B(w)anking on it: Yinka Shonibare MBE interview

The artist has been from Lagos to London and back again. He talk to us about silly money, public sculpture and self-abuse.

The wild tropical colours of Nigerian fabrics light up dreary London streets every Sunday as churchgoers strut in their dashikis and kaftans. They’re the stunningly vibrant embodiments of what Yinka Shonibare MBE sees as the African aesthetic. But Shonibare is a slippery character, obsessed with double meanings and Britain’s colonial past, and these textiles are his trademark in terms of causing cultural confusion (as is his ironic adoption of the title bestowed upon him as Member of the British Empire). As African as his bright patterned sculptures and paintings seem, the originally ‘Batik’ designs were from Indonesia and are now manufactured almost exclusively in the Netherlands as Dutch Wax. It’s the kind of post-colonial punchline that Shonibare revels in. 

The former Turner Prize nominee was born in London but spent most of his adolescence in Nigeria. His dual nationality informs every aspect of his work, as he wrestles with questions of identity and globalisation. With a new show at the Stephen Friedman Gallery and a first ever career survey opening this month at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, we caught up with the artist to talk financial armageddon and connecting with the man on the street.

Your new exhibition shows is very interested in human greed, why is that?
‘Because it’s everywhere. Now, you can’t get a loan and welfare is being cut, the financial crisis is affecting everyone, so the show is about the excesses of the past two decades. What I find interesting is that bankers can only supply what people want. If people weren’t that greedy, bankers wouldn’t actually be able to make money from them. You need two people in a transaction.’ 

So why is show called ‘Pop!’?
‘There’s a lot of champagne in the show, and I’ve made the ‘B(w)anker’ piece, which is a bankers literally wanking with a champagne bottle. The bankers are largely responsible for what has happened recently.’

What kind of impact do you think your art can have?
‘Art doesn’t have an impact on anyone. You might amuse people or make them think about things but you’re not going to change the world.’

You’ve been making more public art recently, are you turning away from the gallery?
‘I want to do both. After my Trafalgar square experience I realised what I was actually missing in terms of a direct engagement with the public.  It made me realise how elitist museums and galleries can actually be. I could talk to cab drivers about the work, or people in the street, and they would openly tell me what they thought about the work.’ 

Is the idea that your art can appeal to non-art lovers important to you?
‘Yes, I enjoy the ease and simplicity of it, viewers don’t feel like they have to know too much art to actually engage with it and there is something intoxicating in that sort of exchange that I really like.’ 

Is there public art that you’ve taken inspiration from?
‘I don’t actually like public art at all. I hate it. I only like my own. There has been good work in the Turbine wall, but I don’t support hero worship. I like subversive and ephemeral pieces, as long as they aren’t oppressive.’

Public art is often targeted by vandals, is that something that worries you?
‘No, I don’t feel scared of that at all. I don’t think that’s a good enough reason to not create public art. You know, you don’t stop building a house because you’re worried the building might fall down. Fear can’t be the basis for not producing work.’

Yinka Shonibare MBE 'Pop!' is at Stephen Friedman Gallery until Apr 20