Art News & Views

Yinka Shonibare: Lavishly Clothing the Somber History

by Anurima Das

A display unit at the 1991 Walker’s exhibition showcased the standing Mannequins of a family resembling the peculiar space Aliens. The family portrayed was of average height, but the most important part of their attire - the clothes were bound to catch attention. The entire family was dressed in printed clothes or Batik and oozed loads of questions and ideas at the same time. The exhibition that year was on ‘Interrogating Identity’ and the artist who brought life to this alien family and tagged it as the “Dysfunctional Family” is none other than Yinka Shonibare.  Born in 1962, Shonibare is a British-Nigerian artist who first came into prominence with his solo exhibition at Byam Shaw Gallery, London. Though he was born in Britain, he was raised at Lagos, Nigeria and returned to Britain when he was 16 years old. He joined the Byam Shaw College of Art to learn Fine Art and pursue his vision forward. However, it was not easy for him and he had to fight disability which he had contracted through transverse myelitis, an inflammation across the spinal cord. Today the artist accepts and wholeheartedly acknowledges the issue of disability and has no problem in owning up that he has worked through his art forms and have given shape to notable art pieces with the help of skilled workers but, he has always took his problem on his stride and have thereby made the same, work in his favour in every possible way.

One of his most remarkable recent endeavors was the commission for the Fourth Plinth, Nelson's Ship in a Bottle. The artist has brought forward and captured the idea of HMS Victory within the giant bottle and thereby has officially churned out history and has applied the same to work symbolically to portray the significance of the Battle of Trafalgar at the Trafalgar Square.  Even though, the artist is a renowned name today and has overcome many challenges to attain the present recognition but, he had to undertake a difficult journey, which was not easy in any respect.  In 1992, he was selected for the Barclay's Bank young artist award at the Serpentine Gallery, London for his showcase of 1991 at “Interrogating Minds”.

"I thought galleries would be fighting for my attention and absolutely nothing happened. I was shocked – depressed. I sent slides to two well-known London galleries and it was a case of "don't ring us, we'll ring you". My slides were returned and it was back to square one. I was approached by Stephen Friedman Gallery five years later after I had stopped being so desperate for a gallery..." (Conversation with Lucy Wilson as cited in

Shonibare stepped back into the British soil to study art in the Bryan Shaw School of Art in London from 1984 - 1989 and then he took admission in the esteemed Goldsmith’s college of art where he completed his higher studies in art during 1989-1991.  Right from the initial days Shonibare has progressively worked to pull out incidents and imagery from history and thereby have subverted and presented the same through his work of art.  He has always worked closely with themes like identity, class, history and global politics and has subjectively represented the same drawing upon the context of African and European. His idea was never to express problems and flaunt the same with discretion but he has always tried to clothe and facelessly shape out the problems with a sense of humour. He makes use of fabric extensively in his work and tries to engulf and at the same time speak aloud and spell out the hard-hitting truth. However, his ways are quite different and he quite skillfully and beautifully drapes the Batik fabric around his fiberglass statues to give shape to a canvas that many artists have done using oil colours. His interest for the fabric ‘Batik‘ came from the very idea of production of the fabric and how it was referred to as the African fabric. However, the fabric is not entirely indigenous to Africa and has a rather colonial origin. The cloth was first made in Indonesia, it was imported to Holland and was later reproduced by English designers.

His work expresses the idea of politics and inequality in a subversive way and he works along the lines of his own thoughts and ideas. Shonibare first comes out with his own opinion about any incident from history or some experience he had as an African, he then tries to go back and do his own research at the museum and the library to device a plan for the designs and then finally he goes in to brief his design team abut his artwork and the last stage is of course what we get to see in front of us.

His artwork involves various media and is represented using sculptors, paintings, installations and even photography. One of his most common ways of politicizing and expressing his own opinion regarding history is by recreating the most famous European paintings in the form of alien headless dummies and he quite distinctly and carefully dresses them up using his weapon the Batik fabric.  One of his most famous dummy installations is of course Gainsborough's Mr and Mrs Andrews Without Their Heads (1998). The work originally depicts and brings light into the lives of the British aristocracy and thereby tries to bring out the same thought through the photographs and paintings of the couple. However, Shonibare uses headless dummies wearing africanized Batik clothing with the dog at their feet to subvert and highlight the aspect of aristocracy from his perspective.

Yet another explosive depiction of aristocracy and one of the most famous until date is The Swing (after Fragonard) (2001). The artist has not only brought out the idea of soft politics with his installations and his dummy models but, have also vigilantly posed photographs and videos recreating famous British paintings or stories from literature for example: The Rake's Progress by Hogarth or Dorian Grey by Wilde. However, he has himself taken the centre stage as a substitute, black British dandy. Examples of these works are Diary of A Victorian Dandy (1998) and Dorian Gray (2001).

In the year 2004 Yinka Shonibare was shortlisted and nominated for the Turner Prize, for his exhibition Double Dutch at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam and for his solo show at Stephen Friedman Gallery, London. He has always owned up his cultural identity and gives credit to his split stay at Lagos and Britain for having brought this insight within him. His black identity and the cultural differences he faced are the primary reasons behind his thoughts and drive him to present the harsh contexts in this manner.

Apart from his elaborate pieces of work, he has also designed shoes, upholstery, walls and bowls with the Africanized fabric Batik. In 1997, his work Cha Cha Cha exhibited a pair of 1950s women's shoes, covered in fabric and encased in a Perspex cube at the Stephen Friedman Gallery. Later in 2001 Shonibare used the same gallery to give shape to The Three Graces, three headless life-size models of women of varying proportions, in Victorian dress made from African fabric.  While in the 2000, he worked to bring forth the idea of vacation through fiberglass models wearing wax printed Batik clothes. At close observation, the scene laid out in front of us through the dummies will reveal the concept of ‘native’ and the ‘other’. The astronaut figures floating from nowhere does not bring out any aspect of science or technology but simply present a diluted and subverted idea of the colonial world where in the native dwells with the idea of alien. His work repeatedly brings forth the idea of luxury demonstrated by the aristocracy and displays the deprived lives of the third world.  He was awarded the decoration of Member of the “Most Excellent Order of the British Empire” or MBE in the year 2004 and in 2003 he became an honorary Fellow of Goldsmiths' College. He has always worked with concepts of colonialism and post colonialism and has returned back to the economic and the cultural picturesque of Europe to bring out and highlight several aspects of the same during various periods.

One of his most recent interesting installation is the Egg Fight  (2010) he was commissioned by Dublin City Gallery, and takes as its inspiration a passage from Gulliver’s Travels which details the battle between those Lilliputians who eat their eggs pointy end up, and the ‘big-endian’ who oppose them, and are persecuted as a result. The work imbibes the original Shonibare attribute, by clearly showing a scene of conflict with dummies of two well dressed (if headless) men firing blunderbusses at each other, through a wall of shattering eggs.

The more one tries to locate and decipher the easy story behind every artwork of Yinka Shonibare the more one gets caught within the quicksand of Shonibare’s quick wit and soft politics and finds oneself within the labyrinth of post colonial and colonial past.

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