Friday, October 22, 2010

Designer of the Month: Yinka Shonibare, MBE

Week 3: painting and photography

As I discussed last week, colonialism and exploitation are two common themes in Yinka Shonibare, MBE's sculptures, and it is these themes that I'd like to use as a starting point for this week's discussion, beginning with his paintings.

 Courtesy of Yinka Shonibare, MBE.

While Shonibare's Scramble for Africa (2003), was an especially pivotal work in terms of its use of its examination of history, particularly the Victorian expansion into Africa, Shonibare's paintings, Black Gold I and II (2006), expand upon this theme, bringing them into the modern era.[1] As you can see in the above image of Black Gold II, the oil referenced in the title of this work is shown to be behind roundels of Dutch wax fabric, representing just one of the many resources that multi-national corporations exploit Africa for, all while the people suffer and starve. Like most of Shonibare's work, it's a powerful, if not subtle, message.

 Courtesy of Yinka Shonibare, MBE.

Shonibare may be better known for his sculptures than his paintings, but paintings are important to Shonibare's career not only because of the themes he explores in them, but also because of the material itself. As I mentioned last week, Shonibare's disability has played an important role in the evolution of his work. While his sculptures and installations require the help of assistants, Shonibare began creating paintings early in his career because it was a material he could manipulate on his own. This also affected the size of Shonibare's works. As Deborah Sontag explains in a 2009 article about his midcareer survey at the Brooklyn Museum, "...'Double Dutch' (1994), shows one way that Mr. Shonibare adjusted creatively to his physical limitations. He could not handle huge canvases. So in 'Double Dutch' he fragmented a large work into manageably sized pieces — 50 rectangles of African fabric — and arranged them in a 10-by-20-foot grid, incorporating the wall, painted an intense pink, into the artwork."[2]

 Courtesy of Yinka Shonibare, MBE.

Like painting, photography was a medium accessible to Shonibare despite his physical limitations, and his experimentation with it began in earnest with his Diary of a Victorian Dandy (1998) suite. Rather than focusing on colonialism and exploitation, this series engages with ideas about stereotype, duality and masquerade through the personae of the Victorian dandy, with Shonibare himself as the literal centerpiece of this elaborately staged series, playing the dual roles of director and lead.[3] Shonibare's  Diary intentionally draws inspiration from the satirical art of 18th-century painter and caricaturist William Hogarth, particularly the main character of Rakewell in Hogarth's The Rake's Progress (1735).[4] As Shonibare explains, "Rakewell spends his father's money extravagantly, gets into debt and ends up in a madhouse. My Diary of a Victorian Dandy is the opposite of that. My dandy has a wild time, has wild orgies, but he gets away with it. He challenges the notion of bourgeois morality."[5] Rachel Kent further elaborates upon this in her article in the monograph Yinka Shonibare, MBE, explaining that, "Contemporary associations of black social mobility are invoked through Shonibare's work. Parallels may also be drawn between the plush attire of Shonibare's dandy and the high style and 'bling' of a new black social elite. The symbolic meanings of clothing and its transformative powers are many; and Shonibare's deep interest in fashion predates his career as an artist."[6]

Shonibare's photographs are often as elaborately staged his sculptures. The Diary of a Victorian Dandy suite was one of Shonibare's first experiments with this art form, but it certainly wasn't his last. The above image is from Shonibare's The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (2008) series, which Shonibare appropriated directly from Francisco Goya's painting of the same name. Unlike Dandy, Shonibare utilized not only historical and artistic references in this series, but incorporated his ubiquitous Dutch wax textiles as well. As Shonibare explains about these works:
I have turned the original statement, reproduced on the desk where a figure sleeps, and put a questions mark after it so it reads in French, 'The sleep of reason produces monsters in America?' The original statement becomes rhetorical and I used French in particular here as it was the French who gave America its Statue of Liberty. There are five images in all, representing five continents. In Africa, it is an image of an old white man, rather than an African, asleep at the desk. In Asia, the figure is a black man. In the most basic terms I am suggesting that irrational aggression, born out of a form of Enlightenment rational reasoning, towards a race that you do not understand produces a sleep of 'reason' out of which comes monsters - and the term 'monsters' could be substituted here with any amount of atrocity. Your enlightened intentions, in sum, do not necessarily produce enlightened results.[7]

[1] Rachel Kent, "Time and Transformation in the Art of Yinka Shonibare MBE," Yinka Shonibare MBE, (New York: Prestel Verlag, 2008), 16.

[2] Deborah Sontag, "Headless Bodies from a Bottomless Imagination," The New York Times online, (accessed October 20, 2010).

[3] Rachel Kent, "Time and Transformation in the Art of Yinka Shonibare MBE," Yinka Shonibare MBE, (New York: Prestel Verlag, 2008), 17.

[4] Ibid., 18. 

[5] Ibid., 18.

[6] Ibid., 18.

[7] Anthony Downey, "Setting the Stage: Yinka Shonibare MBE in Conversation with Anthony Downey," Yinka Shonibare MBE, (New York: Prestel Verlag, 2008), 44-5.

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