'Yinka Shonibare MBE' at the Museum of African Art

By Jessica Dawson
Friday, November 20, 2009

In the alternate universe of Yinka Shonibare's artworks, Victorian ladies sport bustles of batik, Enlightenment mathematicians misplace limbs, disabled black men penetrate British society and nearly everybody loses their head.

Rewriting the history books is this Nigerian-British artist's modus operandi. Sometimes using himself, sometimes posing groups of headless, elaborately costumed mannequins (a wink to guillotined Frenchmen), he complicates the stories of haves and have-nots, oppressor and oppressed, black and white.

Yet even as Shonibare uses fantasy to sabotage history, there's something nearly fetishistic in the way that his sculptures, photographs and videos chronicle the dress and mores of the most entitled. Shonibare's fascination exposes a yearning -- his? ours? -- to be as powerful, liberated and debauched as these figures of history.

And so as we walk through the artist's lively and at times unsettling mid-career survey, "Yinka Shonibare MBE," organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, and now on view on two floors of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art, a part of us can't help falling in love with the power and pleasures of the gorgeously outfitted -- and, literally, mindless -- rich.

Like an obsessed historian, the artist zeroes in on two centuries of European history, beginning around 1700. During that time, Enlightenment values gave rise to colonial acquisitiveness in the name of socializing the natives. Of particular interest to Shonibare is the parsing of Africa and the ramifications for all involved.

Shonibare himself grew up between Nigeria and its colonizer, Britain. Born to Nigerian parents in 1962, Shonibare spent his first few years in England. When he was 3 his family moved back to Lagos, where he grew up speaking English at school and Yoruba at home. He returned to England to finish high school and go to art school, and began graduate art studies at Goldsmiths College in 1989 -- the same year that bad boy YBA (Young British Artist) Damien Hirst graduated from the school. While at university he contracted a viral infection at age 19; the illness left him partially paralyzed.

After a lengthy recuperation Shonibare returned to making art and, since the mid-1990s, has focused his practice on the protean nature of identity. Now a London resident, Shonibare was designated a Member of the Order of the British Empire -- that's the "MBE" in his exhibition's title -- in 2005. It's a label he embraces with delighted irony, given that his work examines the aggressions of the very empire he now belongs to.

In his best-known work, from the early 2000s, Shonibare crafted sculptural tableaux of elaborately costumed, headless mannequins; several works from the series are on view here. All have a similar twist: The artist fashioned every waistcoat and every bustle, every chair seat and chaise, with the vividly colored, boldly printed textiles of traditional African garments.

Or are they? Patterned after Indonesian batiks, these so-called African fabrics were, in the 19th century, produced in England and the Netherlands and then shipped to the lucrative markets of Africa. What's now associated with African nationalism isn't really African at all.

A historical wrinkle like that one -- Shonibare stumbled upon it in the mid-1990s -- reveals inconsistencies that the artist relishes. When he uses the fabric -- nowadays he buys it at London's Brixton Market, where vendors sell textiles that are just as likely to be mass-produced in Asia -- it carries an implied critique of rigid standards of national identity and race.

But Shonibare's work is more complex than that.

In a pair of photo groups on view here, 1998's "Diary of a Victorian Dandy" and 2001's "Dorian Gray," Shonibare complicates matters by casting himself in the title roles of these two filmlike series. The artist appears first as the witty outsider who has entered the ranks of the privileged and later as the corrupted soul who strives grotesquely to maintain appearances.

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