32:00 min., color, sound
Courtesy of the artist and James Cohan Gallery
Known for his use of brightly colored, “African” batik-style cloth in paintings, sculptures, installations, photography, and films, Yinka Shonibare has devoted his practice to the critique of empire for the past two decades. Yet, he avoids a moralizing tenor, instead addressing the failures and achievements, ambiguities and contradictions of Western civilization by mining its legacies of art, film, philosophy, and literature. As Shonibare embraces the grandeur and theatricality of his source material to seduce his viewers, he aso throws matters of race, class, colonialism, power relations, and cultural identity into sharp relief.
Born in London in 1962, Shonibare moved to Lagos, Nigeria, where his father practiced law, when he was three years old. He spent summers in London and returned to Britain permanently to attend college. However, shortly after entering art school, Shonibare contracted transverse myelitis, an inflammation of the spinal cord, which left one side of his body paralyzed. After years in the hospital and recuperation, he returned to school and received his BA from Byam Shaw School of Art (now Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design) and MFA from Goldsmiths, University of London. Shonibare soon exhibited at leading museums and renowned venues worldwide and was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 2004. That same year, he also was awarded an MBE (Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, a British order of chivalry), which, given the critical focus of his work, he accepted with some irony.
Also ironic is Shonibare’s use of the Dutch wax-printed cotton that is his key to his work. The fabric, which symbolizes the complex racial, national, and economic interdependencies of colonialism, originally was manufactured by the Dutch in the nineteenth century for Indonesian markets, where it was unwanted. It subsequently was sold by the British in West Africa, where it became a popular item and a global icon of Africanness. However, for Shonibare, it is a metaphor for the (in)authenticity and fabrication of cultural identities. He explained, “The fabrics are not really authentically African the way people think…. They prove to have a crossbred cultural background quite of their own. And it’s the fallacy of that signification that I like. It’s the way I view culture—it’s an artificial construct.”
Shonibare originally used the fabric in place of canvas for his paintings and then covered sculptures of alien figures with the material. He later made it up into the style of European eighteenth-century clothing to dress decapitated dummies, or, as Shonibare once called them, “effigies of the aristocracy.” In several sculptures and installations, the artist recreated historical events and artistic imagery. Scramble for Africa (2003) features fourteen headless mannequins dressed in Dutch wax fabric and seated at a wooden table. The figures gesticulate around a large map of Africa. The piece depicts the (in)famous gathering of world leaders to carve up the continent in the late 1880s, as it hints at acts of territorial expansion that continue today. For The Swing (2001), Shonibare transformed Fragonard’s famous painting of the same title into a three-dimensional tableaux vivant. Like the painting, the installation depicts a young woman of the upper class at leisure. She reclines on a swing surrounded by greenery and kicks her heel into the air to emphasize her carefree enjoyment. Of course, in Shonibare’s version, the woman is headless and her dress is fabricated from the wax-printed cotton. The work therefore figures as a playful reference to the exploitation, cluelessness, and ultimate beheading of French aristocracy.
Shonibare also has recreated famous scenes from paintings and literature in the photographic medium. Diary of A Victorian Dandy (1998) and Dorian Gray (2001) were inspired by William Hogarth’s drawings of A Rake’s Progress and Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, respectively. Both works are a suite of photographs in which Shonibare plays the lead character. The former presents a day in the life of a stylish black beau who is fawned over by white servants and admirers as he attends a business meeting, plays billiards, and visits a brothel. The latter shows Shonibare as Dorian Gray, the literary character who forfeits his soul to retain his youth. Playing the role of the young gentleman, in black-and-white imagery, Shonibare woos a woman and murders a man before confronting his wizened visage in the one Technicolor still in the series. In both cases, Shonibare continues themes from his earlier work while he takes on the role of people who disrupt the social order, but who do so in dramatic and seductive manners.
In the process of creating these works, Shonibare thought about how “the photographs … were like film stills so it was like a logical next step to doing film.” Hence, Shonibare produced his first film, Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball), in 2004. The thirty-minute film is intended to run in a loop and portrays the 1792 assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden through dance. At the heart of the film, the king (played by a woman) enters a large ballroom, where numerous dancers receive her and begin an elaborate courtly dance with occasional African-inspired moves. Remarkably, there is no music. To focus attention on the plot, the film is largely silent, save for the dancers’ movements and the breath from their exertions.
Then, during the dance, an assassin (also played by a woman) fires a gun, which we do hear, shooting the king, who falls to the floor. Dancers gather around the body. They gasp, faint, and fan themselves, only to see the king immediately rise from the dead. The procession and dancing then starts over until, again, the assassin fires the gun, the king falls and rises, and the sequence begins once more. In total, the king is assassinated and reanimated three times.
Throughout the scene, the camera is constantly in motion to underscore the dizzying spell of the splendor of the occasion and Shonibare’s conception of the film as a “constant, dreamlike movement between reality and depiction of fantasy.” The camera also often gives the viewer intense close-up views by which one can observe the luminous surfaces and sumptuous details of the ornate setting and brightly patterned costumes. The appearance of the film thus recalls the excess and theatricality of King Gustav III. Moreover, it speaks to the implications of such self-serving power and affluence, especially in relation to race and gender as well as history, which seems to inevitably repeat itself, like the king’s death.
In fact, Un Ballo is an allegory for contemporary political violence, as Shonibare specifically thought of the Iraq War during its making. He explains, “When the invasion of Iraq was first announced, I was in Sweden in a residency. Gustav III was fighting wars with Denmark and Russia. Things were not great at home, but he had these expansionist ambitions. So I was thinking about America and expansionist ideas and the cost.”
Nonetheless, Shonibare does not take a moral position. Un Ballo effectively offers two possible endings—the death and the resurrection of the king—leaving it to viewers to decide which they prefer. Thus, the film, like many of Shonibare’s other works, remains political without preaching politics. The international crises and struggles for power to which Un Ballo alludes are ongoing and presumably will not go away, but humans are capable of much more than such devastation. As Shonibare has stated, “The human tendency to self-destruct won’t go away; it’s an ongoing historical tragedy, born of a territorial instinct. But I hope I retain a sense of optimism, in the beauty of the film. We are capable of destruction but also of incredible beauty.” —Kanitra Fletcher