His mediums are extremely varied, just like his interests and influences which include current affairs, space travel, dance, environmental issues, consumerism, stereotyping and discrimination. He is intrigued by the aristocracy, historical conflicts, revolutions, colonialism and maritime history. Childhood memories - books, toys, television shows, fairytales and dreams are also referenced in his work.
Before the curator came to give us a tour of the Underground Gallery (photos not permitted), the group went to the Upper Space for a brief look at Shonibare's drawings. At a distance they look like beautiful mixed media collages; colourful exotic flowers with bright fabric and touches of gold foil in an expensive looking gold frame. Moving in for a closer look I saw the title: 'Climate Shit Drawings' 2009. If reading the expletive title was a shock, there was another when I saw the image of curled up faeces nestling in one of the hand drawn tree branches! As I came closer I could identify that this was some sort of disapproving statement on climate change and consumerism. The 'exotic flowers' were made up of images of luxury cars from glossy magazines, hand written quotes about the oil industry, cut out newspaper articles on banking, stocks and shares and government policies on the environment etc. In some areas leaf shapes were cut out of the background paper which I thought perhaps represented man's destruction of nature.
Close up I saw that some of the techniques looked not so polished and beautiful either, like I'd have expected of work in a gallery. The handwritten quotes looked like my scruffy notebook scribbles, the cuts on the shapes were not clean curves, newspaper pieces were partially stuck - seeming to flap annoyingly and a fishing net drawn in gold pen had tentative broken uneven lines as if drawn without confidence and control. Was this deliberate carelessness and part of the statement too, I wondered? Maybe it is actually because Shonibare has restricted mobility as a result of a virus he contracted as a teenager (he has a team of technicians to assist him create his work where he is physically unable). Maybe precision simply was not important to him in these pieces. I don't know.
Next we met Sarah Coulson, the exhibition curator, who spent a great deal of time with us, giving background information on the sculpture park, the artist and his exhibition pieces. It was an interesting insight into how a gallery can assist an artist with their ideas and the practicalities of setting up an exhibition. The Sculpture Park was opened in 1977 and the completion of the Underground Gallery in 2005 broadened the scope of the venue so it was now able to host big shows like this one. For example any gallery exhibiting Shonibare's 'New York Toy Painting' 2012 and 'Little Rich Girls' 2010 must be able to paint the huge turquoise background rectangles on their wall.
One of the reasons to exhibit this artist here and now, is his current shift towards outdoor work. 'Nelson's Ship in a Bottle' was so popular, it is now permanently displayed at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich after the public raised over £350k to assist the museum to purchase it. The Royal Opera House commissioned the rotating 'Globe Head Ballerina' 2012 for the outside of their building. Sarah told us that Shonibare has enjoyed being able to converse about his work with people who have seen it in public spaces - people who wouldn't typically visit a gallery. The YSP estate also seems an appropriate venue for his work as it was once owned by just the type of aristocrat whose lifestyle would fascinate Shonibare. The family was forced to sell a good proportion of their estate in eighteenth century after a period of excessive living.
YSP co-commissioned 'Wind Sculptures' 2013. One of the artist's trademarks is brightly coloured Dutch wax fabric. It appeared somewhere, I think, in every piece I saw in the exhibition. At art college Shonibare was forced to use a very limited palette as he was told too much colour was gaudy. By the time he left he was desperate for colour (something I can identify with, as I remember the delight of leaving behind the black, navy and grey uniforms of corporate life for the cheerfulness of clear bright colour). As an emerging artist Shonibare was amused by the perceptions of the work he was expected to produce as an artist of African origin. He began to think about Lagos and the origins of bright fabrics worn by Nigerian women there, and in Brixton where the fabric was sold very cheaply in the market. These fabrics we think of as typically African, actually originated in the late 18th century as copies of Indonesian batiks and were produced in Holland and Manchester. Indonesia and the European markets were not interested in this cheap mass produced cloth but the Africans quickly adopted and embraced it. This fabric has become an ideal medium for Shonibare's work as so many of the issues that interest him are wrapped up in its story - trade routes, colonialism, stereotyping, identity and consumerism.
Following the success of 'Nelson's Ship in a Bottle', he wanted to further develop ideas around sail forms and grand upscaling for 'Wind Sculptures'. He also wanted nature to influence his work and the idea was to recreate the form of a piece of fabric billowing like a sail in the breeze. To make sure the forms were organic, actual small pieces of fabric were placed in the wind and the fleeting moment was captured in photographs. With Shonibare's previous outdoor work, the fabric had been protected by glass but these sculptures were to be made of fibreglass. I like the idea that a material so hard can be perceived as the opposite.
The sculptures are around 6 metres high. From some angles they look like a ray fish or a person hiding under a cloth - like when I was little pretending to be a ghost under a bed sheet. In this setting though, they mostly remind me of those huge status symbol powered fountains at English stately homes like Chatsworth. This fits with Shonibare's theme of the sometimes ridiculous excesses of the aristocracy, particularly as public sculpture on a grand scale has traditionally been used to honour important figures like Nelson himself.
|Wind Sculptures 2013|
Seeing the changing grey Yorkshire skies behind the sculptures made me wonder about what made the Dutch wax fabric so appealing in Africa, yet not in Europe. (I can imagine back in Indonesia that the mass produced fabric was less popular because it seemed inferior to what was being produced by craftsmen there). Did the vibrant colours seemed gaudy in Northern European light perhaps but not so in Africa? 'Little Rich Girls' 2010 in the Underground Gallery is a display of traditional Victorian style dresses with frills and bows but instead of the plum and bottle green velvets or peach and ivory lace that you might expect, they are made from the cheap dutch wax fabrics. The vivid turquoise painted wall behind them could for me be an African sky and those bright colours sit happily against it.
This quote sums up my thoughts on the exhibition:
'In a way, when people see an artist of African origin, they think: oh, he is here to protest. Yes, okay, I am here to protest, but I am going to do it like a gentleman. It is going to look very nice. You are not even going to realise that I am protesting, you are going to invite me to your museum because the work is nice, and then when I am inside it is too late.'
(Jaap Guldermon and Gabriele Mackert, 'To Entertain and Provoke: Western Influence in the work of Yinka Shonibare'. Interview with Yinka Shonibare, in Yinka Shonibare: Double Dutch, pg41)
I understand why the public were so taken with Nelson's Ship in a Bottle. It's a beautiful thing. When Shonibare was on a shortlist of four for the Turner Prize, although he didn't win, 64% of the voters in a public poll apparently preferred his work. On the surface his work is bright and attractive. Even the 'Climate Shit Drawings' you can imagine hanging quite happily in an ordinary family living room. Your friends probably wouldn't even notice the poo, though I can imagine my children would have great fun trying to spot it in a 'Where's Wally' kind of way! My first reactions to his work were just the opposite of the Sarah Lucas 'Ordinary Things' exhibition that I described in November. In contrast, her mundane grubby objects and dull colours were an instant turn off.
There's humour in his work. I see foxes wearing Victorian style outfits but made from cheap 'African' fabrics. They're holding a classical pose but carrying gold guns and BlackBerry phones. They looks so absurd, they make me laugh. Then I see the title 'Revolutionary Kids' and that this work was made in response to the 2011 riots. Gradually I appreciate some of the symbolism. BlackBerrys represent how word of the riots spread so quickly by social media. The figures appear half human, half animal, with taxidermy heads. Foxes are becoming bolder and more common in urban areas and are often unwelcome as they're perceived as wily, unpredictable, fouling, disease spreaders, thieves and increasingly, killers.
In East London where Shonibare lives, there had been a string of fox attacks on children around the same time and I wondered whether he might have had these in mind when making the work. Reading some of the news reports about the fox attacks, I noted that the urban fox was unheard of before the '60s. One suggestion for its rise is the corresponding rise in the amount of street litter. As the fast food industry has exploded, so have the foxes' scavenging opportunities. I think that this would interest an artist who talks with concern about excessive consumption, threatened sustainable local food production and destroyed livelihoods.
The scale of the massive gun in the hand of the half human/half animal figures make them youthful (95% of the rioters were under 40 and half under 21). The guns are replicas of the golden pistol Colonel Gaddafi was famously carrying when he was killed and seems symbolic of the rioters' desire for power and high value goods and their lack of remorse for the consequences of their actions and their victims.
Many of Shonibare's diverse and complex themes seem to overlap within a single work. He often refers to the legacy of oil wealth and the gun could also be highlighting the ridiculousness and hideousness of extravagance. Gaddafi had a gold flyswatter for example while Saddam Hussein also had golden guns and even golden toilet brushes. Mobutu Sese Seko, president of Congo for 32 years is often compared with these two and coincidentally described as a 'wily' youth. He was famed for corruption and human rights abuses. He is alleged to have embezzled $5million from the country making it one of the poorest countries in the world despite being one of the most resource rich. Parts of his presidential palace were modelled on Versailles, he built a pink marble monolith and computer operated fountains and regularly chartered Concorde for family shopping trips to Paris. Meanwhile, widespread poverty and starvation in the desperate country led to rampant rioting, looting, muggings and bribery. Now there's nothing funny about that.
By being playful and colourful with his work he creates an instant appeal that is a way in to the darker issues he highlights. 'Alien Woman on Flying Machine' 2011 looks like an upscaled mobile from a child's bedroom and the alien family look like happy, friendly cartoon characters. It's difficult to imagine anything sinister about colourful, big-eyed soft toys on a homemade flying machine though.
|I loved the frog-like fingers and toes of Alien Child 2011|
|Blue Poison Dart Frog|
My point, which I think is what Shonibare is also saying, is that there's a difference in having valid concerns about 'Aliens' (the outsiders or the unknown) to being ignorant and needlessly fearful. Behaving this way means missing beneficial relationships and possibilities.
Just how I got to dictators and defending misunderstood frogs I'm not quite sure, but it was such an enjoyable day - a fascinating exhibition with plently to reflect on.