PRINT January 2005



King Gustav III of Sweden (1746–1792), who waged and won a war against Russia, was a keen amateur actor and a figure of ambiguous sexuality. That a masked ball at the Royal Opera served as the scene for his death by an assassin’s hand gave his demise an appropriately symbolic twist. Yinka Shonibare’s first film, Un Ballo in Maschera, 2004, a coproduction by Swedish Television and the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, is a choreography based on the king’s assassination, featuring thirty dancers attired in Shonibare’s trademark pseudo-African batik. Filmed at Confidencen, a private theater previously owned by Gustav’s mother, the mannequins from his installations (or so it seems) come alive for a candlelit carnival in a Rococo parlor. Challenging conventions of narrative, gender, and costume, Shonibare conceived the film as, in his words, a “constant, dreamlike movement between reality and depiction of fantasy.”

Shonibare isn’t the first to dramatize Gustav III’s story. Guiseppe Verdi beat him to it in his 1859 opera from which the title is borrowed. But however visually lush, Shonibare’s version is decidedly unoperatic by dint of its repetitive narrative—after the king is shot he gets up again—and sound track, which is entirely mute but for the sounds of the dancers’ feet and breath, a tinkling bell, and the fatal gunshot.

Shonibare’s works imbue historical events with a certain theatrical quality, but his deconstructions of authenticity are performed with a stealth that makes it look as if the real has already tripped itself up. In Un Ballo in Maschera, the political is a masquerade in all its obscenity, beauty, and trauma, and the killing of a Swedish king becomes an allegory of today’s international crisis.

Lars Bang Larsen


For me Un Ballo in Maschera is about questioning certainties around the issue of power. I tried to look at the desire for power, an innate human desire, and the ultimate demise of that power in life. The world has had various empires—Roman, Ottoman, British—and today, questions around imperial hegemony are coming up again in relation to the United States. The parallel to Gustav III is the Swedish king’s expansionist war against Russia and his ambitions to save the French aristocracy from the Revolution. While he was living in the style of the French court, his country was extremely poor. A patron of the arts, he was himself an actor and established the Royal Academy for the Arts. The amount of money he spent on them eventually became controversial. The ballroom in which Un Ballo in Maschera takes place is just one sign of his family’s enormous wealth. When you have this kind of visible excess, there’s usually a less-fortunate stratum below, supporting it. So while on the one hand the film deals with Swedish history as a metaphor for imperialist expansion, on the other I criticize myself in the process, because I, too, desire power and pleasure.

This is my own way of dealing with ideology. The use of excess, seduction, and pleasure in my work always remains political but without preaching politics, which is a different thing. I’m never moralistic. Instead it’s a question of working through political issues as well as being seduced by the actual form, a question of provoking and seducing. There are current events, such as 9/11 and what is happening in Iraq, that represent global struggles for power. However, I didn’t want to use direct references in the film: no Bush, no Iraq, no Afghanistan. In all their specificity these issues are too big to deal with in a literal way, which is why I have turned to historical metaphor. I don’t know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. And I won’t know this in my lifetime. I don’t know if seeking the good guys and the bad guys is even an issue. What I am sure of, though, is that the human tendency to self-destruct won’t go away; it’s an ongoing historical tragedy, born of a territorial instinct. But I hope I retain a sense of optimism, in the beauty of the film. We are capable of destruction but also of incredible beauty. This we must not underestimate.

My aim with the film has been to question power in relation to race, gender, and history and to push the boundaries by finding new ways to interrupt the narrative moment in cinema and by reconsidering costume and its possibilities. The costumes embody a paradox: They are made from fabric influenced by Indonesian design, produced by the Dutch, who tried it on the West African market, where it was appropriated as African. The point for me is that identity itself is an artificial construct. In a similar way, the two leading roles in the film—the king and his assassin—are women. If I made the king a man and the killer a woman, the story would have become one of feminist revenge. It was important for me to make this revision because it erases questions raised by conventional representations of good and evil—because, is evil always male and good female?

It’s important to talk about influences that inspired Un Ballo in Maschera. I’m very fond of Peter Greenaway. I love the grotesque excess of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989), and I like its pace and beauty. The decision to use tracking shots was directly influenced by that film. I’m also fascinated by Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002), which was filmed in the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg in one incredibly elaborate ninety-minute shot. There is a scene at the beginning of my film where people are getting dressed that was inspired by the opening scene of Stephen Frears’s Dangerous Liaisons (1988). In my film it develops into a dance piece, a choreography of hands. And much in the way you unpack a gift, the camera slowly reveals the elaborate dance-feast that’s coming. I loved working with choreography. We researched eighteenth-century dance, but it wasn’t dynamic enough, so we exaggerated it, and in the film you can see both contemporary and classical dance. The choreographer made this combination of avant-garde moves with classical ones to resonate with the hybrid forms in my work.

My hope is that people will be broad-minded about the film, not reductive. Struggles for power now are no different from what they were a thousand years ago. In Un Ballo in Maschera I show the desire for power and, at the same time, the desire to destroy that desire.