Yinka Shonibare at the Brooklyn Museum

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday June 25, 2009

"In the real world there are all kinds of boundaries, everywhere. In art there are none," said Yinka Shonibare at the preview for his exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum today. His meaning can be taken on several different levels.

Born to well-off Nigerian parents in London, raised in Lagos, then educated in London, Shonibare considers himself bi-cultural and privileged. Struck by a rare virus shortly after he entered art school in the early 1980s, he overcame his paralysis but is considerably disabled, a fact that he has used to advantage in directing assistants to physically execute his projects. Being a conceptual artist, he says, this in no way undermines his credibility. And his major museum exhibitions have crossed borders, from Sweden to Austrailia, to Germany and the United States.


Left: Scramble for Africa, 2003. Center: How to Blow Up Two Heads at Once (Ladies), 2006. Right: The Victorian Philanthropist's Parlour, 1996-97. Photos: Peggy Roalf.

As an art student, Shonibare was exploring ideas about peristroika and the fall of Communism when one of his teachers said, "Why don't you make authentic African art." This struck him as almost comical, as he hardly thought of himself as authentically African. "You know," he said in a recent interview, "no one ever questioned Picasso's use of African art, but Africans are always expected to just do 'African' things. In the contemporary world where we all travel, that's just not realistic."

In London's Brixton Market, where high and low mingle every day, he found so-called African textiles known as Dutch wax fabric. These were originally produced in the Netherlands for sale in Indonesia, but they were never commercially successful there. They were then sold the English, who copied them and sold them in West Africa, where they immediately caught on. When African countries claimed independence from their colonial rulers in the 1950s and 60s, these colorful prints became synonymous with African-ness and remain so today.

Shonibare enjoys the politics of inauthenticity that marks these textiles, likening it to the politics of dress. "The best-dressed people always tend to be outsiders, or gay, or have-nots," he said in his remarks at the preview. In adopting the Dutch wax fabrics as his signature material, he has combined ideas about attire and politics that go back to the colonizing era in Europe.

One of the most compelling works in the exhibition is Scramble for Africa (above left), in which 14 life-size figures are seated around a map of Africa engraved onto a conference table. The figures are headless, signifying the mindless land grabbing that took place during the 18th century. The men wear the attire of nobles, but executed in the colorful "African" fabrics.

The exhibition includes a number of life-size tableaux as well as his work in film, which further explores ideas about identity and appearance. As his work evolved, Shonibare continued to shape narratives about the outsider masquerading inside the dominant culture, which is the theme of Diary of a Victorian Dandy. In this tableaux, set up for the purpose of being photographed, a black dandy (the artist himself), is surrounded by white attendants and hangers-on; he disrupts the social balance as much as possible through indolence and game playing.

Also on view is The Victorian Philanthropist's Parlour, in which the Dutch wax fabric is used as wall covering. On close inspection, a commentary about the haves and the have-nots becomes evident in the fact that the repeat pattern of the fabric includes black soccer players amid the bright floral motifs.

Yinka Shonibare MBE continues at the Brooklyn Museum through September 20, 2009. 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, NY. 718-638-5000. Please visit the website for information and directions. The exhibition will then travel to the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., where it will open in November.