For her inaugural exhibition, the new curator of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Julie Joyce, presents the first solo show in the Western U.S. of Yinka Shonibare, “A Flying Machine for Every Man, Women and Child and Other Astonishing Works”, an experience both political and dream-like.
Yinka Shonibare was born in London in 1962, but raised from the age of 3, in Lagos, Nigeria. In his work, he seeks to denounce the disturbing economical outline in the colonized countries. As a plastic demonstration, no violence, nor repelling content; but a skilful way to elaborate and produce his work. Indeed the materials used for his sculptures, those atypical fabrics, brightly colored and wax-printed cloths, are produced in Europe, but feature authentic African batiks, and were sold to African by Dutch traders in the 19th century. This whole process is necessary to be known in order to understand the aims of the artist, who, through the production, makes a metaphor of the merchandising process between the colonized countries and the occidental one.
The major piece displayed in the exhibition is a group of sculptures representing mannequins, riding a one-wheel bicycle topped by a multicolored propeller, and outfitted in Victorian era dresses made from African batiks. A feeling that those characters are coming from a fairy tale, or a myth. The contrast is both accurate and beautiful: first it reverses the habitual cliché of African people looking exotic: here it gives you more the feeling of some prosperous European who look aliens. Secondly, this group of a perfect family-like, we could imagine it as a high quality Window Dressing, which already has his own History in contemporary art: Rauschenberg, Warhol, and Jaspers John had great success with it. Indeed, all the cloths are the result of a slow and very elaborated work.
One disturbing and yet essential point of this piece, is that the characters are headless… Shonibare comments, in "Sculpture Magazine" (2006) “…a lot of my work challenges the idea of hierarchy or aristocracy in some way. During the French Revolution, the heads of the aristocrats were chopped off using the guillotine. Basically it started as a joke, because I take working class fabrics from Africa and dress the aristocracy in those fabrics and then I take their heads off, but there’s no blood or violence. It’s witty in a knowing sort of way.”
In this exhibition, the first film of the artist is displayed: “Un ballo in Maschera" (a Masked Ball) 2004. It tells the assassination of King Gustav III of Sweeden in 1792 through the medium of dance. For a first film, it is very promising. About it, Shonibare said, in "Artforum" (2005) “My aim with this film has been….to push the boundaries by finding new ways to interrupt the narrative moment in cinema and by reconsidering costumes and its possibilities. The costumes embody a paradox: They are made from fabric influenced by Indonesian design, produced by the Dutch, who tried it on the West African market, where it was appropriated as African. The point for me is that identity itself is an artificial construct.”
An other very interesting piece is one of his recent work : “La Méduse”, a crafted sailing ship on roiling high seas in a wood an glass case. It is a direct reference the emblematic painting of Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa (1918-1919), which remains this tragic event of the death of nearly 150 French people in a storm, who were going to Senegal to argument with the British to retake the land. The genius of Shonibare is, through a multicolored sails which remains the African batik, replacing the true subject of this tragedy.
Finally his sculptures, photographs, films and installations remains provocative and relevant to describe the huge gap between the African and the European way of thinking and acting. The pieces highlight, with a plastic cleverness, the situation of Africa and its past. Playing with cultural myths in colourful materials, the artist shows a great sense of lyrism and fantasy which indeed pervades the whole path. This solo exhibition is an acknowledgment for his combat and his art.
[Visual : Yinko Shonibare : "A Flying Machine for Every Man, Woman and Child," 2008, Credit: Brian Forrest]