“Yinka Shonibare. A critique…”

By Camille Okhio.

  Shonibare uses dutch wax prints, mannequins and his mind to reflect and displace the power/race hierarchy which is often too embarrassing for us to discuss outright. He collects references spanning a length of time, a variety of cultures and an array of intentions.


These references facilitate the creation of a unique climate in which cultural overlap can be objectively viewed, sometimes even with a sense of humor. Regardless of the many visual identifying characteristics included in Shonibare’s figures, they remain individually anonymous. Most of his figures are headless, unless replaced by the head of an animal, but it is more likely Shonibare’s combination of unlikely cultural references, which leaves his figures difficult to place. Whether displayed alone, as a pair, or as a group, there is always a dialogue taking place in Shonibare’s work. It could be between the figures used or between the work and the viewer.


His unique perspective is the product of a multicultural upbringing and the study of a number of late 19th/early 20th century french thinkers. Shonibare is both Nigerian and British, having spent his formative and adult years in both countries. What I have found when it comes to the work of a multicultural artist, is that their personal experience of cultural duality manifests itself visually in their work, sometimes subconsciously, but I think in Shonibare’s case, very much on purpose. In whatever way, cultural intermingling affects the clarity and peace of ones social psyche. This forces one to reconsider the powerplay between two cultures in the midst of a political or social dialogue. And even more urgently to consider the power play between oneself, the stereotype of oneself and the world.


I liked Shonibare’s work immediately. It was not something I had to think about, or research or discuss. It seemed direct, pop-y, potent and vibrant. He presents humans without souls, in the least depressing way. He presents humans informed by life experience – with knowledge but without emotion. In no instance does the instruction of many differing (and perhaps contradictory) cultures come together in one individual without crippling mental discord. No visual discord can be seen in Shonibare’s work, even when aggressively charged. To be direct: Shonibare lies to us. He uses visual forms to present a circumstance in which the possession of power is switched. Here the servant becomes the master. In a 2005 interview with Anthony Downey of BOMB Magazine, Shonibare discusses “Art as the biggest lie.”
Shonibare brings together visual references from cultures both past and present. He loops through time by using the silhouettes of a former life, and the materials of the present. Though Shonibare’s figures are harmonic in their visual meld of left and right wing, they sidestep too simple of an interpretation by appearing more often than not in states of confrontation with either the viewer of an accompanying figure or prop. My theory as to why this state of confrontation exists without creating a visual disconnect in the work, is that it draws from a “naturally” recurring theme in history: Colonialism. Shonibare tackles this theme without forfeiting the celebratory elements within the cultures he sites.


One of which is Dutch, as that is where his seemingly african textiles are sourced from. This knowledge opens up another element of discussion: the overlay of multiple cultures and the resulting complexity and beauty of said overlay. For Shonibare “There is no such thing as a natural signifier… the signifier is always constructed.” (BOMB Magazine 2005.)This stems from his statement that Art is a lie. Shonibare creates for us a visual signifier to redistribute problematically dispersed power.


I have been thinking a lot about the adverse effects of colonialism. The idea that bringing two cultures together often irreparably pushes them apart. This is because that “bringing together” usually weakly conceals the real intention of suppression. There is an inferior-superior social relationship between the colonized and the colonizer. The argument for colonization is to improve upon an inefficient or detrimental social/economic/political/religious system. Inefficiency is often a label that is hard to argue, but what our world often does not do, is weigh efficiency’s value against other societal traits. Shonibare mixes two cultures visual cues without placing them on the rung they have historically occupied in the global social hierarchy.

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Liberal or not, educated or not, western or not, my generation and intellectual demographic likes to push a lot under the rug. In his interview with Anthony Downey, Shonibare states “As a black person in this context, I can create fantasies of empowerment in relation to white society, even if historically that equilibrium or equality really hasn’t arrived yet.” Most topics sideswept stem from the reality that there really is no such thing as equality in todays world, yesterdays world or the history of human civilization. Equality is an idea, so the projection of one culture’s ideals or anothers has solidified itself as a natural human occurrence, while the dream of equality grows fanciful in some minds and frustrating in others.


Yinka Shonibare melds two worlds as equally as he can. To do such a thing demands a removal of oneself from the grips of either cultures ideals and expectations. It demands a mental divorcing of oneself from community of any kind, if only temporarily. To draw two halves together to make a new and unique whole is a physical impossibility in many ways. Shonibare succeeds. But if one were to dissect and separate the influences in Shonibare’s work and pit them against each other, as western academia often does, his work would turn from balance and harmony, to a visual warring between two conflicting aesthetics. Aesthetics that represent a complex set of valves belonging to two different social organs. Both endorsing restraint but in different ways, and partaking in restraint due to desires for different outcomes. Both factions, if warring, represent different ideals of beauty. Both of which, Shonibare proves to be equally and objectively beautiful, if such a thing as “objective beauty” truly exists.


Shonibare seems to have progressed quite impressively to a stage of respectful acknowledgement of the dual influence between English and West African. To further complicate things he throws in “Dutch.” And rather than a readily identifiable Dutch reference, Shonibare presents the Dutch wax prints, which though unquestionably produced by the dutch, very clearly draws inspiration from Africa. His work, without necessarily meaning to be so, is a nod to the continuous globalization of the art world. Globalization can almost be read as a 21st Century form of colonization. It is hilarious how we think we live in a world without colonialism, and frightening that we deny the impact of a colonial history. Textiles have offered an example of globalism for many centuries. Just take a look at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current show on Textiles, which presents “Oriental” and African work influenced by the English and vice versa, dating as far back as the 16th century. Shonibare visually connects the dots for us even more specifically.

Yinka Shonibare's Frabric-ation exhibition

He uses the human form as a medium and takes it to a further level by adding to it additional dimensions, refining it and ridding it of the unreliable variable of the “background.”
Shonibare’s work can be viewed from all sides. He mentions that “according to Brecht the audience completes the work of art, and that is a notion I very much subscribe to.” It is to be interacted with. It reveals new truths, our opinion about who influenced whom, and to whose benefit? His mannequins hold draped from their shoulders a clashing of multipleschools of thought that is much more potent when communicated visually, on a smaller scale and in an instant. Shonibare says with one punch to the iris what our history books muddle through swiftly and our narratives plough through slowly. Not only the portrayal of a savage, bright, carnal “people”, but of a quietly, hateful, subdued comfort. The message of his work stings twice and leaves a lasting impression. Shonibare makes the cross-cultural dialogue much less scary and difficult and much more energetic.


His colors burst out at you. His patterns weave you into them. His form adds a forced layer. Forced only because we are not accustomed to it. In an age of comparably high levels of human comfort spread over a larger population, we are so fixated on identifying the purest form of any one thing. What is the most complex technological level we can reach? What is the most aerial design for a sneaker or a plane? What is the highest level of professional achievement we can believably acquire by 30? Shonibare applies this tunnel visioned, streamlined thought process to much of his art.
What is telling of Shonibare’s work is what you notice first about it. Is it possible to decipher which element, if any, creates more dischord in a pairing? The brain thinks so. Our mental reflexes say yes. So what does our choice say? It is not as simple as the pilgrim or the Indian. What we hold as indicators of human achievement are what often decide the direction of colonial aggression. As said before, signifiers are created. Shonibare’s work presumes that there is no truthful direction, but rather a loop, with the hope of progression in the future.


Shonibare uses color to reveal the energy, intelligence and immediacy of the cultures which he draws from. He uses the restrictive yet exaggerated form of early 19th century western dress to reveal the practice, restraint and emotional denial of the culture which it is pulled from. He combines both elements to indicate the difference in spirit between the two, and to outline more boldly than ever before the influence of one on another.
Shonibare’s perspective seems to be one without fear of failure or the stagnancy inspired by repression/suppression. What I love about his work is the energy with which it jumps at you. It snatches at you. Viewing his work is more like a jolt in comparison to the heady gentle pat much 3D contemporary art gives you. His pieces are without apology and upfront, but somehow avoid the arrogance and aggression that I would expect such a forward aesthetic style to employ.

He presents the confusion and possibilities of cultural overlay as matter of fact, yet reminds the viewer that all is not as it seems. And if it ever was, it certainly no longer is. Shonibare helps to agitate the boxes which en-cage forms of identity so firmly.


As “identity” becomes more muddled, Shonibare defends its pertinence while presenting it in an unorthodox, thought provoking way. By doing so he brings into question the historical dialects of our language of identity. He manages to avoid choosing sides or offering sides to choose. All of his references and all of the cultures from which he pulls inspiration are presented with comparable levels of respect. This approach differs from many contemporary black artists who use human forms. Kara Walker for instance presents her narratives with a clear protagonist and antagonist, which can leave her work, no pun intended, quite flat. Due to Shonibare’s usage of the full human form (and gestures) as well as the even playing field his figures have, his work is less threatening and more celebratory. Shonibare’s work is the first I have seen which employs visual strategies to displace an irrational and harmful hierarchy of power-while doing so with an unquestionably optimistic undertone.

Camille Okhio is senior arts writer for by such and such.

Artist impression of Yinka Shonibare by Ebi Kagbala a contributing artist for by such and such.

Bomb Magazine
Interview took place Fall 2005
Issue 93
Interview by Anthony Downey