Sunday, September 6, 2009

Review: Yinka Shonibare MBE

The first time I ever read the name Yinka Shonibare was on a wall label in a museum around the year 2000. I still cannot remember which museum I was in when I read his name and the title of the piece. However, I do remember clearly the work of art itself, and how much I laughed at its sardonic, artistic referentialism. The piece was Mr. and Mrs. Andrews Without Their Heads. The figures and their dog are taken from a picture by Thomas Gainsborough in which he was both honoring, and ridiculing, his parvenu patrons. To this day, whenever I encounter Shonibare’s posed mannequins in museums, I cannot help but grin because of their playfulness, originality, and consciousness about art and history. The Brooklyn Museum is one of 3 cities showing his mid-career exhibition of sculptures, photography, and films. I returned today for a second look. To quote curator Rachel Kent from the exhibition catalog, Shonibare’s work “engage[s] with themes of time: of history and its legacy for future generations, of how we live in the present and of cycles or patterns that repeat across time, despite their often destructive consequences” (12). I was pleasantly surprised when a security guard told me I could take pictures without a flash, so the image you see here is by me (sadly, my digital camera takes terrible pictures in museums). The 2001 work is called The Swing (after Fragonard); placed at the entrance to the exhibition, it beautifully encapsulates Shonibare’s oeuvre.

Yet, despite its frivolity and humor, Shonibare’s work also conveys serious commentary about cultural relations. He is a British-born Nigerian artist who in 2005 was knighted as a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE), a title he proudly wears because of the ironic associations it has with the subtext of his art. The textiles he uses on his mannequins are Dutch wax fabrics, originally manufactured in Europe for the West African market in the 19th century. Yes, believe it or not, most of the textiles we associate with traditional African clothing originated in northern Europe, meaning that this trademark of “Africanness” was in fact branded by European imperialism to give them an identity that Westerners could recognize as “African.” This intercultural ambiguity is part of Shonibare’s intent, for he consciously obfuscates national identities in his sculptures. Shonibare’s work also references masterpieces of 18th- and 19th-century European art. The Rococo and Victorianism are of particular interest to him. The Rococo is associated with Western aristocratic frivolity and nouveau riche leisure, but it is worth recalling that much of that wealth came from their involvement in the African slave trade. Victorianism in turn alludes to the British Empire’s worldwide domination over third-world lands like India and Africa. Shonibare’s sculptures thus reference Western scenes of success while implying their unseen opposite, the dominated people and lands of Africa, India, and so on.

The Swing (after Fragonard) comes from a 1767 painting by Jean-Honore Fragonard located in the Wallace Collection, London (image courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art). I think this painting shows one of the most erotic scenes in Western art. Notice how the woman kicks off her shoe, flirting by exposing her silk stockinged leg to her lover hiding in the bushes before her. But who is pushing the swing? A priest, who presumably is another of her lovers. The cotton ball-like shrubbery and statue of Cupid are classic Fragonard and add to the sensuality of the subject itself. Shonibare borrows on the eroticism of the woman, excising her from the picture and aestheticizing her in sculptural form. What is missing of course is her head, and this introduces another fascinating layer in Shonibare’s work. Despite that his mannequins have a startling sense of naturalism, they are all in fact headless. One need only think of the guillotine to realize what is being referenced here: Revolution. Every Western empire eventually loses its proverbial head, and so the decapitated body in Shonibare’s work becomes a pseudo-memento mori of Western dominance. At the same time, however, Shonibare’s headless figures are still eroticized bodies. He is fetishizing the fragment. In her groundbreaking essay “Manet’s Masked Ball at the Opera,” Linda Nochlin argued that in Western art the fragmented female body becomes a form of sexual commodity for men to possesses. In some ways, I think Shonibare’s decapitated bodies fall in line with this mode of thought, in particular because the mannequins wear fabrics that are directly tied to imperialist trade between Europe and Africa. As a result, figures like the woman in The Swing become fetishized, imperialized bodies, but the line between dominatrix and slave are blurred. These figures create erotic commodity, but they are simultaneously complicit in their own exploitation.

For the Brooklyn exhibition, specially commissioned figures of children have been posed in some of the period rooms, which adds an interesting layer to things, seeing them in actual historic settings. His large installation piece, Gallantry and Criminal Conversation, 2002, is shocking and hilarious. Conjuring aspects of the Grand Tour with sexual awakenings, 11 mannequins are dressed in their finest but posed in a variety of sexual couplings (my favorite is the threesome with a woman bent over a traveling case while a man penetrates her from behind and is simultaneously penetrated by another man behind him). Shonibare’s photographic series Dorian Gray is based on Oscar Wilde’s 1891 novel and the 1945 film adaptation. Here the artist poses as Gray and his aging portrait. His films are interesting, perhaps hypnotic, as the characters move as if in real time and take the sculptural tableaux beyond space to the next dimension of time. If you’re in NYC, you need to experience all of it for yourself. The exhibition (which began in Sydney, Australia) closes at the Brooklyn Museum on September 20, but it moves to the National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C. from November 10 through March 7, 2010. On the Brooklyn Museum’s website for the exhibition, you can also see an excerpt of a video in which Shonibare talks about The Swing. For more information, see the exhibition catalog, which has essays about Shonibare’s work, an interview with him, and incredible full-color images of his work.


paulran said...

You have become a post-colonial, critical theory loving critic!

Anonymous said...

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!