decadence while reversing the stereotype of “otherness” – to create an outward figure that upends the social order of things.
ME: Bronze Wind Sculpture I is more abstract. This is the third commission from the Princess Estelle Sculpture Park. How did you take the other two sculptures into consideration when working on this piece?
YS: It’s very powerful to have the opportunity to do public sculpture. He challenges this idea of art as an elite institution. Public art is accessible to everyone. Politically, it’s something I believe in. The sculptures by Alice Aycock and Elmgreen & Dragset are both excellent examples of engaging public art – the works each have their own presence and voice, while connecting seamlessly to the surroundings of the sculpture park of Princess Estelle. I hope Bronze Wind Sculpture I do the same.
ME: You were doing an artist residency in Stockholm at IASPIS in 2004 – what is your experience of sharing workshops (and ideas) in a setting like this?
YS: My time at IASPIS in 2004 was an incredible learning experience. All the residencies I have done have been vital in the development of my ideas and my career; I never come back as the same person. The ability for artists to have the space and freedom to experiment and collaborate is a necessity, which is why I have founded artist residency projects in London and Lagos. I wanted to create a space for people to support each other and connect with creative people who challenge existing ways of seeing things.
ME: These two residencies are very impressive and very necessary. Coming from the generation of the Young British Artists — a provocative group — what are your impressions of this new generation of artists?
YS: I think now more than ever the voices of young artists need to be heard, especially those whose identities have been ignored for so long. For this reason, I recently opened GAS – Guest Artists Space Foundation in Lagos, Nigeria – a space where artists can live and work. About two hours from Lagos we also have a 54 acre farm and farm. We do agriculture, sustainable agriculture and a little bit of conservation. We want to bring artists from all over the world to Africa to facilitate cultural exchanges.
ME: Why did you choose to open these sister residences on separate continents?
YS: I often describe myself as a “postcolonial hybrid”. One of the most crucial materials I work with is brightly colored African batik fabric, which serves as a metaphor for migration. This material can be Dutch, Indonesian and African at the same time. For me, fabrics are a symbol of intercultural ties — I use them to explore the complex relationship between Africa and Europe, in particular the complexity of contemporary hyphenated identities.
ME: What are you working on now?
YS: I am creating a series of quilts and masks that further explore the influence of African art on modernism for an upcoming solo exhibition at the Goodman Gallery in Cape Town. It opens in September. So many modernist artists at the beginning of the 20e century were collectors and enthusiasts of the formal language of African artifacts and adapted them to their practices.
I am also creating works for the Sharjah Biennale which opens in February 2023. This new series titled ‘Decolonised Structures’ recreates seven public statues that shape London’s cityscape. These statues go mostly unnoticed and unchallenged. I hope that their reproduction and decontextualization will inspire continued debate about the legacy of colonialism in history education.
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