Recently, in a reading of Timothy McCarthy’s compelling essay, “Why I Write,” one of my students pointed out the subtle difference that the writer makes between demonstrating responsibility to the past and not for the past.* [I am indebted to John Hardwick for this subtle distinction that changes how we view our forever developing identities.] This distinction made me recognize that each one of us has a rich historical past. As we develop in our understanding of our changing identities, it is perhaps important to differentiate between victimhood for what happened to us in the past while exercising a sense of agency on what we can do with our narrative in the present. Yinka Shonibare, the British-Nigerian multimedia artist, dwells on this very idea as he negotiates the various strands of his multinational, cross cultural, interdisciplinary story line. By doing so, he encourages others to engage in critical consciousness of the lessons of the past to move forward with intentionality and satisfaction. “…it’s impossible to actually get away from the past,” He states, “I find it’s also very important to acknowledge the present. The past might be painful, but I personally don’t want to wallow in it….I must acknowledge my agency.” Through the sheer force of his agency, Shonibare manages to turn tradition upside down. Rather than being destroyed by the oppressive forces of racism or classism, he playfully appropriates images and themes from Victorian England to parody colonialism, class, capitalism and nationhood. He does this with a certain sense of frivolity and whimsy so that the average onlooker may become curious in their exploration of their own identity, and raise questions such as: Who are we? Where do we belong? What is the meaning of this belonging? How do others see us when we differ from the mainstream? In film, photography, sculpture, music, and multimedia projects, Shonibare parses through these topics, thereby making us more aware of our own, always developing, story lines.
Who is Shonibare? A British-Nigerian artist, Yinka Shonibare grew up in a privileged Nigerian home in Lagos, where his lawyer father wanted him to follow in his footsteps. But a chronically late driver dealing with congested Lagos traffic seems to have determined his fate. Shonibare was perpetually late being picked up from school, and this allowed him to take art after school and become embedded in that world. At 17, Shonibare moved to England, where he was born and had spent his early years. Fine honing his craft at the Byam Shaw School of Art and then at Goldsmith’s, University of London, where he received his MFA, he became “politicized” with exposure to feminism, postcolonial ideology, and the postmodern philosophies of Fanon, Derrida, and Barthes. But to seek his own truth, Shonibare had to go to the “Museum of Mankind” and then to Brixton Market. By this time, and at age 18, Shonibare had also contracted transverse myelitis, an inflammation of the spinal cord that left one side of his body paralyzed. All these experiences formed the composite Shonibare who was ready and willing to search for his own “authenticity.”
It was at Brixton Market that Shonibare became enamored of the yards of African textiles with its voluminous, overlapping patterns and stunning colors. Believing that this fabric was ‘authentically’ African, Shonibare was surprised to discover its provenance—that the designs originated in the hand-crafted batik prints of Indonesia but were translated into a mass-produced format by the Dutch industrialists of the 1840s. The hope was to ship back the product to Indonesia where the Dutch believed that a ready market awaited. This was not the case and the Dutch industrialists, led by Pieter Fentener van Vlissingen in 1846, (Cincinnati Art Museum notes) were soundly rejected by the Javanese market that preferred the hand-made to the machine-made. The Dutch turned their attention to another one of their conquests by unleashing their huge inventory of textiles in the nations of West Africa. This transnational comedy of misplaced errors became for Shonibare the “ideal metaphor of the global contemporary citizen” through whose migratory movements could be discerned the “absurdity of national history.”
From his immersion into the French postmodernists, Shonibare had also learned about the essential lessons of history: to deconstruct it so that a further reconstruction became contingent upon his own knowledge of nations and their political agendas. By using the Indonesian-Dutch-African textiles in his art, Shonibare re-engineered Western canonical practices in art—he did this by using his own vernacular to comment on colonial expansion, appropriation, and the decimation of cultural identities. Shonibare provides the example of Picasso who appropriated African masks to reconstruct his own sense of mid-20th century Spanish history. Like Picasso, Shonibare appropriated colonial history and “ethnicized” it for his own purposes. “I have the freedom to steal from Western culture,” he said, in order for his own “agency …to be recognized.”
The questions that Shonibare repeatedly asks in his art include: How do you challenge tradition? How do you connect with the public citizenry in this conversation? Where does one belong? How does one belong? How does one see one’s self in this slate of translation? Far from depicting a specific national identity or cultural monolith, Shonibare states, “The nationalistic ownership of culture is a kind of fallacy because culture itself is influenced by many places”. Shonibare’s art reflects these deep, conceptual ideas but is infused with poetry, lyricism, and a performative quality. In his public art, instead of sculpting traditional themes such as male figures who are usually war heroes or athletes, Shonibare, sculpts “nothing”, the movement of the wind, which as an idea is the “opposite of sculpture.”
In Wind Sculpture (SG) IX, 2021, Shonibare captures through the furling fabric and the wind gusting upward, the “metaphor of migration…the African diaspora…and a reduction of the wind to its essence.” Situated at the entrance of the Romanesque-revival building that is the Cincinnati Art Museum, Wind Sculpture is a massive swirl of colors and patterns, not only referencing the 18th to 20th century Javanese batik textiles in the Museum’s collection, but also reminiscent of the colors of the local Cincinnati Bengals. Standing at 23 feet high, it’s a magnetic center for people of all persuasions who often comment on the swirling fabric that seems to fall upward. Or, who wonder about a hard, heavy object such as stainless steel referencing the light tactile, sensuous movement of the wind. Part of the appeal of Wind Sculpture is that it draws the unlikely viewer, those who would not be drawn into a museum or a gallery setting, but who are curious enough about life to ponder the big questions.
Shonibare has exhibited at the Venice Biennial and at leading museums worldwide. In 2004, he was shortlisted for the Turner Prize. He became an Honorary Fellow of Goldsmith’s College in 2003; was awarded an MBE in 2004; received an Honorary Doctorate from the Royal College of Art in 2010; and was appointed a CBE in 2019.
Anu Mitra is Professor in the Ph.D. Interdisciplinary Studies program at Union Institute & University and facilitator of the Design Thinking and Museum Studies Certificate Programs.