"Yinka Shonibare, MBE"
In his retrospective, the work of the multicultural meister of dutch wax cotton seems threadbare.
Tue Jul 21 2009
How to Blow Up Two Heads at Once (Ladies); Photographs: Courtesy of the Artist,...
Time Out Ratings :<strong>Rating: </strong>2/5
Time has the unfortunate habit of leaving behind artists who hew a little too closely to the fashionable thinking of their day, and such is the case with Yinka Shonibare, the Nigerian-British artist (born in London, raised in Lagos and now living in London again) whose work explores Europe’s colonial legacy in Africa. When I first encountered his photographic and sculptural tableaux—the former featuring the artist as a Victorian dandy, the latter consisting of headless mannequins in elaborate 18th-century costumes stitched out of a vibrantly colored African fabric known as dutch wax cotton—at Brent Sikkema Gallery (now Sikkema Jenkins & Co.), I was impressed, especially since the artist has been paralyzed on one side of his body since age 19. That show, however, was ten years ago, when the politics of identity still carried some urgency. Since then, the world has moved on while Shonibare, judging from this mid-career survey, has not.
There’s nothing wrong, of course, with sticking to your guns, but when the metaphorical flourishing of said firearms relies on too many explanations and a visual vocabulary that takes its cues from department-store window dressing, big ideas are bound to seem somewhat thin in retrospect. Too often, Shonibare’s work relies on theatrics to deflect from a shortcoming in substance. Jazzy as they are, his pieces would be mere eye candy without the wall texts telling you what they mean.
This divide between seeing and understanding is the result of another, more recent legacy of Western culture, namely Conceptual Art. Interestingly, however, Shonibare counts the Rococo paintings of Jean-Honor Fragonard as a source of inspiration. The very first piece in the show is an installation reworking Fragonard’s elegantly bawdy masterpiece The Swing, from 1767. In the original, set in the impossibly idyllic garden of an aristocratic estate, a priest propels a young women on the eponymous divertissement high into the air so that her recumbent lover can peek up her voluminous skirt. The whole scheme is a masturbatory fantasy punctuated by its own money shot—the woman’s slipper shooting off her delicate tootsy.
In Shonibare’s version, the mystique of paint is replaced by the dull materialism of actual objects standing in for key elements in Fragonard’s canvas, particularly the dummy that replaces the central female character. Both men have been elided, and, in keeping with Shonibare’s oeuvre, so has the young women’s head. The ejaculated shoe, though, has been retained, frozen in midair by a web of nearly invisible fishing line. And the chiffon and crinoline of the dress—so luminously rendered by Fragonard—has been replaced by Shonibare’s signature material.
Here, the French artist’s high-cultural porn has been subsumed to deliver a message about globalism. In the 19th century, the British began importing the cloth to Africa from Holland where it was made; its bright patterns were actually based on Indonesian batik. In one fell swoop, then, this fabric is meant to encapsulate the machinations of colonialism, while also representing the way that ideas and customs migrate in a worldwide economy.
In Shonibare’s hands, dutch wax cotton is an agent of subversion, wielded mostly against that favorite whipping boy of multiculturalism—the Enlightenment. The artist makes hay out of the original free-market thinker Adam Smith, and transforms the Grand Tour, a rite of passage for cultivated English gentlemen of the 1700s, into an occasion for unbridled fornication. And why not? The fact is, Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man were hardly applied to the dusky underclass that kept the plantations running. Thomas Jefferson was, unforgivably, a slaveholder as well as an author of The Declaration of Independence. But Shonibare, like a lot of political scolds, confuses the imperfectness of the human condition with the potency of ideals. This summer, for example, we’ve seen crowds gathering in Tehran to demand liberty and respect for the rule of law, suggesting that Jefferson may have been on to something.
It’s been de rigueur of late for the West to be embarrassed by those principles of the Age of Reason that were codified by the American Revolution, bloodied by the one in France and ignored in the rush for riches overseas. It’s one reason, perhaps, why Shonibare has not only been shortlisted for the Turner Prize, but made a Member of the British Empire. Shonibare, naturally, treats his MBE contemptuously. It’s writ large in this retrospective’s title to signal irony. But what is so ironic, exactly, about today’s inheritors of colonialism availing themselves of the Kabuki of self-criticism being offered by an ambitious artist of color? I’d submit that the joke is on Shonibare.