The Fourth Plinth: Yinka Shonibare

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Posted: Thu May 13 2010

Yinka Shonibare MBE, talks to Ossian Ward about his new work for Trafalgar Square's Fourth Plinth, 'Nelson's Ship in a Bottle'.

Where better to commemorate Admiral Nelson's naval success at the Cape of Trafalgar in 1805, than in the shadow of Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square? The seventh artist commissioned for the empty plinth, Yinka Shonibare MBE, has squeezed an accurate model of HMS Victory into a giant bottle, but replaced the battleship's 37 sails with brightly coloured African batik. Hailing from Lagos and London, Shonibare often employs these colourful textiles to make ambiguous statements about our relationship to history and national identity. He was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2004 and has a studio and gallery near London Fields.

I was going to ask how you felt about following Antony Gormley's very public appropriation of the Fourth Plinth, 'One & Other', but in actual fact 'Nelson's Ship in a Bottle', comes after the statue of Battle of Britain RAF Commander Sir Keith Park, as campaigned for by Boris Johnson. That put the opening of your project back a year, didn't it?

'Yes, but a lot of people have been saying that they see the ship in the bottle as the first “proper” public sculpture for the plinth because they get that it's about Nelson, who's standing there high above the square. All the naval history aficionados and everyone involved with HMS Victory in Portsmouth have been very helpful too, forwarding paint chips from the hull so that I could match the original colours and discussing whether there would have been any waves on the day she sailed. But if they were to really think about it, they might be slightly worried as there is an element of disturbance in there.'

Does Boris like it?

'The first thing Boris said to me when I was being awarded the commission was “Oh great, but you know that Nelson was against slavery don't you?” I was like, “Why are you saying that? I didn't ask you about slavery did I?” [Laughs.]'

That reminds me of the story about your art school tutor asking you: 'Why don't you produce authentic African art?'

'There are certain expectations people have and you either ignore them completely or you take the piss out of them.'

If not slavery, then surely the disturbing aspect of your plinth is related somehow to colonialism?

'Of course, Nelson's victory at the Battle of Trafalgar freed up the seas for Britain, meaning that the Empire could expand without Napoleon standing in the way. So, on the one hand, it's a war ship with a violent, aggressive legacy that destroyed a number of cultures along the way. But then, ironically, this nationalistic drive to preserve and expand overseas has actually ended up diluting the Empire. In a way, we owe the exciting diversity of the multicultural London we now have to the legacy of Nelson and indirectly to the Empire. The culture of Britain has been expanded through this contact with others.'

So, the bottled ship is both a critique and a celebration of Empire?

'Yes and that ambivalence is difficult to grasp, because most people think in a monolithical way. All of my work is like that - it's never one-dimensional. I can be critical but there's a degree of complicity there too.'

Your use of African textiles is similarly contradictory, isn't it?

'The cloth is worn in Africa and bought in Brixton, but it's actually Dutch Wax, made in Holland. The prints on the sails are mine, however, I had to redesign them in order to avoid any copyright issues by adding anchors and changing the pattern in small ways.'

You're not going to reveal how the ship got into the bottle are you?

'Oh no, I'm not going to tell - it's a magical thing. But I did have to demonstrate that it was possible, because no one has ever made a bottle this size. The manufacturers in Italy invented a new mould-making technique to deal with its size and the required levels of heat. The whole notion is bonkers.'

Will it withstand the kind of missiles often drunkenly thrown in Trafalgar Square?

'It's sturdy enough that men can stand in it. I think Rachel Whiteread's resin plinth started to collapse in on itself towards the end.'

It's a big year for your native Nigeria, it's the fiftieth anniversary of Independence. How Nigerian do you feel?

'Well, I grew up there but haven't been back in 30 years and my art career evolved here. In a way it's a bit like France claiming Picasso (laughs). I guess I'm an international Nigerian person. I keep getting all these messages from Nigeria on Facebook - they're so proud of what I'm doing because it doesn't involve credit card fraud or dodgy emails.'

Would you ever go back? Presumably you can still speak Yoruba?

'Nigeria has changed a lot since I left but I'd love to return as the boy made good. Finding success is a big desire out there, which is why I came to London in the first place - to attend the great art schools here. I do have dreams of having a space out there, somewhere for more international exchanges to happen.'

This model you're talking about sounds a bit like the Guest Projects initiative that you run in your downstairs space…

'From January to June we accept proposals for exhibitions that are dropped into the box outside. The best get two months exhibition time, rent-free, but they have to pay their own electricity and do all the marketing, promotion and fundraising for their show. There used to be many more galleries in London that were just run like that, but property got very expensive and so artists were less able to experiment and instead had to focus on product.'

You were one of the original YBAs back then, yet nobody associates you with that group anymore…

'I've never been over-hyped and was never Charles Saatchi's favourite. He didn't collect my work extensively, so maybe not being his favourite helped me.'

Of course, now you're an MBE, a title you flaunt with no little irony. With a large piece going into the Royal Academy's Summer Show would you ever agree to become a Royal Academician too, in order to become Yinka Shonibare RA, MBE?

'Well, I'm not sure they'd want me, but I did get my PhD from the Royal College of Art and I'm a Fellow of Goldsmiths College too. I don't want to be the underdog all the time - I crave the opportunities that power gives you. I love the Queen. I love my MP. [Laughs.] I guess I'm a rebel who wants in, not out.'
Yinka Shonibare's 'Nelson's Ship in a Bottle' will be on The Fourth Plinth from May 24 2010 until the end of summer 2011

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