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  • Writer's pictureIldiko

Yinka Shonibare ad"dresses" Exploitation!

Updated: Jun 6, 2022

At a time when the world's population is focused on the marginalized and disenfranchised black community, I think it is rather timely to feature the current British-Nigerian contemporary artist named Yinka Shonibare. His relevant, creative, and colorful sculpture installations draw attention to the exploitation of Africans during the period of African colonialism, post-colonialism, Victorian England, and Gilded Age America. His works serve to remind us of the exclusions and exploitations that occurred to benefit the wealthy and the colonizers. Some of his exhibits also highlight marginalized immigrants whose many contributions have positively affected society in both the USA and UK. Other works highlight gender discrimination. While many people may argue that much progress has been made in improving the plight of these disenfranchised groups, I think that a lot more needs to be done along the lines of both racial and social justice.

Who is Yinka Shonibare?

Yinka Shonibare is a British born artist of Nigerian descent (b. 1962, London, England) who moved with his parents to Lagos Nigeria at the age of three. He lived in and was raised in Nigeria until the age of 17 at which time he moved back to England. There he attended art school. At age 18 he developed myelitis (inflammation of his spinal cord) that left him with permanent partial paralysis. He was able to continue and finish art school despite his new, unwelcomed disability. He ultimately earned both a Master's Degree and an honorary Doctorate degree in Art. He was later honored Commander of 'The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire' (CBE); bestowed upon him by Prince Charles. Hence, he is now known as Yinka Shonibare CBE.

What kinds of sculptures does he create?

Shonibare literally "fabricates" history, with his stunning use of textiles, and brings to light issues of race, class, and gender discriminations with a wry sense of humor. Much of his ensembles are composed of headless, light-brown colored, life-sized mannequins outfitted in so-called 'African-print' or 'Dutch wax' fabrics. Shonibare extensively incorporates textiles into his works. Before I highlight a few of his pieces along with their intended messages, at least as I understand them, I think it is apt to discuss his choice of "African fabrics" and mannequins. The works that I am sharing with you are ones that I viewed on exhibit at either the Driehaus Museum in Chicago or at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville. The Driehaus Museum is housed within the historic mansion and former residence of a wealthy Chicago banker. It was built in 1883 in the midst of the Gilded Age. Hence, as a setting for the Shonibare exhibit, it was rather fitting.

What's the significance of the 'Dutch wax' fabrics?

The hallmark of Shonibare's art utilizes brightly colored 'Dutch wax' fabrics to represent the African community, as these fabrics are synonymously thought to be 'African print' and since the 1960s have come to denote 'Africanness.' Densely patterned and boldly colorful, these fabrics are immensely popular particularly among the elite of Central and West Africa. In reality, the prints and designs DID NOT originate in Africa. Rather, they originated in the small Dutch city of Helmond in 1846 by a Dutch industrialist, named Pieter van Vlissingen, and are now known as Vlisco fabrics. He attempted to capitalize on new roller printing technology of that time, and sought to create an inexpensive imitation of the expensive, labor-intensive batik fabric popular in Indonesia ... then known as the Dutch East Indies. While the Indonesians quickly rejected the imitation, Ghanian soldiers serving in the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army liked it and took the fabric back to their loved ones in Ghana. The popularity of the prints soon took hold and spread throughout Central and West Africa. To this day, the authentic Vlisco brand fabrics have remained popular in African fashion and beyond, BUT are still manufactured in the Netherlands. These fabrics are now worn on the African continent as shirts, pants, dresses, skirts, and head wraps. They are everywhere at every time from funerals to weddings to the market and workplace. Hence this vivid textile also became a symbol of the postcolonial global market and of wealth.

Now, about the eerie mannequins ...

Shonibare's mannequins are headless. His decapitated mannequins hint at violence, specifically the guillotine deaths of the aristocracy during the French Revolution. The tone of light brown skin could be suggestive of EITHER the colonizers or the colonized themselves. When interpreting Shonibare's pieces, the mannequins' identities are not clearly identifiable. Colonizer or Colonized? Aristocrat or Commoner? Black or White? Man or Woman? Immigrant or Native? Perceived reality or Satire? His mannequins aim to NOT ASSIGN a specific identity. Here you see a mannequin outfitted in African print, but also European-styled clothing. Large hands and feet with pants and waistcoat, but also breasts and ruffly skirt. All intentionally ambiguous and left for YOU to decide!

Let's look at a few of his installations!

Upstairs, Downstairs. This is a piece that artistically confronts issues of representation and exploitation. He displays china set against the background of an 18th c. English mansion. The porcelain service has traditional floral patterns in bold color waves, but the gold inscriptions on the plates honor the 'invisible servants' who kept the extravagant estate running, as opposed to monograms or logos of the wealthy aristocratic owners. On the fine china, Shonibare recognizes 'The Kitchenmaid', 'The Ploughman', 'The Housekeeper', 'The Laundress', 'The Head Coachman', 'The Butcher', 'The Herdsman', 'The Lady's Maid', 'The StableHand' etc.

Party Time: Re-imagine America. In this installation, Shonibare presents a farce of wealth and excesses in the Gilded Age of America. The lavish use of 'Dutch Wax' fabric ('African Print') alludes to the industrial advances, wealth from colonization, commercial success, and the underlying human exploitation that made this wealth possible. More alarming than the stark fabrics are the mannequins, essentially frozen in time, who have abandoned the proper behavior of the upper classes, which was expected in the 19th c. Gilded Age. Pheasant served, feet up, utensils haphazard, food falling off the plate, table manners completely absent! Was the aristocracy really not as couth as we assumed them to be? Did the commoners take over the mansion's dining room?

The Age of Enlightenment - Gabriele Émile Le Tonnelier de Breteuil. In this exhibit, Shonibare creates a likeness of the French mathematician, physicist, and author Gabriele Émile Le Tonnelier de Breteuil. The mannequin is shown with a prosthetic left hand to allude to her "handicap" of being a female intellectual during the Age of Enlightenment. Her commentary on Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica remains the standard in France. Voltaire described her as " a great MAN whose only fault was being a woman."

The American Library. Here, Shonibare celebrates the vast diversity of the American population. He covered all of the books with 'Dutch wax' fabric to represent the multicultural identity embedded in the history of the United States. The spines of many of the books are embossed with gold-lettered names of immigrants to America from throughout the world who have made a significant contribution to America or the world at large. He felt that immigrants, although commonly marginalized, need to be recognized for their true worth.

While I genuinely appreciate art from a multitude of centuries, genres, and mediums, I have an affinity for artists who have overcome personal hardships to prosper in their careers with a message for justice. I recently wrote a blog about the street artist, Banksy. He similarly overcame hardships, in his case poverty and social disadvantage, to become a now globally recognized artist bringing awareness to the world about political oppression, insults on human rights, and social inequality. Two other artists that I may address in future blogs, that fall into this category are Artemisia Gentileschi and Ai Wei Wei. Gentileschi was an exceptionally talented female Renaissance artist who was raped by her art tutor. She overcame the hardships of being a female artist during a time when art was almost exclusively a "man's world", as well as emotionally recovered from the trauma of her rape, to have a very successful career and deliver powerful messages empowering women. Ai Wei Wei overcame political censorship and oppression in communist China, to be a voice, through his art, for the promotion of civil rights and political justice. Certainly, Yinka Shonibare is another example of such an artist. He overcame a physical disability and faced racial prejudices head-on to create a message of awareness regarding the exploitation of Africans, the minimization of immigrants, and the disregard for women. I am impressed by the strength and determination that it takes for these, and many other such artists, to express their powerful messages in peaceful and beautiful ways. Perhaps by viewing their works, it will stimulate us to recognize and address the injustices in our world.

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