In installations like his room-sized Victorian orgy Gallantry and Criminal Conversation (2002), British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare MBE offers innumerable history lessons, none more crucial than the understanding that the past is never static, but always evolving with our understanding. There’s something in his remixed historical mannequins, films and photograph series that suggests a British version of Kara Walker’s silhouettes of bestiality, rape, murder and miscegenation under antebellum Southern willows. Rather than the shocking actions of Walker’s art (though there are some of those too), the force of Shonibare’s work emanates from the bright, patterned Dutch wax fabrics he uses to create his characters’ period costumes. Known best for his colorful mannequin installations, the current retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum highlights the narrative exercises of his photo series and films.
Whether moving in the ballet-like colonial costume dramas of the two films in the show, or posed as actors and headless mannequins, Shonibare’s art always sports Dutch wax fabrics, a genre of textile first found by Europeans in Malaysia, reproduced in the Netherlands and sold in African colonies. These iconic “African” patterns were actually manufactured in the Old World and sold back to the colonies as products of an embryonic globalized economy. Taking this perverse practice justified in the name of colonial economics as hi departure point, Shonibare attacks portrayals of gender, class, sexuality and ability.
Born in London in 1962 to Nigerian parents (his father is a successful lawyer in Lagos), Shonibare was raised in both nations and has been paralyzed down half his body since suffering a spinal infection at age 19. He turns these multiple -isms – multiculturalism, postcolonialism, classism, ableism – into new themes to explore in his work. For instance, his 2008 series The Age of Enlightenment, which debuted at an exhibition at James Cohan Gallery last Spring, underlines how much of the canonical philosophy and theory from that era is the product of a very explicit colonial mindset.
Amid his mannequins of Adam Smith, Immanuel Kant and others, Shonibare re-imagined several as disabled figures, a way of visualizing the idea that so much of European cultural development has relied on the developing world, its markets and resources, as a crutch. Another series not included in this exhibition, Mobility (2005), features headless figures posed atop unicycles with their arms raised victoriously. These celebrations of movement and physical freedom seem an especially cruel satire given the artist’s uneasy physique.
Another recent intersection between life and practice for Shonibare came when, in 2005, he was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE). Rather than shun or burry this seal of official approval from the nation whose history he deconstructs most relentlessly, he adopted the designation as part of his official name. He practically predicted this inscription in the annals of official culture in two photo series included in the Brooklyn Museum exhibition, which feature Shonibare starring in seminal British narratives. In Dorian Gray (2001) and Diary of a Victorian Dandy (1998), he inserts himself, Cindy Sherman-style, into archetypal stories about privileged young men whose sense of power and potency assumes the subjugation of others.
In more recent works like 2004’s “A Masked Ball”, Shonibare’s historical investigations expand to consider the shifting markers of gender and sexuality in the centuries his art unpacks. His site-specific installation “Mother and Father Worked Hard So I Can Play” (with seven mannequins placed through the Brooklyn Musuem’s period rooms) further questions the ways we learn, teach, represent and remember history, and what perspectives are excluded in the process. As Shonibare’s work continues to conquer these and other new subjects, it will be interesting to observe how his vocabulary expands. Certainly his mannequins in spectacular colonial garb are visually delicious, but more performative works like the films and series of stills lend the work an emotional charge that his satiric dioramas are often lacking. This mid-career retrospective demonstrates how quick and adaptive Shonibare has been until now, and one can only hope that the years ahead will have him trying on new hats, even if he always sports his trademark Dutch wax fabric.