Friday, October 15, 2010

Designer of the Month: Yinka Shonibare, MBE

Week 2: sculptures

But first, a little bit of background...

Yinka Shonibare, MBE was born in London, but moved to Lagos, Nigeria at the ago of three.[1] He returned to London for college, studying first at the Byam Shaw College of Art (now the Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design), followed by Goldsmiths College, where he received his MFA.[2] In 1981, during his first year of art school, Shonibare contracted a viral infection, which led to the rare neurological disorder known as transverse myelitis, the result of which is inflammation and permanent damage to the spinal cord.[3] From this point, Shonibare was confined to a wheelchair for three years, and even after being able to walk again, the overall mobility and use of his left side have remained impaired.[4] He explains that, "I had to learn to do everything again...But as things got better...I figured the only way I could really carry on was to get back into art school and pick up where I had left off."[5]  While his illness did, out of necessity, change the way that Shonibare worked, it also caused him to question the way of things to a larger extent, particularly in terms of the dichotomy of a childhood spent in Africa and adulthood in Great Britain, making these ideas central to his artwork.

And when I think of Shonibare's work, in addition to his appropriation of Dutch wax fabrics, which I talked about last week, what immediately comes to mind is the main vehicle for these textiles: his sculptures.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Swing, 1767-68. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

One of Shonibare's most prolific sources of inspiration has been art history, especially European paintings. Since the late 1990s, Shonibare has transformed well-known European paintings into three-dimensional "tableaux vivants," living pictures, but with a twist.[6] A good example of this is Shonibare's The Swing (2001), which borrows its name and imagery from Fragonard's 1767 painting of the same name.[7]

Courtesy of Yinka Shonibare, MBE.

I love how Shonibare's sculpture takes the innate sensual feeling of the painting and creates a scene that is at once both more leisurely and perilous than the original. For Shonibare, the concept of leisure is particularly important in his choice of subject matter.[8] He explains that after his illness, "I wouldn't want to be presumptuous - but I think the experience may have made me more acutely aware of my mortality than most. That's why I view pleasure as so important, and use it in my work as an intellectual basis for questioning a lot of things I believe very deeply.[9] He also discusses this choice of subject matter:
To be in a position to engage in leisure pursuits, you need a few bob...You need spare time and money buys you spare time. Whilst the leisure pursuit might look depiction of it is a way of engaging in that power. It is actually an expression of something much more profoundly serious insofar as the accumulation of wealth and power that is personified in leisure was no doubt a product of exploiting other people.[10]
Which brings us to the topic of history, and the Victorian Era in particular, another important source of inspiration for Shonibare.

Courtesy of Yinka Shonibare, MBE.

In Scramble for Africa (2003), Shonibare explores the topic of the territorial expansion of England into Africa during the 1880s, during which time, leading European and world powers fought for control of the continent.[11] This divvying up of Africa was formalized at the Berlin Conference of 884-85.[12] As Rachel Kent explains in her essay "Time and Transformation in the Art of Yinka Shonibare MBE,"
Shonibare's work depicts this historic gathering, capturing the various statesmen huddled around a table with a large map of Africa, eagerly staking their claims. In Shonibare's interpretation the heads of state are characteristically headless - and equally mindless in their hunger for what Belgian King Leopold II called 'a slice of this magnificent cake.'[13]
Courtesy of Yinka Shonibare, MBE.

As you can see, Shonibare's artwork is firmly rooted in history, but it's precisely this intense referential quality, both a play on and critique of art, history and politics, that has made Shonibare's work famous.

[1] Yinka Shonibare, MBE online, "Biography,", (accessed October 14, 2010).

[2] Ibid. 

[3] Robert Hobbs, "Yinka Shonibare MBE: The Politics of Representation," Yinka Shonibare MBE, (New York: Prestel Verlag, 2008), 25.

[4] Ibid., 25-6.

[5] Ibid., 26.

[6] Rachel Kent, "Time and Transformation in the Art of Yinka Shonibare MBE," Yinka Shonibare MBE, (New York: Prestel Verlag, 2008), 13.

[7] Ibid., 13. 

[8] Ibid., 14. 

[9] Robert Hobbs, "Yinka Shonibare MBE: The Politics of Representation," Yinka Shonibare MBE, (New York: Prestel Verlag, 2008), 26.

[10] Rachel Kent, "Time and Transformation in the Art of Yinka Shonibare MBE," Yinka Shonibare MBE, (New York: Prestel Verlag, 2008), 14. 

[11] Ibid., 16. 

[12] Ibid., 16. 

[13] Ibid., 16. 

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