Yinka Shonibare, post-colonial hybridity

[09.07.2024]

Yinka Shonibare revisits the classics of Western art history by ‘Africanizing’ them, mixing parody and satire with history and our duty of remembrance. Currently on show in London and Venice, his work is enjoying growing exposure.

At first, we see sculptures of decapitated men and women in vibrant colors in settings that are rich with spicy humor. But beyond their captivating aesthetic, these works reveal a deep exploration of individual and collective identity. The artist summons the shadows of colonialism and their after-effects, questions our cultural relations with post-colonial African countries, and highlights the powerful influence of Africa on its former oppressors.

Cultural authenticity in the eyes of Yinka Shonibare

Born in 1962 in the comfort of London, into a wealthy family where his father worked as a lawyer, Yinka SHONIBARE returned to Nigeria with his family at the age of three. He grew up in Nigeria’s bustling capital, Lagos, while maintaining a close link with England where he spent his summers. At 16, he moved permanently to the UK to obtain his bachelor’s degree and pursued art studies at the prestigious Byam Shaw College of Art, today known as Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. At the age of 17 he suffered a neurological syndrome called transverse myelitis leaving him disabled for life. Despite the constraints of a wheelchair, he integrated his physical handicap as an essential component of his artistic identity.

One day, one of his teachers asked him why he didn’t create “authentic African art”, and that question appears to have pushed Shonibare in the direction that he subsequently took. Steeped in his native Yoruba culture, while perfectly fluent in English, having lived both in England and in the urban areas of Nigeria, Shonibare began to think a lot about notions of ‘authenticity’, questioning the essence and structure of his ‘multicultural identity’.

He started using wax print textiles to make Victorian-style costumes for his sculptures. Although these wax prints have become major cultural symbols in Africa, their origin is not African. Their roots are in Javanese batik from Indonesia, massively produced by the English and the Dutch during the textile industrial revolution in the 19th century. This brightly colored patterned fabric was enthusiastically adopted in West Africa, so that this ‘inauthentic’ Indonesian textile, initially produced in Europe, became an ‘authentic’ symbol of pan-African culture.

By using wax fabrics which he transforms into aristocratic costumes, then by removing the heads of his characters in reference to the French Revolution and the decapitation of the aristocracy, the artist explores the fabrication of cultures and the power relations of colonialism.

The notable moments of an “aristocratic” career

Shonibare was one of young artists of the YBA generation that were propelled onto the international stage after their work was included in Charles Saatchi’s iconic “Sensation” exhibition in 1997. That exhibition began at the Royal Academy in London before traveling to the National Gallery in Berlin and the Brooklyn Museum in New York. Already supported by the Stephen Friedman gallery, the artist attracted the attention of Okwui Enwezor, who entrusted him with the creation of one of his most striking installations, Gallantry and Criminal Conversation, for Documenta 11 in 2002. Three figures from this prestigious work were also put up for auction in 2013, finding a buyer for $99,750 at Christie’s in New York.

In 2004, his fame continued to grow when he was nominated for the prestigious Turner Prize. That same year, he was honored with an MBE (Member of the British Empire), allowing him to enrich his professional identity with the MBE title. Today, he has been elevated to the rank of “CBE” (Commander of the Order of the British Empire), a clear recognition of his talent and influence in the world of contemporary art.

In his installation Victorian Philanthropists Parlor (1996-1997), unveiled during the exhibition Les Magiciens de la Terre, Africa Remix in 2005 at the Pompidou Center, Shonibare masterfully transformed traditional Victorian interiors with vibrant African fabrics. That same year, he caused a sensation on the auction market, not with a sculpture, but with a daring photographic triptych that defied colonial stereotypes. In these images, a black dandy, played by Shonibare himself, is surrounded by servile and attentive white people (Diary of Victorian Dandy: 11.00 hours/14.00 hours/17.00 hours, 1998). The triptych sold for $152,500 at Christie’s in London in June 2005, a rare price in the contemporary photography segment.

Shonibare’s turnover at auction by category of works (copyright Artprice.com)

Collectors were excited by Shonibare’s approach, parodying history and reversing roles. However, in 2022, when a photograph from the same series (edition 1/5) went on sale at Strauss & Co in Houghton (South Africa), the enthusiasm seemed to have dwindled. It sold for just $18,000, although its price was equivalent to $50,000 in 2005 (based on the cost of the triptych). Does that imply a drop in the value of Shonibare’s work on the market over the last ten years? The photographs perhaps aroused less enthusiasm than in the past, but his sculptures, whether old or recent, regularly exceed $100,000 at auction.

Yinka Shonibare’s prices remain solid, growing over time and occasionally boosted by news of shows and exhibitions. In March 2018, an imposing Wind Sculpture by the artist was erected in Central Park, just after the removal of a controversial statue representing James Marion Sims, a 19th century gynecologist who performed surgical experiments on black slaves, without anesthetics. While the media highlighted the symbolic significance of Shonibare’s work compared to that of Sims, another work by the artist, Girl Balancing Knowledge, was offered for sale at Christie’s in London where it exceeded all expectations, fetching nearly $330,000, and setting a new auction record for the artist.

This year, Shonibare’s iconic pieces have not been offered on the auction market. His ‘news’ is unfolding elsewhere: in the Nigeria pavilion at the Venice Biennale, in the main exhibition Foreigners Everywhere hosted at the Arsenale, and at the Serpentine South in London. For his first personal museum exhibition in more than 20 years, he has presented sculptures depicting Queen Victoria, Winston Churchill and Herbert Kitchener, all covered in the famous trans-cultural motif adopted by the artist. A poignant and vibrant call for the preservation of history and our collective memory.

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Yinka Shonibare is represented by:

Stephen Friedman, London

James Cohen, New York

Goodman Gallery, Cape Town