Yinka Shonibare

DUTCH WAX-PRINTED COTTON FABRIC masquerades as authentic African textile both for Westerners and for Africans seeking to break with Western dress, despite the fabric's passage from Indonesia through Holland and the mills of Manchester to the markets of Africa, North America, and Europe. It has become a signature of Yinka Shonibare's work, which emerged at the end of the '80s as installations of small chunky “canvases,” frequently overpainted on the sides or faces with an acrylic impasto of biomorphic forms and installed in grids on a monochrome wall. Considering the pressures on black artists at that time to present “authentic” signs of their ethnicity regardless of their Western upbringing, Shonibare's use of the fabric represented the first of a series of tricky tropes manipulating a language of mistaken identity.

100 Years, 2000, is Shonibare's most recent rendition of this tactic: one hundred panels vibrant with color and organized on a ground the livid hue of freshly spilled blood. If these works engage with the formal codes of Minimalist painting, they simultaneously seek to undermine the supposed ideological neutrality of such codes. They become contaminated with the signs of an exuberant otherness: a doubled contamination insofar as the other referred to by faux African patterning also exemplifies the inauthenticity of pure kitsch. Kitsch is the other of modernism and, like most of Africa's cultural production, was considered by modernism's proponents to be intellectually inferior to European high art. Political resonance is never far beneath the surface of Shonibare's witty play with aesthetic languages: The fabric's trade routes, it should be noted, also follow the paths of colonial exploitation and postcolonial migration.

Victorian Philanthropist's Parlour, 1996–97, is a room that could have been lifted from an English stately home, except that the furniture is a rather tacky version of period style, the kind of imitation favored by humble folk with pretensions to aristocratic refinement. “Lithographs” (actually framed photocopies) decorating the walls include depictions of the Crystal Palace built for the Great Exhibition of 1851, the interior of the India section from that exhibition, and a stag with baying hounds, among others. The spiral design of the wallpaper and furniture fabric is overprinted with images of black soccer players. A retort to the banality of art-as-low-taste characteristic of British art promoted in the '90s, perhaps? Or, more seriously, a laconic observation that racial and class exclusion miraculously dissolves with wealth and celebrity? Consistent with the artist-as-dandy theme Shonibare has explored elsewhere—as in works like the photographic Diary of a Victorian Dandy, 1998 (not shown here)—opening night witnessed the artist accompanied by two formally dressed attendants.

Shonibare's acerbic wit continues to target British historical class obsessions and values in Hound, 2000, a life-size tableau consisting of a pack of hounds and a cornered fox together with three headless hunters, their costumes again cut from Dutch wax cloth. However, a parallel body of works takes on more recent popular imagery with global appeal. The installation Cloud 9, 2000, parodies the famous photograph of the first moon walk: Here the astronaut, spotlit with a lunar glow, stands with a flag incongruously printed in a design featuring automobiles and houses. The astronaut, representing the continuing Western tradition of colonization and territorial expansion, is complemented in the multiple Aliens, 1999–2000, by figures of cute outer-space creatures—the final frontier “other” for those fearful of being colonized themselves. Shonibare's is an art of seductive excess, where meaning constantly shifts across varying aesthetic and cultural registers.

Jean Fisher